Police were left dangling during July unrest, KZN top cop tells SAHRC

On the eve of former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest, crime intelligence was incapable of providing police in KwaZulu-Natal with information on the unfolding security threat they confronted, provincial commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi testified on Tuesday.

Appearing before the South African Human Rights Commission probe into the July unrest in the province, Mkhwanazi explained the police’s reaction, having been caught unawares after initially focusing their planning on protests around Nkandla, where the former president has a home. The unrest followed the constitutional court ruling on 29 June that sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court.

Mkhwanazi earlier suggested that then-defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula was lying when she spoke to the media about the provincial police’s handling of the unrest that began as an orchestrated protest at Zuma’s arrest.

Mapisa-Nqakula told the commission that, when she arrived in the province while it was in the throes of unrest, she was briefed about irrelevant matters. This was not so, he said.

“I want to place it on record that everything that I spoke to them about, I did that in- camera with the respect of the sensitivity of the things we were discussing … things that needed to help us to stop the riot at the time. But the minister comes and says those were things that were unnecessary that I spoke to them about.”

The commission promptly called an adjournment at this point, and the rest of his testimony did not touch on Mapisa-Nqakula’s intervention.

Mkhwanazi told the commission the police were on alert following the court ruling, from roughly around 4 July, but focused their attention on agitation around Nkandla.

“Immediately after the constitutional court judgment, we noticed … a large gathering of media houses around the former president’s homestead in Nkandla. They literally were camping there day and night,” he said, adding that some Zuma supporters camped at his homestead may have believed the former president’s insistence that he had been treated in a prejudicial way by the court.

“They literally were camping there day and night. You switch on the television and you hear comment[s] about whether it [the court ruling] is good or bad … The big majority of South Africans like myself, who might not be that clued up much about the court processes and the legal processes, we start being personal and we say … but how do you sentence a person without [a] trial?”

He said if he had the legal option, he would have shut down social media to stop the mounting anger on the platforms “so that people don’t necessarily get to see what is happening at Nkandla”.

He said the provincial police called for reinforcements on 2 July because they realised that there was a need for a contingency plan and that “probably something big might be happening … and we don’t understand what this is”.

“We decided that we are going to request the additional support from head office of additional members and, if need be, the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] that needed to come and deploy. So that is how we were managing the situation,” Mkhwanazi continued.

“Because we now realised that social media is being used and they are now blocking the roads with burning tyres, and they are targeting some shopping centres already, so we needed to make sure that we protect what we can in order for us to live beyond this.”

He added that there was not a single district in the province that was not affected in the ensuing mayhem, which saw at least 89 shopping malls looted.

Mkhwanazi said soon it was a case of people being stampeded or stabbed to death for a bottle of whisky. Once the burning of trucks started, the police were at a near loss as to which arterial roads to close down: “The looters, they were driving on these roads, so it became a mission impossible right at the onset. So whoever organised it, maybe they took time to study it.”

He said at this point, the provincial police called for military reinforcements, realising that their numbers did not match the magnitude of what was unfolding “because it was just us, nobody else”.

However, he said even before there was trouble after the Zuma ruling was handed down, the police had already asked for the deployment of soldiers to at least protect strategic keypoints, including the harbour and airport. A letter was sent on 2 July, and in response a further 174 officers were deployed to KwaZulu-Natal.

Internally, at this point, a total of 18,000 police officers were deployed in the province, under immense pressure, he said, thanking police unions for their tolerance at the time. 

“They also appreciated that the country needs to be saved. Something big was happening . . .”

He stressed that the police were not “controlling crime intelligence” but lived at the receiving end of whatever was sent their way. On 11 July, understanding that the province faced a severe security threat, he asked for a further 315 police officers and two days later for a further 278 officers.

He said he warned at the time that, given the unknown quantity but patent magnitude of the security threat, more police officers could be needed.

Mkhwanazi said he warned that, given the high numbers of KwaZulu-Natal residents living in Gauteng, police reinforcements should not be drawn from there.

He said 451 soldiers finally arrived in the province on 14 July, towards the “tail end of the violence”. The number increased on 15 July to 5 000. Before the deployment, he said, police were amply provided with adequate riot control material, having called for additional supplies. 

However, he said “hardcore” crime was stretching capacity even before the July riots unfolded, to the point where the local prisons could not hold all suspects.

When the violence that eventually claimed 359 lives unleashed itself, he said, he asked crime intelligence for further information, and asked the local chamber of commerce to ensure that no trucks were on the road at night but this was, understandably, not respected, for commercial reasons, he said.

Zuma was arrested in the early hours of 8 July. He was released on medical parole in early September.

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