SAHRC Report: How politics and social media drove July 2021 unrest

The aftermath of the looting, which took place at Chris Hani Mall, Vosloorus. Stores were completely vandalised and only damaged. Picture: Itumeleng English/ Independent Newspapers

The aftermath of the looting, which took place at Chris Hani Mall, Vosloorus. Stores were completely vandalised and only damaged. Picture: Itumeleng English/ Independent Newspapers

Published Jan 29, 2024


The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) investigative report into the July 2021 unrest has shone the spotlight on how social media and political factors drove the unrest that resulted in over 350 people being killed and cost R50 billion to an already fragile economy.

In July 2021, South Africa was shaken by a period of severe unrest, notably in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which not only disrupted the country's socio-economic stability but also exposed deep-rooted socio-political challenges. The SAHRC investigative report presents a detailed analysis of these events, offering insights into their causes and proposing solutions to prevent future occurrences.

The unrest left an indelible mark on South Africa's economy. President Cyril Ramaphosa reflected on the sense of betrayal felt by many as they witnessed the devastation of their nation. About 25% of the affected businesses couldn't reopen, leading to significant job losses and a 1.5% contraction in the economy.

The estimated damage amounted to R50 billion,with the repercussions extending beyond businesses to communities, particularly in black townships, exacerbating challenges faced by already marginalised groups.

The Commission's report reveals that the unrest, including strategic blockades and targeted destruction, was orchestrated, not spontaneous.

The unrest coincided with the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, suggesting a political motive aimed at destabilising the economy.

However, a conclusive determination of the orchestration's political linkages falls to the SAPS and NPA, the report noted.

In addition, the report highlighted that a significant aspect of the unrest was the inadequacy of the government's intelligence and security response.

The strained relationship between the Minister of Police and the National Commissioner of Police affected intelligence sharing and the overall response of the SAPS. The report highlights the need for a more capable and responsive government.

The testimonies at the commission hearings pointed to a lack of police presence during the unrest, and when present, the police were outnumbered and overwhelmed.

This led to businesses and community members taking matters into their own hands, often risking their own safety.

The role of the State Security Agency (SSA) and South African Police Service (SAPS) in intelligence gathering and response was heavily criticised, highlighting a need for a more capable and responsive government.

Testimonies during the Commission's hearings revealed a consensus that the acts of destruction were orchestrated, not spontaneous.

The unrest was seen as a direct attack on South Africa's economic stability, with critical infrastructure like the N3 highway, warehouses, and communication systems in KwaZulu-Natal's ports being targeted.

Political discord within the ANC was cited as a primary motivator, with the unrest being used as a tool to express opposition to the current administration.

The Commission's report also delves into the role of social media in fueling the unrest. The rapid spread of misinformation and incendiary narratives on these platforms played a crucial role in mobilising and polarising groups. The report emphasises the need for more robust monitoring of social media platforms and public education on responsible online communication to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

The unrest was not just a result of political machinations but also an expression of deep-rooted socio-economic grievances.

The Commission underlined how pre-existing conditions of unemployment, poverty, and marginalisation, particularly among black communities, provided fertile ground for the unrest to take hold.

The failure of the state to intervene in improving living conditions and the continued legacy of spatial apartheid were cited as significant contributors to the sense of disenfranchisement and frustration among the population.

Environmental and Digital Impact

The UPL Cornubia Factory fire, a direct result of the unrest, had severe environmental repercussions. Additionally, the report underscores the role of social media in exacerbating the situation, with the rapid spread of misinformation and incendiary narratives playing a crucial role in mobilising and polarising groups.

Commission’s Recommendations

In response to these issues, the Commission has put forward several key recommendations:

Intelligence Gathering and Management: SSA and Crime Intelligence should enhance their engagement with various societal sectors to improve the quality and management of intelligence. The President is advised to oversee the development of mechanisms for the timely dissemination of information.

Addressing Socio-Economic Inequalities: The government and private sector must urgently address socio-economic inequalities, especially those along racial lines. The Commission emphasises the need for inclusive economic participation and monitoring tools to assess socio-economic initiatives' impact.

Regulating Social Media and Online Platforms: The Commission suggests proactive measures by the Minister of Communications to educate the public about laws against misinformation and disinformation. It also recommends a balanced approach to developing relevant laws and the establishment of an expert-level panel to mitigate online threats.

Meanwhile, the National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) has acknowledged the findings and recommendations of the SAHRC.

The SAPS, which is carefully reviewing the report, has highlighted significant strides in its preparedness for similar incidents. Notably, critical vacancies in the Crime Intelligence sector have been filled, including the roles of a permanent Divisional Commissioner and a Deputy National Commissioner for Crime Detection.

An overhaul of the Crime Intelligence framework is under way to enhance efficiency across provinces.

Project 10,000, a SAPS initiative, has significantly bolstered human and physical resources. In the last two years, 20,000 police officers have been trained and deployed, focusing on front-line services and specialised units like the Public Order Police (POP) unit. Additionally, 79 officers are now trained drone pilots, aiding in crime prevention and operational support.

The POP unit has seen significant development, with 5,000 officers trained in crowd management and an allocation of R150 million for crowd management resources. Training now includes crowd psychology, aiming to improve the handling of public gatherings.

In line with international standards, the SAPS has benchmarked its techniques for crowd control, including the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. However, the service is committed to continuously updating its training and equipment to minimize human rights violations and excessive force.

Rebuilding trust between the SAPS and the communities it serves remains a priority. Through various community engagement programmes such as imbizos, walkabouts, and roadblocks, the SAPS says it is strengthening its ties with the public.

All 1,163 police stations now have active Community Police Forums (CPF), with R70 million allocated this financial year to support these structures.

In terms of case management, SAPS has arrested 5,341 suspects since the unrest, with 505 convictions on charges ranging from murder to arson and malicious damage to property.

Currently, 394 cases are still in court.

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) is handling eight cases of incitement to commit violence.

So far, 68 suspects have been apprehended, with 65 charged under the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act.

One individual has already received a 12-year sentence for incitement to commit public violence.

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