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EDITORIAL | How can hundreds of people be murdered and no-one held accountable?

Of the 354 lives that were lost in last year’s July Riots, 237 were murdered, yet no-one has been charged

07 July 2022 - 23:03
Private security members help police officers and soldiers restore law and order in Soweto on July 13 2021.
IN FORCE Private security members help police officers and soldiers restore law and order in Soweto on July 13 2021.
Image: Alon Skuy

If anything proves our lives are cheap, it must be the callousness with which those who took part in what we refer to as the July Riots were killed and the subsequent lack of accountability.

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Image: Graphic: Nolo Moima

TimesLIVE reports this morning that of the 354 who were initially reported dead — either killed or through stampedes — a staggering 237 of them were murdered: shot in the heads or buttocks at different places in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The police later told the nation they did not use force to preserve life, ostensibly to avoid a Marikana Massacre repeat on then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s watch. The result, however, is that the murders must rank as the most brutal of all the massacres we have seen since 1976.

That the police did not use force meant someone else, mostly security guards and a motley crew of vigilantes, took matters into their own hands, as it were. And the result, becoming clear only a year later, is a bloodbath hitherto unseen since the dawn of democracy.

The infamous Phoenix, outside Durban, recorded the highest killings at 32, just a few shy of the total number of people killed in Marikana. Umlazi, the second worst affected area, recorded a shocking 23 murders. The broader Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni recorded 15 and 18 respectively.

This is how the police have recorded the killings: “Gunshot to the head while protesting and looting.”

“The deceased was part of a protest march when he was allegedly shot in the head by members of security companies at the N2 bridge at Shakashead.”

Were riots to start, would our police be capable of responding in ways that could save lives, property and jobs lost in the mayhem of last year?

“The deceased was found next to Spar with a gunshot wound.”

“A dead body at Gandhi Hospital, deceased had gunshot wound to his back and buttocks.”

It is one thing to determine that so many were killed, but another to hunt and ensure the successful prosecution of the suspects. A year later, the families and the nation await justice. Who killed 237 people in a few days in July last year? Why are they still roaming the streets? Is there hope police minister Bheki Cele and his troopers are on top of the situation?

An expert panel appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to look into the killings concluded early this year that the police and intelligence structures failed to anticipate or even adjust their methods of controlling rowdy crowds during looting. There was no sufficient crowd-control equipment and police were overwhelmed.

It seems to us, at least through their inaction, that they remain overwhelmed a year on.

While a few so-called instigators have been arrested and others have had their cases withdrawn, no specific individual has been arrested for the specific murders of the 237. That a year has passed on without any progress report by the police gives us no hope.

The question today though is whether South Africans believe our securocrats have learnt and equipped themselves to anticipate and, importantly, counter any planned riots. Were riots to start, would our police be capable of responding in ways that could save lives, property and jobs lost in the mayhem of last year?

The police say they have learnt their lessons. We have no way of knowing for sure until they’re put to the test — though we hope no such tests materialise. Our country lost much more than lives last year. Many lost their livelihoods: the jobs, businesses, convenience, sense of security and much more.

Our government is yet to account for the damage. The cabinet reshuffle by Ramaphosa weeks after the riots appeared designed to pacify a nation seething with anger but writhing in pain. The reshuffle helped avoid political accountability.

Our police, defence force and intelligence services have yet to hold anyone accountable. We must be the only country on earth where 237 lives could simply perish and no-one is held accountable. This not only tells us about the incompetence of those in charge, but also how cheap our leaders think our lives are. There’s no greater shame.

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