South Africa/Zuma: Police and army on high alert as ministers play down risk of violence

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Friday, 17 December 2021 08:37

Former South African President Jacob Zuma speaks with his legal counsel in court during his corruption trial in Pietermaritzburg
Former South African President Jacob Zuma speaks with his legal counsel in court during his corruption trial in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, October 26, 2021. Jerome Delay/Pool via REUTERS

With the news that Jacob Zuma may be forced to return to jail come concerns that South Africa could be plunged into the same violence. Though ministers say it is under control, the security services are stepping up their vigilance.

Supporters of former President Jacob Zuma have threatened violence worse than the deadly riots in July should he be forced back into prison. A court overturned his medical parole on Wednesday, but security cluster ministers have downplayed the threat.

Deployment directive

Shortly after the judgement on Wednesday, the joint special operations of the police and military issued a directive for members to be ready to deploy at 25 hours notice.

South African National Defence Forces have also been ordered to be “combat ready and on standby for deployment” to protect national key points and infrastructure, as well as to assist in roadblocks and patrols.

However, Police Minister Bheki Cele said this state of readiness is normal for the festive season, although police want to be ‘extra agile this time’, while Defence Minister Thandi Modise told the same press conference on Thursday morning that the South African National Defence Force “had not actually decided to get on standby simply because of a court ruling”.

Soldiers have also been stationed along toll roads and especially the economically-important N3 highway from the port city of Durban, where the riots started with the torching of goods trucks and the blocking of roads in the days that followed Zuma’s incarceration.

Traffic volumes on this road are at their highest this time of the year as those living in inland provinces use it to get to coastal areas during the Christmas holidays, which unofficially start on 16 December, Reconciliation Day, a public holiday.

Modise said: “We cannot afford a situation as a country where trucks block very strategic economic routes, which not only affect South Africa, but [also] affect the whole of SADC [the Southern African Development Community]”.

She said the military is on standby because “we have been observing this trend of trucks that keep on hindering the free movement of innocent South Africans and [this is] affecting the standing of this country internationally”.

More than 360 people died in the July violence, which wiped R50bn ($3.1bn) off the country’s GDP.

Special report due

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office is still awaiting a final report by an expert panel on the failings in the country’s response to the July riots, which News24 reported could result in further shake-ups in the security cluster.

“I know they are towards the end of that process,” Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele says about the panel’s report. It is headed by University of Pretoria academic Sandy Africa, who was appointed by Ramaphosa during a cabinet reshuffle in August, when he scrapped the state security ministry and moved the intelligence functions into his office.

Gungubele, however, claims steps have already been taken to prevent a repeat of the July violence. “The ministers [Cele and Modise] and the security cluster have been learning from everything that is emerging from that process. We are not awaiting the end of that,” he says.

Riots fall-out

Victims have testified before the South African Human Rights Commission that police officers looked on as shops were torched and looted in a week of violence concentrated mainly in KwaZulu-Natal and part of Gauteng provinces, while Cele blamed his own police management for failing to plan for the unrest, among the worst witnessed since the country became a democracy in 1994.

There has never been a situation where a former Head of State has been incarcerated, and we will all agree this was an unprecedented situation.

Meanwhile, as some of the instigators appeared before court, the masterminds of what some in government have called an ‘insurrection’ have still not publicly been identified. The violence followed threats of a coup d’etat from Ramaphosa’s detractors within the governing African National Congress.

Sporadic violent attacks on trucks carrying goods, accompanied by calls for foreign drivers to be barred from working in South Africa, have continued along the N3 – the main highway from the Durban port to Gauteng and further into the region.

South African National Defence Forces have been ordered to be “combat ready and on standby for deployment” to protect national key points and infrastructure, as well as to assist in roadblocks and patrols.

Judgement appealed

Meanwhile, hours after the judgement that ordered the former president back to prison, the Department of Correctional Services, as well as Zuma, filed an application for leave to appeal. Zuma’s lawyers argue that sending him back to the correctional facility in Estcourt is “tantamount to the death sentence which was abolished in 1995 in South Africa”.

On Wednesday, the Pretoria High Court ruled that prisons boss and Zuma ally Arthur Fraser was guilty of “unlawful intervention” when he suddenly announced Zuma’s release in September.

Medical parole is usually reserved for prisoners who are dying or physically incapacitated, but the court ruled that none of the reports Fraser relied on to release Zuma had found this to be the case.

Fraser, instead, justified his decision to release Zuma barely two months into a 15-month sentence for contempt of the Constitutional Court after he refused to testify before a corruption inquiry by saying Zuma’s death in custody could have “dire consequences” and “could have ignited events similar to that of July 2022”.

He also argued that Zuma would have been eligible for ordinary parole within seven weeks of his decision, and said: “There has never been a situation where a former Head of State has been incarcerated, and we will all agree this was an unprecedented situation.”

The court, however, ruled that this argument negated the constitutional right of all people to be treated equally before the law.

Who is Arthur Fraser?

Fraser, whose contract as correctional services commissioner expired at the end of September, is a long-time ally of Zuma and previously worked in the country’s intelligence services. In 2009, Fraser allegedly gave secret tape recordings to Zuma’s legal team, which resulted in corruption proceedings against the former president being dropped, paving the way for him to become president.

Zuma appointed Fraser the director-general of the State Security Agency in 2016, where he set up a parallel intelligence network that squandered up to R1bn ($62.8m) in tax money, according to a 2018 report by a panel that was appointed by Ramaphosa to look into intelligence abuses. It also reported that intelligence agencies were used in internal party battles in the ANC. Fraser dismissed the report and said the panel had lied to the president.

Ramaphosa moved Fraser from intelligence to correctional services in April 2018, two months after he became president.

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