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‘A recalibrated security sector must reflect a people centred ethos’

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ON July 9, 2021 South Africa was rocked by spontaneous violence and looting in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng. This week will be the first anniversary of the mayhem which rocked the foundations of the country’s democracy. In the aftermath of those tumultuous events, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed a high level panel, chaired by Prof. Sandy Africa, to probe the security failures during that period. In a keynote address to the Defend our Democracy Conference held in Johannesburg this week, she reflected on the probe by her panel.

By Sandy Africa

To structure my remarks about what has happened since the violent unrest that swept mainly through KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng last year, I will address the following:

  • How serious was the threat at the time, and what are the chances of similar violence recurring?
  • What is the state doing to ensure accountability, and to prevent, counter, or respond to such threats?
  • What role did civil society, and in particular, progressive forces play in responding to the violence, and what roles will they play if there is a repeat?
  • Finally, what is happening to global and regional security and why is it important for delegates to pay attention to these developments, even whilst addressing our national challenges.

Different people have used different terms to describe what happened: civil unrest, looting, food riots, uprising, rebellion and counter-revolution. Even government ministers were initially divided about how to characterize the events.

People looting at the Letsoho shopping centre in Katlehong.Picture: Itumeleng English /African News Agency (ANA)

President Ramaphosa has described the violence as an insurrection: a calculated, orchestrated effort to destabilise the country, sabotage the economy, and undermine SA’s Constitutional democracy.

Whichever way it is described, the events of July 2021 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 all levels of public office (national, provincial, and local) in the wake of the deadly catastrophe.

The sentencing and imprisonment of former President Zuma was a trigger, but what South Africa experienced was a multi-layered confluence of currents, which fed off and reinforced, and sometimes ran parallel to each other. The Report of the Expert Panel into the July 2021 Civil Unrest produced by Advocate Mojanku Gumbi, the late Mr Silumko Sokupa and I, analyse these currents in detail so I will not repeat them here.

The notion of an insurrection suggests that there were key actors who were politically motivated and who marshalled or exploited these weaknesses in the state’s capacity and channelled them into a general campaign of violent acts of various forms.

And indeed, the unrest was deadly, economically disgorging, undermining the legitimacy of state institutions and psychologically traumatic for the country. The crisis left behind a lingering sense that untouchable people could act with impunity, a perception reinforced by the slow trickle of prosecutions, most of the relatively low profile, and unconvincing promises to uncover and prosecute the presumed masterminds behind the mayhem.

The question, “how serious was the threat”, can be broken down into several sub-questions:

  • What was the purpose, the intent and end game of the violence?
  • What kind of resources and planning went into it?
  • Who was behind it all?
  • Why did it end after a week or so?

Will it happen again, or was it a once-off event?

In a democracy, it is the state that has the mandate and a monopoly of powers to anticipate and prevent threats to national security. Some of these powers are intrusive and restrict certain liberties, but may be necessary to use, subject to the rule of law, and proportionate to the threatened harm. Since people were dying in the July unrest, personal safety threatened, supply chains disrupted, and critical infrastructure compromised, using these methods would have been justified to support the law enforcement efforts. The question we must ask is why they were not employed to better effect?

The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture has exposed serious wrongdoing effect in the country’s intelligence services over the past decade, perhaps more. Instead of focusing singularly on threats to national security, they have been used to fight political battles and to serve as a cash machine for private and party-political interests. If the South African intelligence services had been re-purposed to serve objectives so far off-course from their mandates of protecting the Constitutional order, it is unsurprising that they were so ill-prepared to forewarn the state about the grave threat that took the form of the unrest.

The picture we pieced together as an Expert Panel was of a build-up, over several months, of a deliberate and targeted campaign of violent rhetoric, social media mobilization, threats aimed at intimidating the courts and law enforcement agencies, that set the stage for what was to come. At the same time, there were other incendiary acts, such as burning of trucks, blockades of highways, sabotage of infrastructure, that fitted into a generalized pattern of public disorder.

