Last July South Africa was hit by a wave of devastating violence that left over 350 people dead and caused massive economic damage. Different people have used different terms to describe what happened: civil unrest, looting, food riots, uprising, rebellion, counter-revolution.
Even government ministers were initially divided about what to call the events. President Cyril Ramaphosa labelled them an insurrection: a calculated, orchestrated effort to destabilise the country, sabotage the economy, and undermine constitutional democracy.
Whichever way the events are described, they can be attributed to:
the pervasiveness of weak state institutions which failed at implementation,
ineffective security institutions which failed to uphold the law, and
poor oversight and consequence management at national, provincial, and local government levels.
The picture pieced together by an expert panel appointed by Ramaphosa to probe the riots was of a build-up, over several months, of a deliberate and targeted campaign that set the stage for what was to come. This included violent rhetoric, social media mobilisation, and threats aimed at intimidating the courts and law enforcement agencies. There were other incendiary acts that fitted into a generalised pattern of public disorder. They included the burning of trucks, blockades of highways and sabotage of infrastructure.
The notion of an insurrection suggests that there were key politically motivated actors who exploited weaknesses in the state’s capacity to drive a general campaign of violence. The violence undermined the legitimacy of state institutions and left the nation psychologically traumatised.
It left a lingering sense that untouchable people could act with impunity. This perception has been reinforced by the slow trickle of prosecutions, and unconvincing promises by the state to uncover the presumed masterminds.
A troubling question is whether a recurrence of the devastating events of July 2021 is possible. In my view, it is possible, if there is no meaningful change.
Growing seeds of discontent
The objective conditions which made the riots possible remain in place. These include the periodic disruptions and blockades on national roads, calls for national shutdowns, and deliberate damage to infrastructure.
Social media continues to be used to stoke fears and spread rumours of unrest. Moreover, the governing African National Congress (ANC) is wracked by internal rivalry. It is failing to provide much-needed leadership.
South Africa has for years seen almost daily protests over a lack of decent municipal services such as water, sanitation, a lack of housing and land. A trigger event, or set of conditions, could easily ignite the flames.
After two years of hardship brought about by COVID-19, there have been other shocks. Earlier this year, KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of the country were hit hard by devastating floods, evoking further trauma.
In other parts of the country, drought is creating serious water shortages, bringing with it a new source of insecurity and instability.
Unemployment has risen. Many of those with jobs are failing to make ends meet. The violent rhetoric that has been building up against migrants could almost be out of the July 2021 playbook. The rhetoric includes the circulating of untraceable videos designed to stoke tension and fear.
The Ukraine war has severely affected energy security and food security, with a knock-on effect on the cost of living in South Africa.
Addressing the problem
Ramaphosa has admitted to a lack of leadership on the part of government, adding that his cabinet accepts responsibility for the violence. He pledged to drive a national response plan to address the weaknesses that the expert panel identified. This included the filling of critical vacancies in the security services, and appointing new leadership.
A new national police commissioner has been appointed. Likewise, the State Security Agency has a new head. And Treasury has released funds to recruit and train more police officers to bolster public order policing.
Since last year, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJOINTS has been responding regularly to unrest. This is welcome, but there is a risk of law enforcement agencies becoming stretched if they do not base their operational plans on reliable intelligence.
The recent findings of the judicial inquiry into state capture point to the hollowing out and abuse for political ends of intelligence services during the Zuma era. It is not surprising, therefore, that the security sector was so ill-prepared to preempt the violent unrest.
If there is an area in which all the security services need to improve their capabilities, it is in the most modern methods of technical surveillance and digital intelligence. The era of fake news and disinformation requires a new generation of personnel with digital skills.
The security services need to be better prepared in case there is a similar outbreak of violence.
They need to hone their skills and improve the coordination of the roles and resources of local, provincial and national government with those of the emergency services, civil society, business and private security providers. There is also a need to improve intelligence capacity, and to work closely with communities, business and civil society for more timely sharing of information.
But, the state cannot outsource its overall constitutional responsibility for guaranteeing public safety and security. Intelligence services must forewarn government and the country of threats to security, using lawful means.
Other countries provide lessons. When policing powers are not overseen in a well-regulated and lawful manner, the space created can be filled by militias, vigilantes and others trading on the vulnerability of communities.
What lies ahead
On the anniversary of the July unrest, South Africans are demanding accountability and justice. Many feel let down by weak governance, political dysfunction, and economic inequality – mainly at the expense of the country’s poverty-stricken black majority.
The Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele, in presenting the State Security budget vote for 2022/23, pledged a doctrinal shift in approach, away from “state security” towards a people-centred notion of security.
The need for such a turn in approach had also been highlighted by the report of a panel appointed by Ramaphosa in June 2018, to review the workings of the country’s intelligence services.
The president has also promised an inclusive process of developing a national security strategy. Civil society bodies should use this opportunity to put their demands on the table.
South Africa needs a multi-pronged strategy to build peaceful, sustainable neighbourhoods, communities, and a nation where the rule of law prevails.
New notions of security that reflect a people-centred ethos, are needed. To face violent and destabilising crimes similar to July’s events, the country may need to review the mandates, capabilities and resourcing of the security services.
This does not imply the escalation of the use of deadly force. Methods aimed at deescalating conflict, engaging community leaders, and averting bloodshed are needed. This requires serious and dedicated security services and accountable political representatives to oversee the services to avoid abuses of power.
An engaged citizenry is also one that acts lawfully to save the country from civil conflict. South Africans would do well to consider carefully whether and how to institutionalise the many acts of heroism displayed last year. They include spontaneously formed community patrols protecting shopping centres and private security companies assisting the police with operational equipment.
South Africa can hopefully avoid a repeat of the events of July 2021. But that calls for a recalibrated security sector which is effective, responsive, accountable, serving the country’s democracy and not the interests of a few who manipulate them for personal or partisan gain.
This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the recent Defend our Democracy conference.