DON'T MISS : Talking Africa Podcast – Mozambique's insurgency: After Palma, what comes next?

South Africa: Riots catch law enforcers sleeping on the job

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Monday, 19 July 2021 13:00, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 08:26

An armed policeman patrols as Police Minster Bheki Cele visits Phoenix, a neighbourhood severely affected by unrest and racial tensions near Durban, South Africa, Saturday, July 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed)

Divisions in South Africa's intelligence services meant that a five-day spree of violence and looting took law enforcement agencies by surprise, following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma on 7 July.

At least 212 people died, and more than 2500 were arrested after at least 161 malls, 11 warehouses and 8 factories were looted. The damage is estimated to be worth R15bn ($1bn) and will cost the economy even more.

The riots were concentrated in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal but also spread to parts of Gauteng. Most shops in Durban were destroyed, leaving people queuing for hours for basic necessities such as bread and fuel. Police identified 12 instigators but haven’t named them and only one has been arrested.

Admission of failure

Ministers admitted that they were caught napping. “There was intelligence, I think, but [it] came in too late,” defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told an urgent meeting with members of parliament on Wednesday [14 July]. Three days earlier she said it was not necessary to deploy troops because the country was not facing a war.

But the violence and looting intensified: by Wednesday, all the SA National Defence Force’s troops – about 25,000 – were deployed.

The narrative of being threatened by a powerful underground movement consisting of elements of the MK military veterans, spies and other masterminds, also benefits Ramaphosa – who will seek re-election as party president at the end of next year.

Mapisa-Nqakula said although information (about planned blocking of major routes in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng) posted on social media networks ahead of time turned out to be 80 to 90% correct, security agencies only realised this in hindsight.

A special WhatsApp group that included African National Congress branch members and councillors had also been created to plan the sabotage; but it’s unclear why the information on the group wasn’t acted on.

The N3 toll road between Durban and Johannesburg remained closed for a week, as did parts of the N2, effectively cutting the port city off from the rest of the country, after trucks were hijacked and burnt there.

Attempted coup?

“These actions are intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken – or even dislodge – the democratic state,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said during a televised address on Friday.

In line with newspaper reports that the violence was merely the first phase ahead of further attacks, Ramaphosa said: “The threat to our country and to our democracy remains present and real. Those responsible for organising this campaign of violence and destruction have not yet been apprehended and their networks have not yet been dismantled.”

Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that some of the sabotage plans were hatched during well-publicised ‘tea parties’ that Zuma had with allies at his homestead in Nkandla, rural KwaZulu-Natal in February. The meetings were said to have been attempts to persuade Zuma to testify before the state capture commission – a judicial inquiry focusing on the large-scale corruption that took place during his time as president from 2009 to 2018. Zuma was not persuaded and refused to comply with a constitutional court order to testify, resulting in a 15-month jail sentence.

Julius Malema posted threats that his supporters would join the protests if the army was deployed; but this hasn’t happened as yet.

Last year, Ramaphosa’s sympathisers were already concerned that liberation veterans who belonged to the ANC’s armed wing – Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – as well as traditional Amazulu regiments called Amabutho – based in Zuma’s home province – could conspire to plot a coup.

Around the same time, Lieutenant-General Mojo Motau  (the retired head of military intelligence) had called some defence force members to a meeting to express his displeasure with Ramaphosa’s leadership of the ANC; but he was publicly slammed by defence chiefs.

Zuma’s intelligence roots

As an underground operative and the ANC’s enigmatic intelligence head in exile during the pre-1994 liberation struggle, Zuma has a wide network in South Africa and the region, stretching back decades. Subsequently, in his campaign to become ANC leader in 2007, Zuma had used agents in the state intelligence services who were sympathetic to him.

According to a high-level report compiled in 2018 by former safety and security minister Sydney Mufamadi, the state security agency “had largely become a parallel intelligence structure serving a faction of the ruling party and, in particular, the personal political interests of the sitting president of the party and country,” under his presidency.

