Hearings into July unrest expose dismal state of security cluster

As the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) concludes its first leg of the inquiry into the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the testimonies have laid bare the dysfunctional state of South Africa’s justice, crime prevention and security cluster. During the inquiry, members of the cluster engaged in buck-passing and blame-gaming, with no one taking responsibility for failing to prevent the unrest. 

The testimony of Police Minister Bheki Cele in particular was telling of the tumultuous relationship that exists between the South African Police Services (SAPS) top brass. With no holds barred, Cele tore into the national police commissioner, Khehla Sitole, for being “missing in action” and “nowhere to be seen” during the entirety of the unrest. According to the minister, had there been better leadership from Sitole, then the police in KwaZulu-Natal would not have been caught unaware by the magnitude of the violence. 

Testifying in her capacity as the former minister of defence, National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said the efficacy of the military was severely hindered by the amateurish behaviour of the KwaZulu-Natal police commissioner, Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. She also accused Mkhwanazi of undermining her authority by being immature and “letting his ego get in the way” of the strategic deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in the province. 

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala stated that the State Security Agency (SSA) failed to sound the warning bells of any imminent threat on the horizon. According to Zikalala, the SSA delegation from Pretoria only briefed his office of the magnitude of the unrest on its third day, calling on the premier to “do everything they can to calm down the situation”. 

The SAHRC’s hearings have only confirmed what many South Africans have always known and experienced in their lives, that the country severely lacks the capacity and resources for crime prevention. Crime statistics released in November showed that 6 163 people were killed in South Africa over a period of three months, signalling a 20.7% increase from the previous quarter. KwaZulu-Natal in particular, recorded a 44% increase in the number of reported murder cases between July and September. 

The high crime rate in the country can be attributed to SAPS members being corrupt, generally unskilled and unqualified to address and prevent crime. They are also not adequately trained to deal with the many protests that constantly flare up in the country and the July unrest was one of those incidents.

The defence sector has also suffered many years of underfunding and hollowing out and this has played a part in leaving the sector on the brink of collapse. The collapse of Denel for instance, is a symptom of a larger problem, after the weapons designer and manufacturer admitted to being under extreme financial pressures and unable to pay employees and maintenance. The decrease in funding for the SANDF has severely hampered the country’s security situation. In December, it admitted that the capacity of the air force was negatively impacted by the poorly maintained aircraft and lack of resources. Funding constraints also saw the air force’s Gripen fleet temporarily grounded. Incidents like this leave the country’s security situation vulnerable.

The intelligence capacity of the country has also not been spared. Former acting director general of the State Security Agency (SSA), Loyiso Jafta, testified before the Zondo commission that the agency has been abused for political and private interests for years. Jafta detailed how the agency was commandeered into running illegal operations and funding the ANC’s factional activities, instead of being earmarked to better capacitate the security cluster. He also testified that qualified officials were leaving the security forces and being replaced by politically-minded individuals who lacked experience. 

With scathing testimonies and the dismal response by the security cluster to the July unrest, a “shake up” of the security cluster is now a must. The decision by President Cyril Ramaphosa to disband the SSA and place it under the Presidency portfolio is a positive step, however, more is still to be done. Competent leadership is needed across the cluster and the tension between the SAPS leadership has to be dealt with decisively, with either the minister or commissioner being offloaded. More financial resources have to be allocated to the cluster departments to capacitate them and bring them back to their former glory. Until we address our security shortcomings, we will find ourselves in the same compromised position should another insurrection emerge, which could be sooner than we think.

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Lelona Mxesibe
Lelona Mxesibe is a public policy researcher at Frontline Africa Advisory, a strategic advisory firm that specialises in public policy and regulatory affairs, stakeholder management, market entry and investment promotion, as well as research and political risk consulting

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