Cele was testifying during the Gauteng leg of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) national investigative hearing into July’s unrest.
The unrest, which swept through parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, was sparked by supporters of former president Jacob Zuma, who had just been incarcerated at the Estcourt Correctional Centre for contempt of court. The week-long riots that followed resulted in the looting and destruction of property and the deaths of at least 342 people.
President Cyril Ramaphosa called the unrest a failed insurrection.
On Monday, Cele said the unrest indeed had the characteristics of an insurrection, insofar as it sought to undermine arms of the state — including law enforcement.
Earlier in his testimony, Cele recounted the various failures of the police’s response, which an expert panel report found “was not effective and appropriate under the circumstances”.
The report, which was handed to Ramaphosa earlier in February, said: “It may be understandable that they did not have intelligence upon which they could have planned their operations in the initial stages of the looting, but once it went into subsequent days they should have changed their plans.”
In his affidavit to the SAHRC, Cele said there was no concerted or integrated effort from SAPS 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”.
But, Cele said on Monday, the failures of the police should be seen against the backdrop of a campaign by riot instigators to delegitimise them. Instigators took to social media to threaten police officers, he said.
“There was information to say police have joined us. There would be information to say we have all forms of guns … What I know about the police is that there was a lot of fear.”
The failure of the police to demonstrate the capacity to respond effectively to the riots, in turn, “led to fear and panic in communities who perceived themselves to be under attack”, the expert panel report found.
“In the absence of visible policing (in fact, some police were seen participating
or encouraging the looting, or told communities that they, the police, were not paid
enough) communities that perceived themselves and their businesses to be under
threat vowed to ‘defend themselves’,” the report added.
Such was the case in Phoenix, Durban, where self-styled community patrols harassed, victimised and — in 36 known cases — took the law into their own hands and killed black people from neighbouring townships, apparently in retaliation for the looting.