Cele: Police could have done more to stop July unrest from raging

Police Minister Bheki Cele has recounted a woeful lack of preparation on the part of law enforcement to deal with last July’s unrest.

Testifying before the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC’s) national investigative hearing into the unrest — which raged through parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng — Cele said more could have been done to stop the violence.

In his affidavit to the SAHRC, the minister said that, in his opinion, “there was no concerted and/or integrated effort from SAPS’s [South African Police Service’s] crime intelligence division, policing divisions and top management to properly plan for and to address the unrest that eventually led to a week-long destruction, looting, insurrection and loss of life in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.”

Cele reiterated this point on Monday, saying that the police service could have better mobilised its resources, based on whatever intelligence it had gathered. 

For example, police resources from other provinces should have been moved to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, Cele said. “Something extra could have been done, which maybe would have changed the direction of the outcomes.”

The minister’s testimony backs up the findings by an expert panel report on the government’s response to the orchestrated public violence in July 2021. President Cyril Ramaphosa received the report earlier in February. 

The report found that the police’s response to the unrest was not effective and appropriate under the circumstances. “It may be understandable that they did not have intelligence upon which they could have planned their operations in the 45 initial stages of the looting, but once it went into subsequent days they should have changed their plans,” the report stated.

The failure of the police, the report noted, must be viewed against the fact that six crime intelligence officials were suspended by the national police commissioner, Khehla Sitole, weakening that division. 

Sitole, who has been at odds with Cele over his alleged interference in the restructuring of the police serice, was not on the ground during the unrest, according to the report.

Earlier in his testimony, Cele recounted how — despite there being clear signs that tensions may bubble over — he received no formal intelligence in this regard. 

Cele, who also appeared before the SAHRC last December, said of the impending violence: “Dark clouds were gathering. You could see it coming.”

The unrest was instigated by supporters of former president Jacob Zuma, who was incarcerated at Estcourt Correctional Centre last July. Zuma’s incarceration, Cele said  “was the beginning of it — not the end”.

“The arrest of the former president was one of those things that ignited what we saw happening there … Without any form of information … it was clear something was happening,” Cele added.

Despite the brewing tensions, Cele said he received no formal intelligence and relied on tip-offs from members of the public. “Personally, I don’t remember any form of intelligence coming to me … I would argue that preparation could have been better.”

This was flagged in the expert panel report, which noted that in the SAPS chain of command, there appears to have been no direct line of submitting intelligence reports to the minister of police.

But, according to the Sitole, following the constitutional court ruling that Zuma should be arrested, all crime intelligence provincial structures were tasked with determining whether any threats could be identified. 

Crime intelligence was requested to ensure that existing source-networks were focused on gathering information to identify any threats associated with mobilisation in support of the former president. 

Based on the feedback from the provinces and other sources, the crime intelligence division compiled a threat assessment on 1 July 2021. 

“Be that as it may,” the expert panel report states, “the minister expected the national commissioner to provide him with an initial threat and risk assessment or early warning report ahead of the unrest …  This, however, did not happen.”

During his testimony on Monday, Cele said that despite the problems in the crime intelligence division, he should have been briefed. “I’m sure some deliberate decision was taken not to brief in terms of crime intelligence.”

Cele said he did eventually receive an intelligence briefing — but only after he first appeared before the SAHRC last December.

He said he was briefed by people who were not part of official intelligence structures about social media posts instigating the violence. He asked if they could trace social media posts. “Unfortunately, that did not happen,” Cele said.

A major part of the mobilisation of rioters last July was done through social media. But the expert panel report pointed out that “the use of social media platforms seemed to confound the security services, who seemed unable to process the information that was spreading in the community and to respond by putting in place operational plans to respond”.

In the days following the unrest, 18 people were arrested for allegedly instigating the violence. But, the expert panel report noted, “only a handful of individuals identified based on their incendiary social media accounts were charged for incitement to violence”.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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