Zuma: Signs of trouble were on the wall, why did no one act?

Saturday July 17 2021
Looters take away items left in a vandalised mall in Vosloorus

Looters take away items left in a vandalised mall in Vosloorus, on July 14. The raging unrest first erupted a week ago after former president Jacob Zuma started serving a 15-month term for contempt of court. PHOTO | AFP


The State Security Agency confirmed it received intelligence that some of its former senior members supporters of the ex-president, were planning unrests

When the Constitutional Court in South Africa decided to jail ex-President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court last week, it looked like a legal punishment for violation of the law.

But the looting and violence after he reported to the Escourt Correctional Centre have raised more questions than answers, are now raising other pertinent questions of President Cyril Ramaphosa and state security machinery.

And as the last of the unrest and violent outbursts, ostensibly triggered by the jailing of Zuma, were apparently petering out, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo was a pains to ‘‘walk back’’ what had seemed to be, at the height of the chaos of a few days prior, an admission that pro-Zuma elements in the shadowy State Security Agency had played a role in planning and co-ordinating the unrest and looting.

Instead, it was being said by her and various other ministers that the “carefully planned and orchestrated” attacks on infrastructure and commercial hubs was ultimately the work of “about a dozen” key “instigators,” one already under arrest.

Acting Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni promised more arrests, possibly this weekend.


The government was confident that the situation was calming down and that if there was a flare-up, it was in a position to contain that.

But there were signs everywhere that if Zuma ended up in jail, there would be violence, it just didn’t show how or where.

Eeven in the tension of court cases, signs were always on the wall that Zuma’s case was a political problem too, and that chaos, organised along the same line could follow. What wasn’t expected was the explosion of the violent economic damage inflicted on the business class of all categories.

ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli previously sounded a warning to the government that the former president is “not just an ordinary chap from Nkandla.”

“If he gets arrested, there will be serious consequences to the unity and cohesion of the African National Congress. When Zuma goes to court, you see the level of support from those who go outside of court... if he goes to prison, it suggests that there will be a serious level of unhappiness,” he said.

A few days to the jailing, groups on WhatsApp, Telegram and other social media platforms chatted about making it clear to the government Zuma shouldn’t be jailed. They were ANC youth aligned to Zuma, who see him as a defender of the poor being punished for elite crimes.

The State Security Agency confirmed it received intelligence that some of its former senior members within the agency, who were supporters of the former president, were key in orchestrating the violent unrests in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo said they were “busy sorting fact from fiction” on that information.

She added that the security agency was also looking into the possibility of “right-wing extremism,” racial tensions and attacks on foreign nationals erupting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. “I am not saying that these eruptions will happen. I am saying we are looking into it,” she said. The question then becomes why the police were slow to act.

By Friday, organised local armed communities were struggling to contain the looting ad clean up, commercail,centres. The thieving, including incidents of arson is estimated at about $3 billion in losses both to the operators and the country’s economy, according to government early assessment. At least 117 people had also been reported killed by Thursday.

Pretoria decided to deploy more South African Defence Forces troops to areas where the violence had been deadly in KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma’s home province, and to the commercial capital Johannesburg in the province of Gauteng. The attacks on trucks ferrying major food and fuel supplies on highways through KwaZulu Natal resulted in scarcity and sharp rises in prices of the same, signalling a failure in self-defence attempts by local communities.

The immediate problem, the Health Ministry said on Thursday, was slowing down a vaccination drive in one of Africa’s most affected countries by Covid-19. Violence erupted just as the country reported a historic 190,000 inoculations in a day. On Thursday, it instead also reported 17,500 new infections. Officials suggest the new infections may have arisen as gangs ignored Covid-19 protocols as they engaged in looting.

Yet as Zuma serves 15 months in jail, fears are that the mass looting that followed protests against his incarceration may spill across the country, perpetuated by the underlying social and economic inequalities.

In his address to the nation on Monday, President Ramaphosa avoided mentioning the name of Mr Zuma.

He also skirted around boldly, pronouncing that the protests were torched by people against the imprisonment of Mr Zuma. That appears to be a mistake made by the President who is seen as not saying things as they are.

“Some have characterised these actions as a form of political protest. This violence may indeed have its roots in the pronouncements and activities of individuals with a political purpose, and in expressions of frustration and anger,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

“At the beginning of this unrest, there may have been some people who sought to agitate for violence and disorder along ethnic lines. There is no grievance, nor any political cause, that can justify the violence and destruction that we have seen in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.”

He promised to come hard on the protesters in what has stoked fears of bloodshed. “We will not hesitate to arrest and prosecute those who perpetrate these actions and will ensure that they face the full might of our law,” said Mr Ramaphosa.

“The passage of time has not erased from our memories the dark days when sinister elements stoked the flames of violence in our communities to try and turn us against each other. We live with these memories.”

Sibongile Ndlovu, who lives near the Johannesburg CBD in Hillbrow, told The EastAfrican that the deployment of troops on the streets was now helping to quell the protests.

“On Monday police were struggling to manage the situation, but the coming in of the army on Tuesday saw the situation improve. There is a massive difference,” Ms Ndlovu said.

The protests risk worsening the surge in coronavirus infections as well as causing food insecurity.

Paballo Mnguni, 23, who resides in Alex with her parents, says she has not been able to sleep since Monday because of gunshots at night.

“You keep thinking they’ll end up getting to your house,” she told The EastAfruican in a telephonic interview.

Just across the N1 highway, less than a kilometre away, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile, was peaceful, as neighbouring township Alex was engulfed in chaos.

Sandton malls and shops remain intact with minimal security. Such is the inequality in South Africa

“It’s quiet in Sandton, we’ve not had any protests here. We’re just staying indoors because we’re aware of what is happening in Alex, but it’s generally been quiet here,” Silindile Hlatshwayo, 35, who resides in Sandton, told Nation.

The protests come at a time when the economy was already on its knees because of Covid-19.

Mervyn Abrahams, who serves as director of KwaZulu Natal-based Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, said the looting of basic food and necessities is more than just a demonstration against former president Zuma’s arrest.

“These protests are driven by economic issues, not so much the political issue of freeing Jacob Zuma. What was required was a flame and the Free Zuma campaign was that.