Blame games on high and ugly scars at the bottom

Inquiry hears counter-accusations from those in power who should have protected citizens during the July riots, while those who still suffer the consequences speak of their enduring loss.

The second leg of the South African Human Rights Commission hearings into last year’s July riots in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, which started on 21 February, indicted the state’s security cluster for failing to both anticipate and deal with the carnage.

The Gauteng hearings heard from Minister of Police Bheki Cele, former minister of state security Ayanda Dlodlo and Gauteng’s acting provincial commissioner, major general Tommy Mthombeni of the South African Police Service (SAPS). Their testimonies revealed the inefficiencies in the security services and intelligence failures. 

Community representatives from Alexandra and Soweto who testified also bemoaned the lack of police presence and action during the unrest. They further highlighted the deep disconnect that generally exists between the police and many impoverished communities in the country.

During the week-long riots, at least 354 people were killed across the two provinces, and the cost to the economy was estimated to be around R50 billion. People who were caught in the unrest in parts of Soweto and Alexandra shared what they think fuelled the riots. They mentioned poverty and a lack of proper policing in many areas.

3 August 2021: From left, Minister of Police Bheki Cele and KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala brief the media on what happened in Phoenix during the unrest in July. (Photograph by Darren Stewart/ Getty Images)

Speaking on behalf of residents of Soweto, Themba Makhubela of the Bahlali Baduli Soweto Housing Committee said the unrest has weakened the community’s will and hope. It left an “ugly picture” and uncertainty about the safety and welfare of residents, especially children.

“Poverty has taken the unity and humanity out of our communities. Each family is now on their own. The sense of ubuntu has long died because we are struggling as it is. We saw how family members were working together with their children to take food home … We saw packs of young children [and their parents] rushing to collect food and returning again until they had collected enough. To see children do that was an ugly picture,” said Makhubela. 

He added that on the day the unrest erupted, community leaders, the police and safety forums in the area were overwhelmed as large groups of people entered local shopping centres. He says the state failed to protect Soweto, despite the fact that there were numerous warnings and tip-offs that spread on social media before and throughout the week of the riots. 

A chain of problems

Tshidi Madisakoane, a representative from the Meadowlands Community Forum, also testified. She said the unrest’s impact has been worse for women. “Women here have no places and spaces of safety. We rely on our own homes, churches and schools to assist communities. The shops and malls that were destroyed in July also played a role in providing food parcels and aid at the height of Covid-19 in the country.” 

Madisakoane also remarked that when “women and their homes are unstable, unsafe and unvalued, all of society suffers”, and that women are “spectators in the economy; the girl child continues to feel ignored and helpless”.

Benjamin Tshisari from Alexandra said many residents looted because they were impoverished. He also said there was little police or state intervention during the unrest. While sharing footage of isolated incidents that took place during the unrest, Tshisari added that there were strong elements of organised crime during the looting in shopping centres. He says there were “a number of people who were arrested and cases went under the table and they were released”.

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On 9 July 2021, just before the unrest began, the public protector released a report on the Alexandra “shutdown” protests of 2019. The report held, in part, that the state fails to recognise the socioeconomic rights of the residents of Alexandra. 

“Without legally secure tenure and running water, sanitation and electricity and clean streets to live in, people in Alex will continue to live in situations that pose an ongoing violation to their right to live a dignified life,” the report said. It added that Covid-19 introduced new complexities to the problems of the 110-year-old township. 

According to the report, Alex, which occupies a surface area of about 800 hectares, has a population of about 750 000 residents who mostly live in cramped and overcrowded conditions.

Cluster failures

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who was defence minister at the time of the unrest, testified at the first leg of the hearings near Durban. She said that the South African National Defence Force did not receive cooperation from KwaZulu-Natal police. She added that the province’s police commissioner, Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, was disrespectful and hostile towards a team of ministers and senior officials from the defence and state security departments at a meeting in Durban.

Cele, on the other hand, blamed the police’s inaction on a lack of resources. He said that is why they failed to detect and control the violence. He claimed he did not receive any intelligence reports from either the police’s crime intelligence division or the State Security Agency (SSA).

But Dlodlo – when she appeared at the hearing on 22 February, a day after Cele testified – said her office had issued orange and red alerts since 1 December 2020. She added that a red alert had been issued on 22 January 2021 warning against a shutdown, and an orange alert went out about a planned shutdown on 29 April. “A total of 11 alerts were issued between March and July 2021,” she said.

A red alert, according to the SSA, means there is an impending threat to life and property. Orange means there is instability but no real danger to life and property, and a yellow alert is for when there is a high risk of something that has already happened occurring again.

21 July 2021: Members of the South African National Defence Force guard Jabulani Mall after the protests in Soweto and other parts of the country. (Photograph by Sharon Seretlo/ Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Dlodlo said more alerts were sent to the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoints) from 3 to 7 May 2021. She said she submitted some of the alerts to President Cyril Ramaphosa directly. “These intelligence briefings and alerts were provided to the South African Police Service before and during the unrest. But I might also clarify it was not only to the SAPS but to NatJoints, which is chaired by SAPS and co-chaired by [the SSA] and the Department of Defence,” says Dlodlo.

A report by a Ramaphosa-appointed expert panel released on 29 November 2021 revealed that state institutions had failed to anticipate the unrest. It also pointed fingers at political factions as part of the problem. “The political environment which prevails, especially within the ranks of the ruling party, has become a source of instability and should be remedied.

“It appeared not many members of the executive, at all levels of government, appreciated the meaning of the warnings raised in the National Intelligence Coordinating Committee reports, and accordingly largely ignored them. The need to stop corruption in the government and start addressing the needs of the people kept being kicked down the road, like the proverbial can,” the report stated.

The contradictory testimonies of Cele and Dlodlo laid bare the inefficiencies of the two bodies responsible for protecting the country and its citizens. 

The hearings are expected to continue until 4 March 2022.

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