Behind the Johannesburg riots: How did they happen?

Come in peace: Police Minister Bheki Cele met with hostel residents and has reported to Cabinet. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Come in peace: Police Minister Bheki Cele met with hostel residents and has reported to Cabinet. (Delwyn Verasamy)

It could be angry truckers, but security cluster officials are investigating the possibility of an orchestrated campaign to destabilise the country


The latest outbreak of mob violence and xenophobia was allegedly orchestrated by members of the All Truck Drivers Forum (ATDF), which held mass meetings that went into last weekend in different parts of Gauteng.

The Mail & Guardian has reliably learned that intelligence agencies — which sent a briefing note last week Friday to the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster (JCPS), chaired by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula — have been investigating the forum’s involvement.

The cluster consists of the ministries of police, home affairs, state security, justice and constitutional development, as well as the National Prosecuting Authority.

High-ranking security officials have also discussed the political motivations behind the flare-up in violence, with theories that the violence was part of a campaign to embarrass and ultimately destabilise the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa.

Despite the intelligence and warnings, these parts of the cluster failed to prevent the violent attacks and the burning and looting of shops in Jeppestown on Sunday night and into Monday morning.

On Monday, the violence spread to parts of central Johannesburg and Alexandra, as well as Boksburg and Thokoza on the East Rand. Shops, cars and other buildings were set on fire. More than 400 arrests have been made since.

In parts of KwaZulu-Natal, freight trucks were attacked and set alight.
Drivers found to be foreign nationals were also assaulted.

ATDF, which purports to represent only South African truck drivers, has dismissed the intelligence, saying that its organisation is anti-violence. Its spokesperson, Sipho Zungu, said on Thursday: “When this latest violence started on Monday we were in court, so there is no way this was us. ATDF has never even had a strike, let alone [engaged in] violence [and] looting. The nation is being misled here.

“What needs to be clarified is that ATDF is fighting for all truck drivers in the country, no matter if they work or not.” He went on to add: “The reality is that South African truck drivers no longer have jobs, and we have been engaging truck owners and government that they must get rid of foreign truck drivers.”

This kind of sentiment, and existing tensions, were worsened by political rhetoric around access to healthcare and unemployment before the elections. It reached boiling point last month, when police operations in Johannesburg to find fake goods were thwarted by shopkeepers, who pelted law-enforcement authorities with rocks, forcing a retreat.

Public reaction to this took on a xenophobic tinge, with some South Africans blaming foreign nationals for a host of problems — from the proliferation of drugs and fake goods, to crime and filth in inner-city Johannesburg.

Information shared with the JCPS cluster last Friday indicated that meetings to discuss strategy and co-ordinate attacks on foreign nationals were to scheduled to take place this past weekend. The meetings were to be held at venues in different parts of Gauteng, including the Mzimhlophe grounds in Soweto, Alexandra at Pan taxi rank, Randburg taxi rank, Ezibayeni in Hillbrow and Part Two, Diepsloot.

Foreign nationals also held their own meetings over the weekend, and discussed how to protect themselves against potential attacks.

The M&G understands that the government was concerned that foreign nationals could retaliate violently, which might escalate matters. A source in the JCPS cluster said: “If action was taken and those meetings disrupted, what happened on Sunday evening would not have happened.”

Now, Police Minister Bheki Cele has been forced to react after the fact. He has focused on the hostels this week and has had several meetings with iinduna to try to quell the unrest.

Cele’s office announced he would also be hosting imbizo, to be attended by residents, as well as local, provincial and national politicians, at the Jeppe hostel on Sunday.

Cele’s spokesperson, Lirandzu Themba, said: “Izinduna who met with Minister Cele have assured the Gauteng Saps [South African Police Service] management that hostel dwellers have been urged to refrain from acts of violence leading up to the imbizo, planned for Sunday.”

Themba also said Cele had briefed Ramaphosa on the latest situation in Johannesburg on Monday, after a visit to Jeppe hostel. “There was a Cabinet meeting where this issue was discussed and brought to the attention of all ministers, including those in the JCPS cluster.”

“The JCPS cluster and various operational structures have been meeting and engaging continuously during the past weeks — and in some instances on a daily basis,” she said.

News of the imbizo has not been well received by all in the hostel. Nduna Manyathela Mvelase, who met with Cele during his visit, said: “It’s almost as if they are saying ‘It’s the hostels and the Zulu people that are responsible for this.’”

“It was unfortunate that a fire started not too far from here on Sunday and people died. At the same time, some criminals took advantage of that fire, and now it looks as if this started here,” he said. “This started in Pretoria and there are no hostels there … All our children are unemployed and on drugs.”

The government and the presidency’s slowness to get a handle on the situation has prompted severe criticism from observers, as well as heads of state across the continent.

Two former government officials expressed surprise that the JCPS had not met by Wednesday or made any public statements.

One said: “By now you should have been seeing all the different ministers visible on the ground … The fact that Nigeria’s president [Muhammadu Buhari] was even tweeting disinformation [that Nigerians were killed in the violence] means there could have been no information from our government to affected embassies.

“When government is this silent it becomes easy for the situation to escalate,” he added.

Department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela said on Wednesday that the department would try and secure meetings with consulates and high commissions of affected nationalities by today.

“Dirco has not received any official complaint or inquiry from an embassy. However, we are maintaining regular contact with the diplomatic corps to update them on government’s measures and interventions to deal with the spate of violence,” he said.

Johan Burger, a senior research er at the Institute for Security Studies, said he was extremely disappointed that Ramaphosa had remained silent about the attacks until Wednesday.

“I say, very reluctantly, that South Africa is at fault in terms of how it handled this issue from the top. I’m extremely disappointed that it took so long to say something,” Burger said. “He should have spoken to his security cluster ministers and asked what was happening and given instruction and direction.”

A senior government official suggested Ramaphosa was being let down by his Cabinet, particularly in the JCPS cluster, which met for the first time on Wednesday. “Not once in the former president’s tenure would so much time pass before security cluster ministers meet and strategise. Not once.”

The Nigerian government took a harsh tone this week, saying it would not tolerate any more attacks on its citizens, and deployed envoys to meet Ramaphosa, whose public statement condemning the attacks was issued only on Tuesday, to discuss the situation.

On Wednesday the Nigerian presidency announced that Nigerian airline Air Peace airlines would send an aircraft today to evacuate any of its citizens who wished to leave South Africa. Yesterday, South Africa shut down its embassy in Lagos and several South African businesses in that country were attacked and looted.

Sabelo Skiti
Thanduxolo Jika

Thanduxolo Jika

Thanduxolo Jika is an investigative Journalist and Co-Author of We are going to kill each other today:The Marikana Story. The Messiah of Abantu.
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