South Africa’s failed insurrection was not only televised, but the looming explosion was telegraphed repeatedly to anyone who cared to listen. Yet the government not only failed to heed the many early warnings; its response to the targeted attacks and the concomitant orgy of lootings was criminally slow and woefully inadequate.

Source: Financial Mail

SA unrest: anatomy of an insurrection

SA came to the brink last week — but the seeds were sown months before, as the authorities ignored a series of attacks on trucks and construction sites. Critically, the risk that it could flare up again remains …


SA’s failed insurrection was not only televised, but the looming explosion was telegraphed repeatedly to anyone who cared to listen. Yet the government not only failed to heed the many early warnings; its response to the targeted attacks and the concomitant orgy of lootings was criminally slow and woefully inadequate.

That should be no surprise. When he ascended to power in February 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa, in order to keep the ANC united, opted to keep the Augean stables that characterise the party in the 21st-century as dirty as he had found them.

That rot — in the security cluster in the government, and within the party, from local to national level — has festered for more than three years as the pendulum of power swung between Ramaphosa and the nearly-vanquished radical economic transformation group built around his predecessor, the convict Jacob Zuma.

Last week, the chickens finally came home to roost. But anarchy wasn’t just loosed upon the ANC, as it should have been, but on the whole country.

The cost of Ramaphosa’s failure is deep. In KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), executives at businesses from Toyota to LG to Massmart are weighing their options after seeing the government fail spectacularly to keep their staff and investments safe. Instead, remarkably, defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula laid the responsibility for riot control at the door of private security companies.

It means that Ramaphosa’s drive to raise R1.2-trillion in investment over the five years to 2022 will need CPR. Last week’s events make the SA story that much harder to sell, even if Ramaphosa can show he is back on top after this setback. Investment abhors uncertainty, and we have just demonstrated that the country possesses almost limitless amounts of it.

What happens now? Will there be a new round of attacks? At the time of writing more than 2,000 people had been arrested following the nine days of mayhem. These are the looters — the fodder who were told where to go, bused to specific locations, and told to help themselves for days on end.

But where are the masterminds and what happens to them?

Given the government’s reactive policing posture, the likelihood of yet another shock event is meaningful, if not high.

It seems extraordinary, but Ramaphosa’s office and the vast security network he commands seems to lack any scenario planning. Did anyone anywhere, from his office to the security agencies, really fail to draw up any scenarios of what would happen when Zuma was arrested for contempt of court?

Did anyone gauge public response or, even more crucially, internal ANC response? Did any monitoring of riotous “chatter” take place, while a former minister of intelligence, Lindiwe Sisulu, donned her high heels and applauded Zuma’s faux soldiers at Nkandla?

This was the most obvious question to ask, on the eve of the week when Zuma was arrested — yet none of the intelligence agencies has proffered anything believable that they had even considered this question.

On Monday, minister in the presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni told reporters: “Lessons that have to be learnt have been learnt, and the gaps have been picked up and corrective measures have been taken to avoid a lapse in the situation.”

Yet it would seem that none of those “corrective measures” involve firing any of the people involved in what may be SA’s biggest intelligence failure since 1994.

And, rather obviously, if there are no consequences for such failure, who will bother with identifying the fire next time?

A well-planned attack

Last week’s events were not spontaneous riots. They were, as Ramaphosa correctly put it, “a deliberate, co-ordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy”.

What he didn’t say, however, was that it was totally predictable.

It is no coincidence that the violence started on the N2/N3 highways connecting Gauteng and KZN. For years now, individuals aligned to the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), led by Gupta beneficiary Kebby Maphatsoe, have violently pressured road freight businesses to hire their members. They have targeted trucks and killed drivers.

In November last year, 26 trucks were torched in 48 hours. Economist Mike Schüssler said at the time that it was “an attack on the economy”.

Yet police ignored calls to act. Last week’s attacks began with the torching of 30 trucks, exactly echoing the November attacks.

It’s the same with the malls. Many of those hit in KZN were new: their developers came under huge pressure in the construction phase to hire MKMVA-aligned security and construction outfits or face violence.

