ITI in Discussion: Making sense of the July riots in South Africa | Judith February

The violence and looting that took place in South Africa in July 2021 sent shockwaves throughout the country. Liesl Louw-Vaudran spoke to Judith February (pictured above), a well-known South African commentator, and a board member of In Transformation Initiative, about these events.

Firstly, were you surprised by the events in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Gauteng that followed the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma on 7 July?

I was surprised by the nature and the scale of it. We all knew that there would be some sort of kickback against the judgment of the court. There’d been many threats, which were delivered by former president Jacob Zuma, but also by those around him who are his supporters. And there had been news reports about people gathering, but I do think that the nature and the scale of the violence was certainly unprecedented in post-apartheid South Africa and caught me by surprise.

There has since been much debate over the reasons for the widespread looting and destruction. Would you say most of it was the work of instigators or was it largely spontaneous?

To me this question has multiple answers. You certainly had a part of it which was orchestrated. We saw that there were attacks on infrastructure. Particularly, when one looks at the trucks that were burning on the N3. There was a concerted attempt to undermine the authority of the state, but also to break supply lines. And, as I said, to attack infrastructure.

That was one part of it. Another part of it is of course that South Africa is really a tinderbox and all that is needed is a little bit of a spark and you have a wildfire.

You have a mixture of things. You have, as has been widely reported, the deep levels of poverty and inequality in our country. When you have such high levels of youth unemployment, over 52% and when you have 32% of unemployment, by the narrow definition of unemployment that excludes people who’ve given up looking for jobs, then you know that the society is in trouble. We also know that the COVID-19 pandemic has simply worsened people’s situations. It has simply driven more and more people onto the margins of society and increased levels of poverty.

Given all those factors, it creates a toxic mix. At the same time, you also have a degree of instability within the ANC. You have a party which is deeply divided, a party which is factionalised, and a party which has also lost its ethical moorings. And so there are many within the ANC who would side with former president Zuma because they see it as a means to protect themselves, possibly from future prosecutions. If Jacob Zuma, as a former president, can be prosecuted, can put in prison for contempt of court, then others could be too.

If you answer to the faction of the ANC who align them to radical economic transformation, having the former president in prison sends a very strong message and sets a precedent. All of these factors, added together, certainly would make for the toxic mix.

But also, into this vacuum of leadership across society, comes the kinds of actions and the violence that we saw in July.

To me, there are multiple reasons for what happened and to try and reduce it to one reason I think is reductionist and overly simplistic.

Do think that the rumours and fears about a coup d’état or of economic sabotage were justified? Or was there never any intention by whoever instigated this to take it that far?

It is very difficult to tell, because as in most of these things, all this happens within the shadows. But President Ramaphosa has called this “an insurrection” and naming things matter. And of course, if you’re naming something, then you must take concomitant action. So, he labelled it an insurrection, which by its definition is a violent uprising against the government. This certainly could be put in that category.

Rumours of widespread attacks on infrastructure were indeed more than rumours. It was a failed attempt, but it does show us that this is a serious threat to the security and stability of a state. It shows us that there are individuals who were both within cabinet and outside, but certainly within the ANC, who were prepared to step back and to let it all burn, and to tear down the edifice to protect an individual. But also, to protect a raft of individuals who stand to benefit from the chaos. For that reason, if we were looking for a red flag moment, or what I would call it break-glass-now moment, those days in July was it. We don’t get a second chance, really, to try to pull ourselves back from the kind of violence and mutiny that we have seen.

Just looking at the reaction, do you think the security forces should have stepped in earlier and more forcefully, or do you think lives were in fact saved because police used restraint in most cases?

Restraint was a good thing. If you also look at social media, which played a considerable part in mobilizing some of this violence, then you can see that those who were fermenting this violence in a coordinated way had some intention to try to lure the police service into not exercising restraint. Dare one say that Marikana hangs as a dark cloud over President Ramaphosa. And dare one say that perhaps some of those who are the enemy within might have wanted some sort of showdown, where you had blood on the streets, and where you had individuals who were killed because of police brutality, as we saw during the hard COVID-19 lockdown.

That would possibly be a reason for Ramaphosa to be discredited, perhaps even be recalled by his party. And I do believe that it’s for that reason that President Ramaphosa was rather slow to respond.

Having said that, we need to have a much broader conversation about the ability of the South African Police Service to retain or maintain law and order and to keep the peace within communities, but that’s a separate discussion.

