Government relied on social media and mainstream media for updates on July unrest, says KwaZulu-Natal premier

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala and his government relied on social media, mainstream media reports and an online pamphlet warning of a shutdown to react to the violent protests and looting in the province in July

Testifying at the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC’s) public hearings into the July unrest on Friday, Zikalala said: “In parts of KwaZulu-Natal [it] is noted as one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of our province, having led to massive destruction of infrastructure and the erosion of many of the gains in the economy over the recent years.”

The unrest resulted in 359 people dying and caused an estimated R50-billion worth of damage in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. 

Similar to former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Zikalala told the commission he was not briefed by crime intelligence about threats to the province. 

“Before the outbreak, there was no information received from any crime intelligence structure on the imminent threat in KwaZulu-Natal indicating its context, nature and the need to prepare the security clusters response accordingly,” said Zikalala. 

“This means that while the premier should ordinarily receive regular briefings, no briefing had ever warned of the impending large-scale events that took place during July 2021.”

He said the provincial government instead relied on social media, mainstream media and a pamphlet calling for a provincial shutdown. 

It was only on Sunday, 11 July, that he was briefed by a state security team, when it was said that the “main concern for the violence was to express dissatisfaction around the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma”.

“The team called on us as the provincial government to do everything we could to calm down the situation,” Zikalala said, noting that his administration had still not received information on the “possible scale, magnitude and impact” of the unrest. 

He said that on the same day, he pleaded with President Cyril Ramaphosa to deploy the army “to restore order”. 

On Monday, Mapisa-Nqakula said she and the president decided on the evening of 10 July not yet to deploy the army. 

She said this decision was made without her ministry having been furnished with any intelligence report to advise her and Ramaphosa.

Zikalala told the commission that the president announced the deployment of the army on 12 July. But during a meeting with the South African Defence Force (SANDF) two days later, he had raised “a serious concern” that “there was no presence of the army”.

He said he then escalated the matter and spoke to the secretary of defence, Sonto Kudjoe, and was told that more than 500 soldiers had arrived in the province. But, said Zikalala, “in reality, there were about 150 only”.

The premier said tension in the province had been building up since 29 June, the day the constitutional court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in jail for contempt of court.

“In the immediate aftermath of the constitutional court judgment, scores of supporters of the former president issued threats of a blood bath and promise to form a reel of steel at the former president’s Nkandla home,” said Zikalala. 

Zuma was incarcerated on 7 July. 

“We began noticing statements on social media platforms calling for his release. Sporadic incidents of protest were also reported, mainly via social media,” the premier recalled. 

“It must be said, however, that the protest later took a form of new momentum that we, as political leaders, were not forewarned about or prepared for … The scale and speed of the looting were unprecedented … leading to easily the most destructive protest by residents of KwaZulu-Natal in the country’s history.”

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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