Again, zip from law enforcement. Last March, the Business Times bemoaned the lack of action to tackle what is now known as the “construction mafia”.

“Ten meetings with the national police commissioner to discuss tackling the construction mafia in SA have been cancelled in the past four months,” the paper quoted SA Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors CEO Webster Mfebe as saying.

By March last year these armed gangs had used such violent methods against the industry that 84 infrastructure projects worth more than R27bn were abandoned by fearful companies.

The phenomenon started in KZN, but has since spread to infect Gauteng.

These two areas — road freight and malls — formed the backbone of last week’s insurrection. The third area was communities that had already been organised against foreign-owned businesses and were ready to follow instructions from established leaders to attack businesses in general.

On these pages, just five weeks ago, I wrote about how, before the June 16 holiday, xenophobic groups in Soweto had been planning to attack foreign-owned shops and drive owners out of communities.

On the morning of June 16, as widely threatened, shops were attacked.

Again, despite the repeated warnings, the police were wholly unprepared. In one violent incident in Soweto the police arrived — after looting had taken place — with just a water tanker.

Of course, it is true that SA’s inequality, unemployment and poverty are tinder for social unrest. The numbers have been repeated numerous times: two in three young males don’t work, and SA is the most unequal country in the world.

In the hands of the cynical, the poor and the desperate can be called upon to eat the rich, or at least seem to eat the rich. Yet last week’s events had nothing of that.

They were organised. They were precise. And the match that lit them knew exactly where to strike.

Take, for example, the story of the Value Logistics warehouse in KZN’s Cato Ridge. The place was systematically looted for three solid days after a military-style forced entrance of the facility.

After the initial mob of 1,000 entered, a 3km queue formed so looters could give each other a chance. As Value CEO Steven Gottschalk put it: “Someone was commanding the people.”Minister of defence & military veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Picture: Gallo Images/Phill Magakoe

Stabbing Ramaphosa in the back

Three years after Zuma was ousted, the ANC remains a deeply divided house and those divisions continue to haunt every facet of governance. Zuma’s support has waned, but it has by no measure been vanquished.

As KZN’s economic hubs were burning, provincial premier Sihle Zikalala and eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda were calling for Zuma’s release.

Echoing the looters, Kaunda posted on his Facebook page: “We are Msholozi, Msholozi is us. #Free Zuma.”

Zikalala and Kaunda were legitimising the looting — not just expressing a benign opinion about the state of the nation.

Would looters stop if they knew that Kaunda was with them and that Duduzane Zuma, the Gupta business partner and son of the former president, had asked them to “loot responsibly”?

These leaders were with the mob, not the rule of law.

All of which suggests the ANC’s problems in KZN will not end any time soon.

Since the early 2000s the province veered strongly towards Zuma, and his support remains significant. Ramaphosa has enjoyed some support, but it is by no means the majority. As shown by the likes of Zikalala, Ramaphosa is not universally embraced.

Ramaphosa may try, but he is unlikely to win the battle for the ANC in KZN. His best bet is to allow the party’s leaders in the province to continue to undermine themselves to the extent that the IFP and the DA win the local elections at the end of this year and the provincial contest in 2024.

These elections, at this point, are really the IFP/DA coalition’s to lose after the mayhem of the past week. Were the ANC to lose the province, SA would be the winner — the party would hopefully retreat to lick its wounds and rebuild itself while the DA/IFP fandango begins a renewal of the province.KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala. Picture: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart

A cabinet divided

The divisions in the ANC reach right up to the cabinet. Mapisa-Nqakula, who sits on Ramaphosa’s National Security Council, openly contradicted him when she addressed parliamentary committees on Sunday.

While Ramaphosa was telling a Nelson Mandela Day audience that what SA had gone through was a deliberate, planned insurrection, his defence minister said: “The issue is if it is an insurrection, then the insurrection must have a face, if it is an insurrection against government, it must have a face. If it is about a coup, the coup will also have a face … but none of those so far talk to that.”

Contradictions and what they do to confidence aside, a posture by a senior cabinet member that says there is no attempted insurrection, and no masterminds, means the risk of new attacks is high.

