/ 19 January 2023

The anarchy of July 2021 could recur

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Justice delayed: Police detain suspected looters in Soweto in July 2021. Bail for the 61 people linked to violence and arson has been extended until May this year. Photo: James Oatway/Getty Images

Eighteen months after the anarchy of July 2021, the identities of those who planned the widespread violence and looting remain unknown. Those unprecedented events cost more than 354 lives and an estimated R50 billion in economic damage. 

Most of the several dozen arrests made have been of alleged instigators. Sixty-one people charged with crimes linked to violence and arson recently appeared in court, with the state announcing it would also apply to charge them with terrorism. Bail for those accused was extended until May 2023, suggesting that the wait for any further revelations will be a long one. 

But the information that has come to light about the July mayhem reveals that serious problems in policing and intelligence facilitated the wave of destruction. This is the argument of my recent working paper, Beyond Protest: Violence, Looting and Anarchy in July 2021, published by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. 

The paper shows that 17 months after these tumultuous events, there is no sign of any real progress having been made to adequately prevent the recurrence of widespread public violence. 

The large security force presence outside Nkandla, the private residence of Jacob Zuma, on Wednesday 7 July 2021, dispersed after the former president left for prison shortly before midnight on that date. By Friday 9 July, major national roads to the north, south and inland, and other roads in KwaZulu-Natal, were blocked, including by trucks. 

By that same day, protest action had started in the centre and peripheral areas of Durban. By the weekend, it had spread to Gauteng, facilitated, according to the subsequent report of the expert panel into the July 2021 civil unrest, by minibus taxis from KwaZulu-Natal. 

In the province itself, the violence and looting escalated over the weekend of 10 and 11 July and, by the first two days of the following week, was taking place across the province.

The similar modus operandi in different parts of KwaZulu-Natal, within a limited time period, showed that the events were orchestrated. Vehicles, usually without number plates, and some with tinted windows, arrived at targeted sites. 

Their occupants emerged with tools to smash locks, bars and gates, while inciting others to join them. They left when looting started. 

In Durban and Pietermaritzburg, crowds from nearby townships and shack areas arrived on foot to carry away whatever they could. Others arrived in vehicles to remove the large goods. In addition to looting, some malls and stores were razed, especially those selling bulk goods to poor people. 

In the North Coast town of Eshowe, where the nearby sugar cane fields of small-scale farmers were burnt, even the local bank was burnt down. 

In the settlement of Phoenix, northwest of Durban, racial tensions flared between Indian and black African residents, and, by the end of the violence, which included roadblock and vigilante attacks, 36 people had died. 

Two historic legacies provide the context in which events unfolded in the large urban areas of KwaZulu-Natal. Durban is a typical apartheid city planned for four racial groups, with white residential areas in the closest proximity to the city centre and concentric circles of other race groups providing “buffer zones” separating white residents from the black African townships on the outer periphery. 

Historical events (arising from apartheid policies) in which Africans have attacked Indians, as in the 1949 Durban “riots” and those in Bhambayi, near Phoenix, in 1985, are etched in people’s memories. In 2015, the Report of the Special Committee on Social Cohesion, established to investigate threats to social cohesion in KwaZulu-Natal, linked racial tensions in the province to economic issues and provided recommendations for dealing with racial grievances. These were never implemented. 

The violence that erupted in July 2021 in Phoenix, formerly a designated area of Indian residence and surrounded by large African townships and informal settlements, was linked to people from these nearby areas streaming through the (now) non-racial suburb to loot businesses.

The flames were fuelled by racial fears, a complete lack of constructive action from the local police, and overt racism by drug-dealing vigilante gangs and rogue security companies with police links. 

Executive members of government must shoulder the blame for what happened during these fateful days. Even without intelligence, it was patently obvious by 9 July that the minister of police should have called on the president to deploy the army to keep the roads clear and protect infrastructure. 

As the ANC held a weekend national executive committee meeting, it continued to insist that what was happening was “normal” protest. 

By the time South African National Defence Force soldiers started arriving on 13 July, most of the damage had been done. 

The executive, and parliament, share the blame for their failure to take the steps deemed urgent in a 2018 report by the high-level panel into state security, which recommended restructuring the security services and restoring the status of the State Security Agency as a civilian oversight body. 

The high-level panel had made damning findings about how constitutional principles had been violated by it having been turned into a private resource to serve factional political and personal interests. 

The reports of the Zondo commission into state capture reinforce the high-level panel’s findings and are very critical of the way in which the parliamentary oversight body on intelligence has dragged its heels in passing the necessary legislation. 

Both the executive and parliament share the blame for their failure to date to take seriously the Zondo commission’s findings about the police force’s crime intelligence division, including the nepotism, corruption and irregular operational involvement of ministers.

Those whom we entrust with governance have not yet explained why the recommendations of the Panel of Experts Report on Policing and Crowd Management, handed to the minister in 2018, have not been implemented. 

These findings dealt with not only the reform and equipping of public order policing, but with the need to demilitarise and depoliticise the police (as per the National Development Plan). Crucially, the expert panel’s report should also have led to the establishment of a police board to oversee appointments and promotions. 

Action in this regard is especially urgent given the regularity of protests, and the way in which politicisation, nepotism and corruption in the police force became entrenched during the Zuma years.

The report of the expert panel into July 2021 presents a devastating picture of the lack of police preparedness for what happened. The capacity of operational response services was well below what is required, even under normal circumstances, and there was a lack of adequate equipment (one water cannon per province). 

The equipment that was available had not even been properly maintained.

What happened in July 2021 is a product of how South Africa has become a criminalised state of power blocs: criminals operate with secret service members and senior officials, with tenure of political office a means for personal enrichment at the expense of good governance. 

Since July 2021, there has been no discernable political will to implement the necessary changes spelt out in the reports cited here, nor, amid continuing gross socioeconomic disparities, have crucial social cohesion issues been addressed.

Raymond Zondo, the chairperson of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, and now the chief justice, has warned that, without the recommended actions by the executive and parliament, state capture may reoccur. 

If we are to be protected from those described by the expert panel on the July 2021 civil unrest as having an “appetite for lawlessness”, the return of good governance must start immediately. 

This requires addressing both critical policing issues and the failure of parliament to exercise proper oversight. 

This article draws on the research by the author contained in the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) working paper and chapter contribution to the forthcoming research volume, Protest in South Africa: Rejection, Reassertion, Reclamation (Johannesburg, Mistra), to be published in early 2023.

Mary de Haas is an advocate and an activist for political and human rights, human dignity and social justice.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.