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South Africa: Government must investigate deaths of more than 200 people during riots

Authorities failed to deal with lethal unrest triggered by former president Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment

Communities forced to protect themselves, with residents putting up barricades and patrolling their own neighbourhoods

‘Contradictions by different ministers show a government in chaos’ - Shenilla Mohamed

The week-long looting spree and violent destruction of private property which resulted in the death of more than 200 people in South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng provinces has exposed glaring security failures at a national level, Amnesty International South Africa said today.

The South African government has admitted it was poorly prepared to deal with riots which began after former president Jacob Zuma handed himself in to the police for contempt of court on 8 July and began serving a 15-month jail sentence.

Amnesty is calling for a thorough investigation into why senior officials failed to act and protect people and property from the violence.

Shenilla Mohamed, Amnesty International South Africa’s Executive Director, said:

“With the number of people who died during the looting and violent unrest now known to be 215, the authorities must reveal what they knew and when in the days leading to the violence which unnecessarily cost many people’s lives.

“The Minister of State Security is on record saying that they had information and that they passed it on to the Minister of Police but failed to act. The National Security Council must take full responsibility for the loss of lives and violence that put many more lives at risk.”

Descent into chaos

The first signs of unrest were evident on the day Jacob Zuma handed himself over to police (8 July). As the former president was taken to Estcourt Correctional Services that evening, supporters reportedly started causing traffic jams in parts of KwaZulu-Natal. The following day, protesters began calling for Zuma to be freed, and this was also the first day of reported looting in KwaZulu-Natal - with the N3 highway blocked by protesters and trucks set alight.

By 10 July, violence and looting had spread to some areas of Gauteng, including Johannesburg, escalating in and around Johannesburg the following day. KwaZulu-Natal, especially Durban, was also hard-hit as shops, malls, factories and warehouses were burned down, vehicles set alight, and police attacked by looters. Journalists covering the riots also came under attack.

The riots also disrupted healthcare provision and vaccination schedules as the country battles its third wave of Covid-19, which is already overwhelming healthcare services.

Catalogue of failures

It was only on 12 July, four days into the unrest, that police officers were recalled from leave and the South African National Defence Force announced it would deploy soldiers to assist the police. However, deployment was slow and initially just 2,500 soldiers were made available. On 15 July it was announced that military deployment would be increased to 25,000, but five days later, only 2,500 soldiers were on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal.

Unrest and looting continued, with many communities being forced to protect themselves - residents patrolled their own neighbourhoods and erected barricades as rioters tried to break into homes and shops.

Shenilla Mohamed said:

“It is outrageous that it took the government four days to take the unrest and violence that was playing out on live news broadcasts seriously and deploy resources on the ground to bring the situation under control.”

When security ministers - Police Minister Bheki Cele, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula - first addressed the media on 13 July, they provided little reassurance.Bheki Cele said the situation was under “strong surveillance” and things would not deteriorate, yet looting and violence continued unabated, threatening to spread to other provinces, including Mpumalanga and North West.

Dlodlo and Cele both denied they had failed to address the crisis in a timely fashion, yet contradicted each other in briefings and media interviews on why it had taken so long to respond. 

There have also been contradictions between President Ramaphosa and some of his ministers on describing what happened as an “insurrection”. Defence Minister Mapisa-Nqakula initially contradicted the president’s description of events, but later did a U-turn conceding that the unrest was an “attempted insurrection”.

Shenilla Mohamed added:

“The contradictions by different ministers show a government in chaos, unable to co-ordinate security to protect the people. People deserve to know the truth about what happened and the government has a duty to be honest and ensure a prompt, thorough and transparent investigation into the unrest and violence, and ensure accountability.”

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