South Africa, moreover, has for years seen almost daily protests of communities over a lack of decent municipal services such as water, sanitation, a lack of housing and land. When the trigger events took place, the flames could be quickly lit, and they spread quickly across towns and cities that were targeted. To their credit, these indicators had been flagged by the state’s own National Intelligence Coordinating Committee (which receives intelligence from the services), but their recommendations for urgent action to address the underlying causes received a muted response from the executive, according to them.

During the July unrest, poor and vulnerable people looted shops and malls alongside hardened criminals, opportunistic middle-class people, and deliberate, well-placed saboteurs. A mass psychology effect took hold: many people got caught up and acted out of character, only to regret it later. This reality, of multiple actors converging to commit similar acts, but with different motivations, makes the solution and responses needed a complex affair, requiring multiple prongs of engagement: law enforcement, prosecutions, and penalties, yes; but also, accountability and justice, reparations, reconstruction; reconciliation, restoration, or creation of conditions for people to live decent, dignified lives.

Civil society responses

The events of July 2021 demonstrated how much information was known by the public (for example neighbourhood watches, civic organisations, advice offices, faith-based organisations, organized business, and a vibrant and independent media). The security forces admitted that they relied on the input of these groups to fend off attacks, guard what infrastructure remained and work with the law enforcement authorities and private security providers. Information picked up in the communities by workers, social media posts, businesses setting up early warning systems, and various informal networks were vital in developing responses.

Community policing forums playing an active role in some communities in coordinating responses with the police: a hopeful development since the national crime prevention strategy has long proposed that community safety will not happen unless communities are engaged. If anything, these stories of collective action are a signal lesson that the security services need to earn the trust of and work closely with society. But there are several caveats here:

The state cannot surrender its duty to protect its citizens. Yet there were too many stories of how policing stood back whilst the violence unfolded, implicating themselves in the mayhem. Where powers are not exercised in a rules-based system, the vacuum is easily filled by militias, vigilantes and others who may trade on the vulnerability of communities. Racial profiling and attacks on people because they were labelled as ‘outsiders’, had the potential to descend into lawlessness, and stirred tensions between communities. At the same time, it exposed racial prejudice and a false sense of racial superiority in some communities. This type of racism is a scourge we must stare in the face and tackle if it is not to explode.

The South African Police Service leadership has argued that they were under-resourced, and the modus operandi utilized by the looters and saboteurs exploited the fact that at the level of the police station, they are not equipped to deal with the full-on attacks that were faced. Moreover, the widespread nature of the violence stretched them beyond an effective response. By the time reinforcements arrived at the scene, the local police were already overwhelmed.

Some police reported that they had been intimidated and threatened in their communities, and a level of absenteeism was reported in that period. Police still have the stigma of how they dealt with striking mine workers at Marikana in 2012, shadowing how they handle protests.

The police say that they refrained from using deadly force because of the bloody mayhem this would lead to. Of the over 350 people who died in the July unrest, the official narrative that has emerged is that most people were trampled in stampedes, run over by vehicles, and were killed fighting over stolen goods and the like. There is a question to be asked about how to ensure that the necessary training and resources are available to the police to handle situations where there are situations of massive public violence, much as there is a question to be asked about the effectiveness of police leadership during the crisis.

Active citizenship was vital in responding to the violence and destruction: communities organized neighbourhood patrols; taxi associations defended businesses; faith communities counselled their congregations and made sure that those in need were assisted, food and medicines was made available to those that needed it, business community made their equipment available to the police to quell the violence. But whether in these efforts progressive forces can claim to have played a particular role is not clear.

Most people looked to the government, to the security services, bewailing the lack of action. There is a context to this: South Africa has a history of civic organization but at the same time there has been a systematic disillusionment with the unravelling of the state, the failures of governance, the lack of accountability, and disengagement from civic life. But it also points to an absence of emergency procedures when communities feel unsafe, integrating the efforts of the people and government for dealing with crises. This is a vacuum that civil society should give more attention to, providing the channels to assist in developing appropriate responses and getting communities involved. When the SAPS launched an operation to recover stolen goods after the looting, they were criticized for targeting the poor, and some arbitrary acts came to light (such as people being asked to produce receipts for goods in their homes). Some progressive organisations felt that alternative ways of exacting accountability restoring justice should have been utilized, but in the absence of strong relationships with the police, the channels to have these conversations did not exist.

Is a recurrence of the events of July 2021 possible?

To make an informed deduction about whether there will be a repeat, we must assess what has shifted and what has changed. The Minister in the Presidency, Minister Gungubele, presented the State Security budget vote for 2022/23 under the theme:

National security is the patriotic duty and responsibility of the state and the citizens of the republic. The Minister pledged a doctrinal shift away from state-centric to a people-centred notion of security, a necessary turn which had also been highlighted by the High-Level Review Panel chaired by Prof (Dr) Sydney Mufamadi. He also highlighted some of the challenges that the intelligence services would have to get on top of, including:

Marauding gangs in areas like the Cape Flats and parts of KwaZulu Natal, Gqeberha, who terrorise communities and carry out assassinations of individuals.

The destruction of infrastructure, through acts that can be characterized as economic sabotage, continues periodically unabated.

The rent-seeking that characterizes the construction industry and other parts of the economy.

Violence against immigrants (some of whom are undocumented) over a perception that they are in competition with locals for resources.

As the July 2021 unrest was spreading, the SANDF was preparing to deploy in northern Mozambique, as part of South Africa’s commitment to assist the country to deal with a threat of violent extremism. Domestic terrorism may not currently pose an existential threat to South Africa, as in other parts of the world (instead we have our own unique problem of politically motivated killings). But the fact that there is such a problem in a direct neighbour should worry us. The security services’ assessment is that with its porous borders, high levels of corruption and other vulnerabilities, South Africa is an ideal space for money laundering, criminal financing of these acts, and providing passage routes. South Africa cannot rely on drawing its defence force into dealing with domestic instability when they have other responsibilities, in line with their principal mandate

Alongside two years of hardship of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a continuation of these grim challenges. On top of that, KwaZulu Natal earlier this year, and other parts of the country including the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape, was hard hit by floods that wreaked havoc, 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. Many people are struggling to find employment, and even those who are working are failing to make ends meet and can be classified as working poor. Under these conditions, it is easy for populists to scapegoat people who are seen as ‘the other’. In this regard, the violent rhetoric that has been building up around migrants, including the circulating of untraceable videos, clearly designed to stoke tension and fear, could almost be out of the playbook of July 2021, when social media posts were a major tool in driving the violence.

In a nutshell, the objective conditions remain in place, so there is some possibility of the violence recurring. In fact, since July 2021 there have been periodic disruptions and blockades on national roads, calls for national shutdowns, and deliberate damage to infrastructure. The NATJOINTS, which falls under the JCPS cluster of ministers, has been proactive in responding to rumours of unrest and seems to have a system of working with the stakeholders the security cluster worked with during the unrest. Efforts to recruit and train more police under a newly appointed National Commissioner show that the police are playing catch up with the depleted numbers. More needs to be done to hone the skills, improve coordination and synergise the roles of local government, provincial and national actors, and even to conduct simulations to deal with various threat scenarios. There is also a need to improve intelligence capacity. Social media continues to be used to stoke fears and spread rumours of unrest, and this may be part of deliberate efforts to wear down the security services, keeping them perpetually on high alert, and wearing down their morale in a kind of low-intensity conflict. If there is an area where the security services need to improve their capabilities, it is in technical surveillance and digital intelligence. The era of fake news and disinformation is upon us, and the security services need a new generation of skills.

President Ramaphosa, in interacting with Parliament during his State of the Nation Address acknowledged the debilitating effects of state capture but was at pains to point out the work that had been carried out by the NPA to turn the tide. Responding to a report that was released earlier that month, the President indicated that Cabinet had taken overall responsibility for the events of July 2021.

He also said that the government would develop and drive a national response plan to address the weaknesses that the panel has identified. The ministers in the security cluster have laid out their plans in their budget votes. These include the filling of critical vacancies and addressing positions affected by suspensions in the State Security Agency and Crime Intelligence. To address the damage and attacks on the economic infrastructure, the government has established specialised multi-disciplinary units to address economic sabotage, extortion at construction sites and vandalism of infrastructure. Treasury has made resources available to recruit and train an additional 12 000 new police personnel to ensure that the South African Police Service urgently gets the capacity it needs.

The emerging security landscape

South Africa’s multiple crises are now seeing people demanding safety and a decent life for all its people, and accountability of public office bearers and institutions. Many feel let down by weak governance, political opportunism, and economic inequality – mainly at the expense of the country’s poor, black majority. The vacuum of leadership that has resulted in open to exploitation by political opportunists, and rent-seekers who are able to buy protection from law enforcement officials.

On the African continent too, there are similar examples of weak states, and societies plunged into drawn-out conflicts as a result. Many refugees in South Africa today are fleeing from the violence and instability in their countries. Failing to address both the national and continental conflicts, will hinder Africa’s ability to play a more prominent role in shaping the world in the interest of the continent’s people. These include the millions of children and youth who are affected by war, unemployment, and poverty.

The post-1945 international rules-based order is in crisis as we witness the reemergence of Great Power politics. A world in which nuclear powers dominate the security council through their veto powers, and which excludes Africans from having a permanent seat, underscores the need for reform. As the war in Ukraine has demonstrated, the military balance that is playing out globally has consequences for us here in South Africa and the African continent.

Energy security, food security and the availability of supplies have been affected with a knock-on effect on the cost of living. The emergence and assertion of newer international alliances (and here we can refer to South Africa’s involvement in the BRICS) are slowly shifting these geopolitical polarities, but we need to be careful of not losing our identities as we spread our existential risk.

The country’s success in achieving a peaceful political transition, crafting a new constitution, and establishing a multiparty democracy was celebrated, and to many, the country served as an example. South Africa can pride itself on having been among the architects of the AU’s Post Conflict Reconstruction and Development Policies, the revival of a common African Agenda through the establishment of the African Union, and the promotion of instruments to facilitate regional integration.

In conclusion

In his state of the nation address earlier this year, President Ramaphosa also acknowledged the need to take a more inclusive approach to assess the threats to our country’s security and determine the necessary responses. To quote the President directly:

“I am calling on all South Africans through their various formations to participate in developing our National Security Strategy. I will be approaching Parliament’s presiding officers to request that Parliament plays a key role in facilitating inclusive processes of consultation”

I would urge this Defend our Democracy conference to seize the opportunity and follow up on these undertakings. You can mobilise society to develop a collective vision of what national security looks like, and what resources are needed and present this to the country. I would urge you to focus our attention in guaranteeing human security through:

  • Promoting food security, health care, decent education
  • Safe accommodation and living conditions
  • Safe neighbourhoods where children can play and thrive
  • Work that allows people to provide for their families
  • Access to information, skills and to justice.

Much of what exists in the communities that were affected by the violence points instead to precariousness, and the absence of these basic needs. It is not only by holding the state accountable but by participating in the debates and putting forward options for implementation, that civil society can attain these goals.

By the time a National Security Strategy document is tabled in Parliament by the Executive, there should be a clear and compelling vision, as well as proposals for a people-centred national security approach that can be put forward.

This multi-pronged strategy must-see South Africa building peaceful, sustainable neighbourhoods, communities, and a society where the rule of law prevails at the local level as well as at the national, and a rules-based international order where we must certainly continue to play a role. New and refreshed notions of security are needed, that reflect a people-centred ethos. The country also needs to develop the capacity to address all potential risks and threats to safety and security. If we are facing an insurgency of sorts, it requires political actors to engage to save the country from civil conflict. But it will also require a recalibrated security sector, which is effective, responsive, and accountable, serving our democracy and not the interests of a few who manipulate them for personal, or partisan gain.

Africa is a Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning and Associate Professor: Political Sciences, Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria. She is also the former Chair of the Expert Panel on the July 2021 Civil Unrest.