July riots ‘well orchestrated’ amid ‘power reaction’ from state, police


The riots in July 2021 were well orchestrated and the government’s failings to share intelligence and information effectively played a significant role in its escalation.

However, no evidence could be found that it was related to the then arrest of ex-pres. Jacob Zuma does not. This is what the Human Rights Commission and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities found in its investigation into the riots. The results of the investigation were announced this week.

Between 8 and 19 July 2021, acts of protest, violence and looting spread across KwaZulu‑Natal and Gauteng and access to essential services and national and international supply chains was disrupted. Up to 40,000 businesses and 50,000 informal traders were affected with 150,000 jobs at risk. The financial damage from the riots was estimated at R50 billion and around 350 people died.

Former Pres. On 29 June 2021, Zuma was found guilty of contempt of court by the Constitutional Court and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment. Zuma was arrested on July 7, a day before the riots broke out, at his Nkandla residence in the north of KwaZulu-Natal and began serving his prison sentence the following day at Estcourt Prison.

July riots were ‘violent peak’

The commissions looked at four specific issues, namely the social, economic, spatial and political factors that occurred in the various affected areas, and the extent to which these played a role in the riots. It also looked at the causes of the alleged racially motivated attacks and murders that accompanied the riots and the causes of the apparent breakdown in law enforcement by state security agencies, especially in the South African Police Service, and the role of private security companies in the riots. The fourth issue was the causes of the riots, with particular focus on Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

“The July unrest was a violent culmination of deep-rooted political and social challenges the country was grappling with. The unrest has been largely attributed to typologies of organization and orchestration of public dissent, crime and protest.

“The violence and destruction were symptomatic of unresolved systemic conditions, including post-Covid-19 economic recovery, high unemployment, lawlessness, discrimination, socio-economic divides and issues within the security sector. The commission concluded that organized groups and individuals opportunistically exploited these conditions to try to usurp the rule of law.”

‘Well orchestrated’

Following evidence that was presented to him, the commissions found that acts that took place during the riots were indeed orchestrated. It was found that the riots could not have occurred without significant investment in resources and that “two types of role players” were present during the riots. The “primary actors” directed and carried out the widespread destruction of property while mobilizing the “secondary actors” to engage in acts of theft at malls and other business premises.

The timing of the riots, which coincided with Zuma’s arrest, led many people to conclude that the two were related, according to the commissions. “It is likely that the riots were started to destabilize the economy. The government’s shortcomings in the effective sharing of intelligence and information played a significant role in the escalation of the riots. The SAPS was ill-prepared to deal with the orchestrated attacks.”

Lack of action

It was also found that the lack of appropriate action in response to the initial signs of the unrest led to criminal activities such as theft, arson and intentional damage to property. “The failure to promptly address and counter digital orchestration and incitement through social media and other online platforms allowed the riots to grow. This suggests that online communication and coordination played a role in fueling the violence.”

The report recommends that mechanisms and measures should be put in place to pay attention to the rapid and timely flow of information in order to promote effective responses to national security threats. “The president must take steps to ensure that the commission is provided with a report on how such mechanisms and measures are developed.”

Expiration in law enforcement

With regard to the causes of the apparent lapse in law enforcement by state security agencies, especially the SAPS and the role of private security companies, it was found that the police failed to detect the planning and execution of the riots.

“A combination of factors appears to have caused these deficiencies. Evidence tabled before the panel points to the lack of resources and the resulting lack of capacity within crime intelligence. Apparently there was also a breakdown in coherent communication within the SAPS between crime intelligence, the national police commissioner, relevant operational divisions and the minister of police.”

The evidence, according to the commissions, points to a need for urgent and comprehensive improvement within SAPS and the crime intelligence structures to tackle systemic issues and ensure accountability to restore public confidence, and prevent future cases similar to the unrest.

The state’s response to the riots was hampered by poor communication, coordination, planning and high-level management. “There was a delayed response and inadequate resource management, which led to an ineffective response to the crisis. Early warning signs were ignored, and the gathering and sharing of intelligence was ineffective. There was a total breakdown in law and order in the affected areas for at least five days.”

The commission recommends that the SAPS compile a full and comprehensive report on all riot-related deaths and submit it to the commission. “A clear explanation of the circumstances in which it took place must be included. The commission recommends that the SAPS investigate the high number of deaths resulting from police action during the unrest and implement measures to reduce the risk of such deaths in the future. The SAPS must provide a report in this regard to the commission.”

The security sector, which includes the State Security Agency, the South African National Defense Force and relevant stakeholders, must urgently develop a national security strategy and provide an assurance to the commission and the public that this plan has been developed and steps are being taken to implement it.

‘Climate of fear and tension’

Regarding the causes of the alleged racially motivated attacks and killings, the commission found that the July riots created a climate of fear and tension, prompting many people of all races to take to the streets in an attempt to protect their homes and neighborhoods, especially in the absence of visible policing.

During the unrest in July 2021, a significant number of alleged racially motivated killings and assaults occurred at numerous roadblocks, particularly throughout Phoenix in KwaZulu-Natal. The level of organization involved in these acts, coupled with the lack of intervention by the predominantly Indian police officers stationed at the SAPS office, and, racist social media messages in circulation, indicate a larger racial problem within the community, it was found. “It also points to the need for a thorough examination of systemic issues and potential biases within local law enforcement.”