I do think, though, that the president was quite slow in the response to this, in terms of deploying members of the SANDF. Although the deployment takes time and there are requirements around that. But it felt too slow, because you saw things burning and we had images on our television screens on a constant loop so that it felt as if there was nobody in charge to stop this violence, to stop the wanton criminality, because part of this was also a wanton criminality.

I do think that it was [initially] a slow response, and the president then, in the next address [a week later], recovered his poise. The second time he was far more assertive when he called this an insurrection, when he said we know who they are. But of course, now that he’s named it and now that he said we know who they are, many weeks have passed by, and we haven’t really had any substantial arrests. And that to me is an enormous problem, both for future uprisings, but also for the rule of law in general.

Then subsequently President Cyril Ramaphosa decided to reshuffle the cabinet. Among other measures, he replaced the minister of defence, but he kept the minister of police in his position. He also centralized the state intelligence services in the presidency. What do you think of these moves as it relates to this recent unrest?

The first point to be made is that the ANC as a party, is, in general, unfit for purpose. We have seen that it is wracked by division. It is also wracked by deep levels of corruption. Just a cursory look at what is happening at the Zonda Commission, shows how deeply entrenched corruption is. What you also have is a dearth of new fresh young faces and young talent that can come in and step into a cabinet and individuals who are skilled and who are ethical. And so, in a sense, the president is constrained by the fact that he heads up a party which is essentially unfit for purpose.

Secondly, he is constrained by realpolitik. He is constrained by the political forces of the moment. We know that he did not win an overwhelming majority at Nasrec [the ANC conference of December 2017], therefore, he has to constantly pussyfoot around that. What he has done, however, is that he has tried to do the reshuffling in a way that brings in certain loyalists. An example is Enoch Godongwana in finance and Joe Phaahla at health.

He has also bought in Mondli Gungubele as the minister in the presidency in place of Jackson Mthembu who sadly passed away. That’s a very important position that requires somebody to be the president’s eyes and ears, but also requires intense loyalty. Ramaphosa is now in a sense putting a ring of steel around himself; to bring in those who are loyal to him.

Unfortunately, he has retained the minister of police. You will always get this trade-off. You had Zweli Mkhize [the former minister of health] caught in egregious allegations of corruption in an SIU [Special Investigative Unit] report that implicated him in the Digital Vibes scandal. He simply had to go, there was no public appetite for him to stay.

Of course, the president must balance the forces in KZN, if he wants to win another term. So Bheki Cele remains. He is a police minister who I would argue is incompetent. He is also somebody who doesn’t foster confidence in individuals when he meets citizens. People are very angry about what he had to say about events in their community. This is not somebody who inspires confidence, but this is the trade-off that the president has had to make. It’s unreasonable to expect the president to have made wholesale changes, because on the one hand he wants to remain in power and on the other hand, he needs to have an executive which can deliver on the promises that he made to the South African public.

One final question: looking ahead, do you think President Ramaphosa was strengthened by the fact that the violence was largely contained in two provinces? Has this allowed him now to make changes? Or is he on shaky ground?

In my view, the president remains on shaky ground. We also saw in his cabinet reshuffle that he has now brought the intelligence services into the presidency. Of course, we know that in terms of section 209 of the Constitution, he can do that. But what it does show is that the crown rests uneasily, that he cannot trust that many people. He is still, in a sense, having to deal with the factional battles within the ANC, as former president Zuma’s corruption trial continues.

This will up the stakes substantially. Where the president is also missing a beat, is that he is trying to retain unity within the party, and in a sense, he is talking to the ANC when he is reshuffling.

What he really should be doing is garnering the support of civil society, of business and of all the social actors, so that together they can form a bulwark against those within the party who would tear down the edifice. He hasn’t really done that. He hasn’t showed himself to have inclusive politics, which is also very strange, given his background. It seems to me that he misses that beat, each time. It is about pandering to the party, but not really speaking directly to the South African public and not really trying to draw citizens into this project, which should be about holding the nation, and not simply about the ANC, together.

If one were an advisor to the president, one would say that he should be trying to deal with, and trying to harness the forces for good, which there are in society and which we saw in the people and in the businesses who were coming to rebuild, in people protecting shopping malls from looters. The goodwill and the resilience are hanging by a thread, as is our constitutional order, but it’s there to be harnessed.

The president would do well, I think, to put his focus there, so that we can move away from this, and I think it’s a lesson for all of us as citizens to move away from an ANC-centric politics to a citizen-centric politics.

ITI in Discussion: Making sense of the July riots in South Africa | Judith February
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