Already, this past weekend, various WhatsApp messages were being forwarded from purported MK veterans, calling on people to revolt. If no masterminds have been arrested (or they don’t exist, as Mapisa-Nqakula claims), then those who co-ordinated this can — and will — do so again.

It leaves Ramaphosa as a man wading through a snake pit. The loyalty of his security cluster is questionable, at best, and his cabinet is packed with people who don’t think twice before engaging in deeply damaging acts of disloyalty.

Why would communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, seen as a Ramaphosa loyalist, say that Zuma understood the constitution and would speak out against the violence if he had access to proper communications?

After all, the former president is in jail precisely because he doesn’t understand the constitution. And Zuma’s children, with predictably poor taste, were applauding and encouraging the looters on social media.President Cyril Ramaphosa appears at the state capture commission. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

The Ramaphosa way

Yet, Ramaphosa has rebuffed the advice of many in business, the ANC and civil society to fire some cabinet members and “put his stamp” on the government and party.

On Tuesday, former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa said: “There is no way in which Ramaphosa can justify keeping the security cluster ministers. Even by the Sunday when former president Zuma was about to be arrested, they would have been able to prepare. Each one is making the story [up] as they go along.”

If the past three years are anything to go by, Ramaphosa just does not operate that way. This is not to say he will not fire the three — but he will do it in his own time.

It shows how, with him, everything is weighed carefully, and action is by the book. When the army was deployed last week, he had crossed every T and dotted every I.

It is more likely that, instead of being fired, Mapisa-Nqakula — who in nearly 20 years in cabinet has little except scandal to boast about — will be moved sideways.

Keeping people in the tent, even the incompetent, is Ramaphosa’s way.

A cabinet reshuffle, when it comes, will not merely be to weed out the dead wood. It will combine the recommendations of the panel Ramaphosa set up two years ago for the restructure of government. Expect no speed here.

This is not to criticise the man. The ability to lie in wait, to keep cool while the rest of us are alarmed, to engage in a project for years while many call for speedy action, is where Ramaphosa derives his power and past success.

This is a man who planned for 20 years for his shot at the presidency. This is a man who corralled Zuma — who had bested the likes of Thabo Mbeki, possibly the ANC’s canniest strategist — until Zuma was sent to prison for contempt. And Ramaphosa’s fingerprints were found nowhere near that development.

But the reality is, this may not be what SA needs right now. It may be that a country in pain, recovering from a traumatic two weeks, wants to see its president in charge.

And in this context, a failure to act may lead to his country losing faith, and his enemies smelling blood.

The Free Zuma campaign has already given Ramaphosa an ultimatum to release their leader by the month-end. He will probably ignore them — as he should — but that won’t mean they will go away.

Which means that the odds of another blow-out then, or at some time afterwards, is significant.Residents help move bricks during a clean-up operation at Supa Store supermarket following the unrest, in Soweto. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG

We, the people

Amid these challenges, it is worth saying that Ramaphosa’s trump card — and even his genius — has been his ability to know that SA has a large-enough resource of decent, peace-loving, upstanding citizens across the racial and class divide who buy into his vision of the future.

They believe in law and order, as he does, but also in the rule of law, which trumps the former. These are people who might feel some sympathy for Zuma and the jailing he faces, but know that the law cannot be bent, because then the 2,000 people arrested for the riots have to be set free too.

It is these South Africans who turned against the looting that engulfed SA last week. They were silent in the mayhem, but they were the majority, and they restored order long before the troops rolled into town.

That moment was not new. Back in 2016 it was exactly these citizens who revolted against state capture and marched on Pretoria and Sandton to let Zuma know that his time was up.

But these people also hanker for a better country than the ANC has served up, even if they still believe that Ramaphosa holds the key to that dream.

With the yoke of the CR17 funding scandal temporarily lifted from his shoulders by the court judgment on Tuesday, Ramaphosa may choose to move with some haste to show them that he is indeed in charge.

He must do it before even they run out of patience — because that’s a commodity that is very thin on the ground right now.