July unrest was designed to overwhelm police: Sitole

The deadly July unrest marked the first time South Africa had seen public violence aimed from the outset at overwhelming the available resources of the police, suspended national commissioner Khehla Sitole said on Monday.

Sitole testified before the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Monday morning. 

“They knew that if they overstretched the resources, we would not be able to respond,” he said as public hearings into the events of July entered their second week.

Sitole conceded that the police’s response to violence fomented in response to the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma was not adequate.

“Let me acknowledge that we could have done better.”

He was asked by Lloyd Lotz, the regional head of the SAHRC in Gauteng, whether the police believed that the violence that devastated parts of the province was planned.

The answer would determine whether the police would have been expected to have a response plan at the ready.

“Let me answer this way: the unrest of July started with the execution of the court order,” the commissioner replied, referring to the Constitutional Court order that Zuma be arrested to begin serving an 15-month sentence for contempt of court.

Sitole said the police had an operational plan in place to deal with protests in response to this and that an early warning had been issued for contingency alertness.

However, because the modus operandi of those fomenting the unrest was not known there was not an approved operational plan that was put in place for execution; rather general plans to respond to any eventuality.

What transpired was not anticipated, Sitole said of the violence and looting that claimed 359 lives and caused an estimated R50-billion in damage. 

“From the unfolding process and what we have experienced it was a planned gathering with an unpredicted modus operandi,” he said. 

“For example, the July unrest is the first unrest that started directly at level three. It did not start at level one and two. By the time the unrest started, level one and two capacity was already written off, so you needed a level three capacity.”

Sitole concluded that evidence subsequently gathered by the police showed that the violence was planned, and added: “They knew that if they overstretched the resources we would not be able to respond.”

He said, once the violence erupted, a proper response plan was immediately approved and put in place.

But, when further grilled about the police response, and the patent failure to defuse the immediate signs of unrest after the court ruling against Zuma, Sitole said he gave instructions to the commissioners of police in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng to move to level three deployment and called for public order reinforcements from elsewhere.

This amounted to calling for an additional thousand South African Police Service members to be sent to KwaZulu-Natal.

But Sitole admitted that the initial response was inadequate, adding that in situations such as this, that often proved determinative.

“Your beginning determines whether you win or lose the battle,” he said, before adding: “We obviously need to sharpen our intelligence capacity.”

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