“Myriad” factors behind July 2021 riots – SAHRC

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Three days of unrest, violence and looting in July 2021 cost South Africa 350 lives and saw the national economy bleed to the tune of R50 billion.

In its 250 plus page report on the events, described by some as the “three bloodiest days in South Africa’s democratic history”, the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has it that “myriad factors” contributed to the outbreak of destruction and violence. It started in KwaZulu-Natal, with some observers pointing to the brief incarceration of Jacob Zuma at the Estcourt Correctional Centre as the ignition point, before spreading to Gauteng.

The SAHRC report was released yesterday (Monday, 29 January) with Commissioner Philile Ntuli, as reported by SAnews, saying: “The violence and destruction were symptomatic of unresolved systemic conditions, including post-COVID-19 economic recovery, high unemployment, lawlessness, discrimination, socio-economic divides and issues within the security sector”.

“The Commission concluded that organised groups and individuals opportunistically exploited these conditions to attempt to usurp the rule of law.”

She described the unrest as well orchestrated and “a violent culmination of deep-rooted political and social challenges”.

“Evidence indicated that the acts during the unrest were well orchestrated, including the blocking of the N3, destruction of factories and warehouses, attack on government communication facilities and bombing and theft of ATMs. These events were interconnected and required significant resources.

“Two types of actors were identified during the unrest: primary actors, who led and executed widespread destruction and secondary actors, who participated in theft. The timing of the events coincided with the incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma, leading to a perception that the two were related.”

She said the Commission “did not receive clear evidence identifying specific groups or individuals as primary actors, while… the common purpose or intention behind the unrest remained unclear”.

In her concluding remarks, Ntuli said the July 2021 unrest must be a “marker and a lesson” as South Africa continues its journey “from our colonial past”.

The SA Police Service (SAPS), under the leadership of National Commissioner General Fannie Masemola and Minister Bheki Cele, “noted” the release of the report which “contains various recommendations and findings on the events that took place in July 2021 including on the policing of the unrest, the gathering of intelligence and the response of the SAPS”.

A SAPS statement has it “notable progress” has been made with “key milestones achieved”. These will ensure police are better prepared to respond to incidents such as those of July 2021. Crime intelligence, human and physical resources, public order police (POP), case management and “rebuilding trust” between communities and police are given as examples of forward movement.

With regard to crime intelligence, the SAPS said the filling of critical and key vacancies has been addressed, such as the appointment of a permanent Divisional Commissioner and a Deputy National Commissioner for Crime Detection.

Through Project 10 000, the SAPS trained and deployed 20 000 police officers in the last two years to capacitate frontline policing services, as well as specialised units with a key focus on the Public Order Police unit.

Seventy-nine police officers have been trained and deployed as drone pilots to assist in crime prevention and policing operations.

In the past year, 5 000 police officers have been trained in crowd management and deployed to serve in the POP unit. R150 million was also allocated to procure resources to bolster crowd management equipment for the unit.

Various community policing concepts are being implemented by the SAPS. “Through the Community Police Forum (CPF) and sector crime forums, SAPS is able to forge and promote a shared responsibility on crime prevention and community safety. All 1 163 police stations currently have fully functional CPF forums. R70 million was allocated in this financial year to resource and capacitate these CPF structures,” the SAPS said.

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) is currently investigating eight cases of incitement to commit violence. The DPCI has arrested 68 suspects, 65 of whom were charged for contravening the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act 33 of 2004 (POCDATARA). One accused has already been sentenced to 12 years direct imprisonment for incitement to commit public violence and conspiracy to commit public violence.

One not happy with the SAHRC report is Democratic Alliance (DA) Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence member Dianne Kohler Barnard. She prefaces her comments by calling the events “riots” rather than “unrest” and points out 40 000 businesses were burnt along with 50 000 informal trader outlets leaving 150 000 people without work and causing damage estimated at R50 billion.

The report, according to her, “acknowledges” Zuma’s imprisonment and the subsequent “riots” as protests, violence and looting spread across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. She calls the SAHRC conclusion “perplexing” saying “specifically the assertion there is no evidence linking the timing of the event to Zuma’s incarceration appears unfounded and contradicts the experiences of those who witnessed events first hand”.

“The DA disagrees with the notion that there is no connection between Zuma’s imprisonment and the riots.”

The full SAHRC report can be found here.