/ 3 December 2021

‘We saw dark clouds gathering’, Cele tells HRC about July unrest

Bheki Cele 1
Police Minister Bheki Cele. Photo: Supplied

Police Minister Bheki Cele told the Human Rights Commission (HRC) on Friday that he had expected trouble over the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma in July, and had spent the night it happened in nail-biting negotiations and constant contact with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

In a statement to the HRC, Cele said it was not true that the police and the government were unaware that the arrest could trigger violence. “It could not be true that we could not see that the dark clouds were gathering, going forward,” he said at the outset.

This prompted him to visit Zuma at Nkandla in an attempt to persuade him to cooperate with the Zondo commission of inquiry. The visit was in vain. Zuma dug in his heels and earned a 15-month sentence for contempt of court. 

“It was not just a tea visit … it was a visit initiated by myself and those who work with me,” he said, adding that he had hoped to lean on the relationship they formed not only when he served in Zuma’s cabinet, but in exile during the armed struggle against apartheid.

But nothing came of it.

“We did talk and coming back and I reported to the president to say I am not sure we have achieved anything, it looks like we will face problems along the way.”

When the constitutional court handed down the sentence, and ordered the national police commissioner and minister of police to ensure Zuma was arrested should he fail to hand himself over, Cele said it became a joke that he would either ensure the former president entered a prison cell, or he would be sent there himself.

“I was not prepared to occupy the cell,” he said, hence he tried to ensure “that we don’t reach that day that we had pictured in the head”.

He said it was plain that violence was a possibility when he received a phone call warning him not to go near Zuma’s home in Nkandla, as he was planning to do, because there were armed people among the crowd of supporters.

The caller informed him that “there were 70 people who were going to mix with the crowd and they were going to be dangerous”.

At this point Kwazulu-Natal provincial police commissioner Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi went to Nkandla to appraise himself of the situation. It allowed him, the minister said, to stay away so as not to inflame tension, while getting regular briefings and relaying information to Ramaphosa.

In his testimony to the HRC this week, Mkhwanazi said the crowds were plainly breaching Covid-19 regulations but the police decided not to act, unless strictly necessary, so as not to aggravate an already tense situation.

Cele said Ramaphosa agreed with this approach, because, given the remarks made by Zuma’s supporters, the situation was clearly risky.

“Again, I got counselling from the president so say anything that can cause direct conflict, avoid it, without breaking the law.”

Shots were fired at Nkandla, confirming the warning that people in the crowd were armed. The messages came through that blood would be spilled. Cele said that because there were women and children in the crowd, he was perturbed by a tip-off that hardcore Zuma loyalists “wanted blood”.

“So the best thing was to take two steps back on it,” he said.

This included sending an extraordinary letter to the office of the chief justice, informing him that they would not act on the court order to arrest Zuma pending the outcome of his bid to rescind his sentence. 

“We were clobbered and told, go and do your work. So the seventh was the D-day,” he said, referring to the deadline the court set for the incarceration of the former president.

Cele said there was some discussion as to when, exactly, the deadline expired and it turned out to be at midnight on 7 July.

Zuma finally agreed, at 11.20pm, to allow himself to be taken to the Estcourt Correctional Centre, Cele said, but for many long hours before that everything seemed to hang in the balance.

He said he placed a phone call to Ramaphosa at 10pm to caution him that there was no deal yet.

“I say to my boss, my hope is diminishing, it looks like we will have to do it the hammer way … At 10, I phoned the commander-in-chief and said, sorry commander-in-chief, we will have to move.”

He said Ramaphosa, perhaps ever the consummate negotiator, replied that there was plenty of time yet.

Cele said after Zuma was delivered to prison, he had been asked to thank police officers seconded to the province on standby at Eshowe the following day for their efforts. But on the way there, it became apparent that more trouble was brewing because trucks were stranded on the road and drivers reported having their keys confiscated.

It was clear, he said, that it was not wise to decommission the reinforcements, because the “real typhoon” was on its way.

Cele then expanded on what he witnessed in the week of deadly unrest that followed. He said he visited several places and could testify that the unrest took a decidedly racial turn, with it becoming apparent that being pulled out of your car at a makeshift roadblock depended on whether you were Indian or African.

He said after he visited Phoenix, he was met with animosity in African townships and was told to “go eat curry”. Cele said he was able to get around the resentment but understood the anger.

“The question of racism was clear to me.” 

According to Mkhwanazi’s testimony, 281 people died in the unrest in the province after Zuma’s arrest. The provincial commissioner’s testimony, over three days this week, laid bare tension between himself and former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula regarding delays in deploying soldiers to a province under siege.

Cele defended Mkhwanazi at times, except in those instances when the provincial commissioner, it seemed, opted to report directly to national police commissioner Khela Sithole, who was at odds with the minister.

Cele told the HRC that Mkhwanazi asked to give an operational briefing to the then defence minister on July 15 when she arrived in the province, and said that to his mind there was nothing untoward in what he set out.

“He glued to the facts,” Cele said. 

The former minister told the commission that the commissioner spoke about irrelevant matters. 

Mkhwanazi said this week that in the briefing he warned her not to lie to the nation about the number of soldiers who had been sent to KwaZulu-Natal; that it was just over half the figure of 800 she claimed at the time.