An exercise in futility, SA no closer to the truth

The South African Human Rights Commission released its report into the July 2021 unrest. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/Independent Newspapers

The South African Human Rights Commission released its report into the July 2021 unrest. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/Independent Newspapers

Published Feb 4, 2024


Prof Bheki Mngomezulu

The unrest that engulfed the country in July 2021 took many by surprise. Part of the reason was that nothing similar had ever happened under the post-apartheid political dispensation.

The unrest reminded us of the political turmoil under apartheid, evidenced in protest marches and the subsequent loss of life due to the ruthless response by the regime to the masses’ genuine demands.

The July unrest had devastating consequences that sometimes even surpassed some of the protests that happened under apartheid.

The number of people who died during those few days in July, the infrastructure which was destroyed and the businesses that were grounded and never recovered are but some of the consequences of the riots.

A few questions arise. Were these riots unavoidable? Which individuals are to blame for this devastating part of our post-apartheid history? Are there institutions that should shoulder the blame for playing their part in creating fertile ground for the riots to occur? Were the riots properly handled? Importantly, what should be done to avoid a similar incident happening again?

The report released by the South African Human Rights Commission on January 29, aims to address some of the questions. In this article, I do a cogent analysis of the content of the report so that it makes sense to the layman on the ground. The conclusions and recommendations contained in the report are critical in revealing the bigger picture and mapping the way forward.

First, the report acknowledges the devastating impact of the July 2021 unrest. It reports that besides the more than 350 people who lost their lives, the unrest cost the country’s economy around R50 billion. Moreover, around two million jobs were lost. Surely, there were other serious repercussions and offshoots of the developments?

Briefly, the commission set out to address four specific issues:

1 The social economic, spatial and political factors which played a role in the unrest.

2. Alleged racially motivated attacks and killings in the country.

3. Lapses in law enforcement by State Security agencies, especially the SAPS and private security companies.

4. A focus on KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng where most of the unrest occurred.

In its contextual analysis, the commission argued that the unrest “occurred amidst a tense social, economic, and political period in South Africa” (p.9). The report links the unrest to the Covid-19 pandemic and observes that the unrest happened when “the country was on adjusted Alert Level 4 from June 28t to July 25, 2021” (p.9). Implicit in the statement is the view that the unrest were inevitable.

But, if this was the case, why did the riots happen predominantly in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng? Were the other seven provinces less affected by the socio-economic challenges?

Two critical findings of the commission are that the riots were orchestrated and that the primary actors were well resourced. It argues that the primary actors mobilised secondary actors to execute the plan. However, while the secondary actors were members of the public who were feeling the pinch of the socio-economic challenges in the country, the commission was not able to establish who the primary actors were and under whose instructions they acted.

The report concedes that the unrest coincided with the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma.

However, it briskly concludes that “while the timing of the events of the July unrest coincided with the incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma, it could not find evidence to link the two events”.

The argument is hard to sustain. The reality is that many people were not happy in the way Chief Justice Raymond Zondo treated Zuma when he appeared before him, which resulted in Zuma asking Zondo to recuse himself. Even on this request, Zondo became the referee and the player. Instead of asking an independent judge to consider Zuma’s request, Zondo decided on the matter in which he was conflicted.

Second, when Justice Sisi Khampepe read the ruling that Zuma must be sent to jail for 15 months, her judgment was ridden with emotions. This too, instilled anger in many people. They argued that passing such a judgment when there was no trial was unjustifiable.

Third, even before the unrest happened, social media was abuzz with messages that should Zuma not be released, there would be unrest – starting on a specified date. Indeed, that was the case. In that sense, the riots were avoidable.

While it is true that there were socio-economic challenges in the country as the commission said, it is hard to believe that there is no link between the unrest and Zuma’s incarceration. The report makes an inconclusive statement that “it is probable that the unrest was undertaken to destabilise the economy”. However, it leaves this to state agencies like SAPS and National Prosecuting Authority to make conclusive findings.

The finding of the commission on lapses in intelligence co-ordination and communication is justifiable. It is now history that the president responded by placing the intelligence unit in the Presidency and made changes to the leadership structure. However, it is hard to tell if this will strengthen the unit and avert a similar incident in future.

In a nutshell, the report is useful in many respects. But, unless we know who the main actors were, a similar incident could happen in future.

*Prof Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL