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SAHRC Unrest Hearing: ‘Instigators shifted the modus operandi and changed hotspots’ says police commissioner

Major-General Kevin James, KwaZulu-Natal police commissioner Lieutenant General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and Major-General Phume Mkhoba at the South African Human Rights Commission National Investigation hearing into the July unrest. I Wisani Baloyi

Major-General Kevin James, KwaZulu-Natal police commissioner Lieutenant General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and Major-General Phume Mkhoba at the South African Human Rights Commission National Investigation hearing into the July unrest. I Wisani Baloyi

Published Dec 1, 2021

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DURBAN - NATIONAL Police Commissioner Lieutenant General Khehla Sitole said the Crime Intelligence Unit (CI) was underresourced with outdated technology and its early warning report on the July unrest lacked specifics to help police counter and plan better.

KwaZulu-Natal police commissioner Lieutenant General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi also gave a blow-by-blow account of what transpired between July 4 and 15 immediately after the Constitutional Court judgment against former president Jacob Zuma.

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They were cross-examined on Tuesday at the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) National Investigative Hearing into the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Sitole said the instigators shifted the modus operandi and changed hotspots.

This stretched an already under-resourced police service. Sitole said the SAPS establishment was “going down”. He laid the blame on budget cuts and scaling down of personnel in the SAPS.

“Instead of improving the situation, we foresee more conflicts because of the ratio of police to the increase in the general population of South Africa.”

More than 300 people died and R25 billion in damages was caused to businesses and public infrastructure in the provinces during the unrest.

Sitole said intervention, stabilisation and normalisation plans eventually stopped the unrest. Many incidents were foiled, he said. He explained that the term “police were nowhere to be found” was incorrect. Sitole said police were in hot spots and they were overstretched. They needed support he said, adding that there were more than 2 300 shopping malls in the provinces.

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“Looting took place at the malls. We could not do enough to cover all the malls at the same time and respond to sporadic demand. The criminals behind the modus operandi were doing their own study on our deployments. They consistently moved.”

Sitole said the modus operandi was unknown. SAHRC panel advocate Smanga Sethene said Sitole was in charge of the SAPS and the accounting officer of a budget of R96.36 billion, since his appointment in 2017.

“He should have the requisite qualifications,” said Sethene.

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He asked Sitole if it was a gross dereliction of duty that the CI did not have an intelligence report. Sitole denied this. Sethene said Sitole had not done anything to improve the SAPS since taking office. He asked Sitole why he thought he should continue being the national commissioner.

Sitole replied that he could still do the job. Sitole admitted that President Cyril Ramaphosa and Police Minister Bheki Cele were not provided with an intelligence report before the unrest outbreak.

Sitole said the head of the police’s Crime Intelligence Division, Lieutenant-General Yolisa Mokgabudi, resigned on September 1.

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South African Police commissioner Lieutenant General Khehla Sitole. I Phando Jikelo

In KZN, Mkhwanazi said, there were 18 000 police officers.

The SAPS Public Order Policing Unit (POP) had 985 members and KZN had a population of 11 million, he added.

Mkhwanazi felt that speaking about the lack of CI in public could alert the enemy and they could plan another attack. He said POP dealt with crowd management and protests; in April (202), May (219) and June (268). In July, POP was still busy with other protests when the unrest broke out.

Mkhwanazi said police noticed a large gathering of media personnel in Nkandla outside Zuma’s home. He said people began debating and sharing their views on the judgment on live television. Police, he said, noted the mood of the province change.

“What happened in Nkandla triggered anger.

“We could see the potential of danger. Circulating on social media were messages to attack police officers and stations and take firearms. If we had the authority, police would have switched off all transmissions so people could continue with their own businesses.”

On July 2, he emailed head office, requesting additional resources. The next day 174 additional police arrived in KZN. On July 11, 315 more arrived and two additional helicopters arrived in KZN. On July 15, 451 SANDF members arrived, which increased to 5 000.

Assisting the SAPS were 700 Durban Metro police officers and about 600 Road Traffic Inspectorate personnel.

Mkhwanazi said they had already developed a contingency plan – all key points were protected by the SAPS until the SANDF arrived.

On July 9, en route to Empangeni, Mkhwanazi said, his police contingent came across a roadblock where trucks were stopped and made to off-load their cargo of rubble on the roadside. He felt it was an isolated incident but later that night trucks were torched on the N3.

Mkhwanazi said they had a meeting and he advised truck owners to work during the day only until the situation was resolved.

Officers had worked on a two-shift system for seven days without rest. He said they made sacrifices despite the threats they and their families faced. These threats were made by instigators using social media.

Mkhwanazi said the police were well stocked with stun grenades and rubber bullets. In the wake of the violence, 281 bodies were recovered. Some died in stampedes.

Statistics presented were that 7 122 dockets were opened and 3 903 people were arrested. To prevent congestion, those with petty offences were released on warning.

He went to Phoenix after hearing about the racial tension and African police officers being assaulted at barricades set up.

“The residents of Phoenix did help us with investigations. Not all of them must be painted with the same brush. I went alone. It was like a war zone, with barricades everywhere.”

The hearing continues.

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