/ 4 January 2023

‘Reckoning with the Riots’: A short documentary on the July 2021 unrest

Safrica Politics Unrest Economy Ramaphosa
A group of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Rooikat, an armoured reconnaissance vehicle equipped with a stabilised 76mm high velocity gun, are seen during President Cyril Ramaphosa's visit to the Kwamashu Bridge City on July 16, 2021 in Durban. - (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP)

In just eight days of the deadly July 2021 riots, more than 350 people died across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. One of the most violent episodes in post-apartheid South Africa has still not been reckoned with. Many of the killers who murdered innocent people — some of whom were private security guards and vigilantes — have not been brought to justice. The extreme poverty, which drove the looting, has also not been addressed.

Reckoning with the Riots is a short documentary that explores the factors and context that sparked the tragedy, as well as the aftermath and quest for justice. It features conversations with witnesses, those who lost loved ones, lawyers, human rights proponents, business owners and people who lived through the riots. 

Witnesses and families of victims speak about their loss and what it means for the future of South Africa’s social relations, placing the riots in the context of the country’s long history of racial and economic exclusion. People ask how we might find a way to prevent a recurrence of the riots. The documentary also draws on the expertise of human rights lawyer Nomzamo Zondo, former chief executive of the Human Rights Commission Tseliso Thipanyane and S’bu Zikode, the president of the shack-dweller’s movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo.

A year and five months after the largest killings in the country’s democratic history, the instigators of the riots have still not been held accountable. Socioeconomic distress and trauma still lingers in places that were hardest hit by the riots, and social relations are unstable because they remain ignored. This documentary is an urgent call to action for South Africa’s citizens and leaders to take steps to prevent another repeat of the violence. Where do we go from here?