Police absence in July unrest questioned at public hearings

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Thursday, 18 November heard how police in Pietermaritzburg were allegedly ordered to stand down and not respond as widespread looting and the destruction of infrastructure continued relentlessly during the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng

“I called and there was literally no response from anywhere, we were alone, just helplessly watching scenes unfold,” Melanie Venes, the chief executive of the Pietermaritzburg Midlands Chamber of Business, told the SAHRC during its public hearings into the violence triggered by protests against former president Jacob Zuma’s incarcaration for contempt of court.

“The looting went on for days. People sat on the side of the road on top of their looted goods waiting for transport to arrive. There was no response, no adequate suitable response during the unrest and afterwards.”

Venes’s testimony echoed that of Ntethelelo Mkhize, who appeared before the commission the day before, on Wednesday. Mkhize claimed there was no police assistance when he was shot twice, his friends killed, and others assaulted in the streets of Phoenix on 12 July. 

“We have been directly told by some of the police personnel that they were told to stand down, and that they weren’t allowed to respond,” Venes added on Thursday.

When evidence leader Buang Jones asked who gave the instruction, Venes said the police personnel was not specific, only that it came from “the leadership”.

She added: “There were police officers that said it took everything in them to obey the orders that they were given because their instinct was to respond and react.”

Asked who told her about the police being ordered to stand down, Venes said she received her information from two police officers. She did not disclose the names of the officers, but told the panel she would ask the officers if she could do so.

According to Venes the business chamber and the police had a “very good” relationship before the July unrest, with regular interaction taking place through the forum Business Fighting Crime. The two entities also worked together to inform businesses about crime patterns. 

Jones asked whether the chamber had received any information or warning from the police prior to the unrest, to which Venes responded: “No, we didn’t.”

Referring to conflicting reports regarding the availability of tear gas, Venus told the SAHRC panel that initially members of the public understood that the police had no tear gas to use on the large crowds. 

“We were told at the time that there was no tear gas, but there was plenty of it. They were not allowed to use it,” claimed Venes. 

Venes indicated she believed there had been an insurrection with a strong element of political rhetoric motivated by so-called radical economic transformation (RET) groupings. 

She said there was a “tendency to make what happened in July largely about inequality [and] I think people who led that insurrection, they utilised that to their advantage”.

“It was too well orchestrated, and standing in those businesses and watching what was sprayed all over those walls … the ‘free Zuma’, and ‘Ramaphosa must go back to Venda’, the expletives about white monopoly capital, the rhetoric was very clear that it had a clear political undertone and had more to do with power,” said Venes. 

The Pietermaritzburg Midlands Chamber of Business has around 700 members ranging from macro entities to smaller businesses. 

According to Venes the chamber was overwhelmed from “all sides” of Pietermaritzburg by members asking for help. 

“It was an absolutely devastating time that I don’t ever want to see repeat again. I was just inundated with calls from my members from all sides of town, asking desperately for help, because they were being raided and looted and fires were being set and vehicles stoned and it was just absolute chaos,” she said.

The SAHRC continued its public hearings on Thursday which will run until 3 December. Submissions to the commission can also be made until Friday, 19 November.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a junior daily news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a freelance journalist and a broadcaster at Maroela Media and Smile90.4FM.

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