Former and current intelligence agents were recently irked when Mufamadi testified on his report in front of the state state capture commission, saying the revelations would compromise their work.

Although the violence subsided with the deployment of the army, protests could intensify in the months and years ahead if the underlying factors are not addressed.

The identity of Thulani Dlomo, a former spy, has been leaked to News24 as one of the prime suspects but he has denied it. Dlomo, whose whereabouts were unknown to the state in recent months, was appointed to the state security agency by Zuma in 2009. He previously worked for the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government and claims to have been trained by Russia’s KGB during the anti-apartheid struggle. Zuma appointed him ambassador to Japan in 2017 but he was recalled and fired by Ramaphosa when he took over the next year.

State security minister Ayanda Dlodlo has expressed her dismay about the revelation of state secrets before the commission. In the past week, divisions between her and her deputy – Zizi Kodwa – who is close to Ramaphosa, were also exposed. Whereas Dlodlo has denied the involvement of intelligence agents in recent events, Kodwa said the agency shouldn’t take such claims lightly.

Smoke and mirrors?

Nel Marais, who worked for South Africa’s intelligence services for two decades and now heads risk management company Thabiti, is not convinced that the recent violence was purely an act of treason and economic sabotage.

“The ANC has a history of shifting responsibility to some plot or foreign entity. If you read their policy documents, there is always a reference to foreign agents or interference in politics,” he says. “The ANC doesn’t want to acknowledge in public that a large part of the reason for what is happening here is how South Africa looks socio-politically.”

The narrative of being threatened by a powerful underground movement consisting of elements of the MK military veterans, spies and other masterminds, also benefits Ramaphosa – who will seek re-election as party president at the end of next year.

The majority of South Africans are giving up the aspirations of employment because employment opportunities are on the decline.

Zuma’s incarceration sparked the riots, but “the momentum then went over into plundering and criminality,” Marais says. Afterwards, political elements got onto the bandwagon without directly claiming responsibility. Opposition Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, for instance, posted threats that his supporters would join the protests if the army was deployed; but this hasn’t happened as yet.

One of Zuma’s most public supporters, spokesperson of the recently-disbanded MK Military Veterans Association, Carl Niehaus, addressed a press conference on a gospel streaming channel on Friday, during which he presented a list of demands to Ramaphosa: one of them was Zuma’s release. Incidentally, Niehaus – in the apartheid years – was implicated in trying to blow up Johannesburg Gas Works as an act of anti-apartheid sabotage. However, he has denied involvement in plotting the recent riots.

Marais says he doesn’t have information to make an authoritative judgement; but in his view, the looting of malls isn’t enough to bring down a government. He says if he were tasked to organise such an operation, he “would have brought in [other provinces] like the Free State, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape and emphasised targeting of power stations, water reservoirs and railway lines.” He says the state security agency has been so obsessed with restructuring in recent years that the “quality of intelligence and analysis is not up to scratch”.

Inequality the real threat

Analysts say over the past 18 months, the almost daily service delivery protests over issues like water provision, housing and electricity, should have been a warning sign.

Bheki Mahlobo, economic researcher at the Johannesburg-based Centre for Risk Analysis says high levels of unemployment played a role. Job losses in recent times, some due to the Covid-19 lockdown, mean that South Africa’s unemployment levels have reached a record high of 32.5%, or 43.2% if you include discouraged job seekers.

“The majority of South Africans are giving up the aspirations of employment because employment opportunities are on the decline,” he told SABC radio on Wednesday [14 July]. “These are the factors that led to these protests. These are not the first protests that have been happening but it’s the first on this scale.”

Many people were left desperate when the government recently suspended the R350 (€20] Covid-19 grant. Three weeks ago, the country went into a tough lockdown again as new infections surged, and psychology could have also played a role in fuelling the violence.

Although the riots subsided following the deployment of the army, protests could intensify in the months and years ahead if the underlying factors are not addressed, Mahlobo said.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options