The alluring illusion of a master plan

JULY 2021

The alluring illusion of a master plan

Two Chapter Nine commission reports on the violence and unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July 2021 do not offer easy answers, writes PIET CROUCAMP.


THE South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) hosted eight months of public hearings as part of efforts to understand the unrest, violence and subsequent human rights violations of July 2021 in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. A similar investigation was conducted by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. Their reports were issued jointly this week.

This deeply dark account begins with the most melancholic literary reference imaginable. In 1981, Nadine Gordimer published July's People, an “astonishingly prognostic story" of South Africa undergoing a liberation war and revolution 30 years after the fall of apartheid. The privileged who have benefited from the race-based system for decades are fleeing the violence. But the airports are bombed, stopping the fugitives in their tracks. The anarchic devastation engulfs South Africa and its people.

The reality of July 2021 did not threaten white South Africans politically and the violence was confined to parts of KZN and Gauteng, but people  close to the eye of the storm in those days bear witness to frightening scenes and terrifying experiences. About 353 people lost their lives in the violence. In Phoenix, a predominantly Indian suburb north of Durban, 36 people died. The report finds that racism in Phoenix and the marginalisation of black South Africans fuelled the carnage. 

The known figures are too rounded to be reliable, but it is reckoned that 40,000 businesses and 50,000 informal traders were destructively affected. Approximately 150,000 people's jobs were in jeopardy and the financial damage was estimated at R50 billion.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

The context

The unrest took place in the midst of a tense social, economic and political period. The communities in KZN and Gauteng, like the rest of South Africa, were still struggling to come to terms with the costs and consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The country was at adjusted alert level 4 from June 28 to July 25, 2021.  

In the period immediately preceding the pandemic, the International Monetary Fund described South Africa as “an extremely unequal society, with high and rising unemployment". By June 2021, South Africa had moved from a 29% unemployment rate to a record high 34.4%, and that's when disregarding the million people who had already decided there was no point looking for work.  

Political killings were a morbid feature of political competition in KZN. The night of former president Jacob Zuma's arrest on July 8, 2021 saw 25 heavy vehicles set alight at the Mooi River Plaza, although this was not a new kind of violence since arson attacks on trucks on the N3 and at the plaza had been happening for more than a decade. 

The government does not have the capacity to be authoritarian, but in the absence of a caring state, poor communities live in the pressure cooker of corrupt officials, violent warlords, a criminalised informal political economy, and in relative deprivation. This is the KZN of July's People. 

The Zuma Factor 

On June 29, 2021, the Constitutional Court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for disregarding an order to give evidence at the Zondo commission's investigation into allegations of high-level corruption during his tenure.  It was almost midnight on Wednesday July 7, 2021 when Zuma finally left Nkandla in a convoy of vehicles after a tense wait to hand himself over to the police. Rumour has it that the tension between his security personnel and the police was partly defused by some of them being rotated in the preceding days.

In KZN, the political tension was unbearable, with the first looting and damage to property starting almost immediately afterwards. Allegations that a pro-Zuma faction of the ANC was  refusing to accept his imprisonment and had been planning and orchestrating the violence for some time have been made all over social media.

In response to a question about allegations that the violence was deliberately fuelled by  ANC branches, the party's deputy secretary-general at the time, Jesse Duarte, said “the leadership is not aware of party structures holding talks to create the wave of violence”. Duarte was clearly unsure of the facts herself and the fear — or rather the perception — even in the Union Buildings that the former president's detention had given rise to the violence, did not want to go away.

On July 16, President Cyril Ramaphosa described the events as follows: “The events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy, intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken — or even dislodge — the democratic state." Ramaphosa was under the impression that his political enemies in KZN were trying to overthrow his regime. The distinction between widespread unrest and crime and a political revolution is probably blurred.

Ghost stories and popcorn  

Social media has a built-in incredulity, but in the daily newspapers and from their couches political commentators peddled the theory that the violence was carefully planned and executed. Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, Zuma's daughter, halfheartedly denied messages from her Twitter account calling on people to “set the country on fire". There was little doubt that it was she who warned from Nkandla: “You will reap what you sow," presumably a reference to Ramaphosa.

The Jacob Zuma Foundation's Mzwanele Manyi said in an interview with the SABC that everything was in the hands of the Constitutional Court and that what was happening was the result of the court's decision. He described the protests and violence as a “righteous anger because of the injustice against President Zuma". Ghost stories sold like popcorn.

Seductive theories

Ultimately, the two Chapter Nine commissions came to the conclusion that the events of July 2021 were orchestrated. The blocking of the N3 and the N2, the calculated destruction of factories and warehouses, the organised disconnection of security and fire alarm systems, the attack on government communications facilities at the Durban port and the bombing and removal of ATMs show a nexus that cannot be ignored.

According to their report, the evidence points to two types of actors involved in and during the July unrest. “Primary actors who were well-equipped directed and carried out the widespread destruction of property and committed arson attacks. They in turn mobilised secondary actors, who participated in acts of theft at shopping centres and other business premises." This is probably quite correct, but still does not mean there was a preplanned blueprint with political or criminal actors controlling the process. It just means that already operational warlords, criminals, officials and corrupt politicians had taken advantage of the volatility to do what they had been doing for decades.

The report casts doubt on the theory that the violence was orchestrated by arguing: “However, it will ultimately be within the competence of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the National Prosecuting Authority to make a conclusive finding on the orchestration of the unrest." Well, most of the report is devoted to the reality that the state is totally incapable of acting at all in situations like that of July 2021.

The police and state security

The report is rightly absolutely damning as far as the state and the government are concerned. In 2021, Bheki Cele was in charge of the SAPS and Ayanda Dlodlo the minister of state security. The report comes to the following conclusion: “The government's shortcomings in terms of intelligence and the ability to effectively make information available played a significant role in the escalation of the unrest." And the police were totally “unprepared" for the orchestrated attacks.

The commissions refer to the police of Cele in terms with which South Africans are well familiar. Much has been made of the inadequate training, poor equipment and insufficient resources that characterised the state's response. The intelligence services of the state have been suspected for some time of being corrupt and even criminal; the report puts it as follows: “The lack of appropriate action in response to the initial signs of unrest led to criminal activities such as theft, arson and wilful damage to property".

The context of this conclusion is the state's inadequate response to cyber incitement and the impossible working relationship between the police minister and the then national police commissioner, Khehla Sitole, which not only harmed the state's intelligence but also the effectiveness of the SAPS. The national joint operational and intelligence structure (NatJoints) simply failed to respond in a timely manner to security risks, information and early warnings. The condemnation of the SAPS and by implication Cele as minister runs through the report but Ramaphosa does not seem to have taken note of this.

And now in the aftermath 

The reports of the two commissions give a good overview of the events in South Africa's darkest hour since the violence that ravaged KZN in the 1990s, when an estimated 20,000 people lost their lives. However, I doubt that they will distract Ramaphosa and the ANC from the election in May.

Without exception, individuals arrested in the aftermath of July 2021 were opportunists who wanted to keep the flames burning and fuel the criminality. It has nothing to do with a political revolution or with Zuma's arrest. There are not many researchers in South Africa who really understand the nature and origins of social unrest and apparent political violence.

What the reports do confirm is that crime, social unrest and political violence take place in a complex architecture of seemingly common interests, and therefore it is easy to buy into the illusion of a master plan. Yet it is a fallacy similar to the ironic orderliness of the Big Bang theory that leads some of us to believe that patterned regularities are the result of intelligent design.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.