/ 30 November 2021

Police intelligence surprised by July unrest ‘modus operandi’

Handing Over Of The Sword And Medal Parade In South Africa
Police commissioner Khehla Sitole. (Photo by Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The modus operandi of the July unrest in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal caught police unawares and there was no intelligence report explicitly indicating that violent unrest was coming, police commissioner Khehla Sitole said on Tuesday.

“A report that was explicit to say ‘Yes, an unrest [is] coming in terms of this modus operandi,’ was not picked up by intelligence,” Sitole told a South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) hearing into the unrest, which left more than 300 people dead and caused billions of rand worth of damages.

During Sitole’s testimony it became evident that Police Minister Bheki Cele was only privy to parts of the police intelligence gathered around the unrest.

The absence of an intelligence report to help mitigate the widespread unrest has also been highlighted during previous evidence from Cele, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala and former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

Appearing for the second time before the commission this week, Sitole conceded on Tuesday, 30 November that he had received an intelligence report “about developments as far as the unfolding unrest was concerned”.

Asked when he received it, Sitole said he could not provide a specific time, “because the intelligence briefing takes place as the situation arises. Some of the intelligence briefings are done verbally. And some are done formally in writing.”

Sitole explained to the commission that the intelligence he referred to was “generated concurrently” with the execution of the operational plan — referring to a “stabilisation and normalisation plan” in response to the unrest. 

“The plan started its execution immediately after the outbreak of the public violence,” he said.

Asked when this operational plan was executed, Sitole responded that “immediately after the outbreak” he instructed the deputy national commissioner for policing “to design a stabilisation and normalisation plan for us … to focus on the unrest … Then the intelligence was deployed.”

Evidence leader Keketso Motshabi said he was confused about what the operational plan was based on “since you received the intelligence almost at the same time, at the execution of the operational plan”.

Sitole responded: “There’s an intelligence exercise that takes place prior to execution of any plan, which will then inform a planning process. But when the plan is executed, there is a tactical intelligence exercise that goes hand in glove with the execution of the plan.”

Motshabi persisted in asking what the basis of the operational plan was. 

There was unrest in progress. And there was looting and instability in the country and the plan was intended to provide a response. That was the basis of the plan, to stabilise,” Sitole answered.

Motshabi then put it to the national commissioner that the plan only came after the unrest began and that there was no intelligence report in relation to threats of possible unrest. 

Sitole only then conceded that no report in terms of the modus operandi of the widespread looting was picked up by intelligence. 

Sharing of intelligence 

The Mail & Guardian has previously reported how a reported rift between Cele and Sitole was a source of frustration for Zikalala in grappling with the July unrest.

On Tuesday, it was put to Sitole whether he shared any intelligence reports with the minister of police. 

“I do share intelligence reports on matters that relate to the minister. But if there is an intelligence report that does not contain any matter that relates to the minister then it is also not necessary to share,” he said.

Asked to elaborate on matters relating or not relating to the minister, Sitole responded: “Matters that are pure operational do not relate to the minister, but matters that require policy direction and political direction I escalate to the minister.”

Specifically on intelligence regarding the unrest, Sitole said he had shared developments on the unrest with the minister and President Cyril Ramaphosa as the commander-in-chief, “but remember, it’s not the whole content”. 

In an unrelated matter, in September Sitole received a notice of possible suspension from Ramaphosa and was informed of a board of inquiry into his alleged misconduct and fitness to hold the office as national commissioner of police.