Scale and ferocity of July 2021 unrest was unforeseen, admits Ramaphosa

Scale and ferocity of July 2021 unrest was unforeseen, admits Ramaphosa

“We were not fully forewarned about it.”

This was the startling admission made on Friday by President Cyril Ramaphosa when he appeared before the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) investigative hearings into the July 2021 unrest and looting.

“None of what finally eventuated was ever pinpointed that this is what was planned. I guess you could say intelligence failure and security gathering failure. Should it have been known? Yes. Could it have been prevented? I guess that is one of the things we will need to deal with,” he said.

Ramaphosa, who is giving evidence on his responsibility as the head of state during the July 2021 unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, was responding to a question asked by commissioner Buang Jones.

Jones, who led evidence on state security, socioeconomic issues and the defence force, asked Ramaphosa whether he was forewarned about the unrest, either from intelligence sources or from members of his cabinet.

Ramaphosa responded by saying: “The events as they manifested themselves and the scale and intensity and ferocity was unforeseen.

“What we had gleaned from reports was that there were protests and signs of unhappiness, particularly over the incarceration of former president [Jacob] Zuma, but none of what happened and ensued and the targeting of malls and infrastructure was foreseen.

“That never surfaced in any of the reports or the indications.”

Jones asked Ramaphosa whether, after he received the early warnings, he had engaged with then minister of state security, Ayanda Dlodlo, and the head of the domestic branch of the State Security Agency (SSA).

He responded: “There were reports and indications about meetings of people who were protesting and it never got to warnings about the scale of the devastation that finally ensued. To the extent that we received any, it was just limited to there being unhappiness, a level of mobilisation in a specific area of people who are disgruntled and unhappy about what happened in the possible incarceration of the former president in the Constitutional Court trial.”

Jones quizzed Ramaphosa about the National Security Council (NSC) being operational during the incident.

“When I became president I realised the National Security Council had stopped operating and we resuscitated it in 2019. The meetings planned for the NSC were then overtaken by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic when we started focusing on the pandemic. Natjoints then focused more on the pandemic, which had a security element to it,” he responded.

He said the meetings ‘”fell between the gaps” because the people who were meant to be part of that focused more on the pandemic.

Earlier, Ramaphosa told the panel the NSC will meet every two months to avoid a similar incident in the future.

He told Jones that before the unrest he had chaired one meeting but “after that we met soon after the unrest happened and almost every day during the course and have now resolved, following the criticism made against us not meeting prior, we have resolved to meet and this is the mode we are in, to meet regularly”.

The pandemic “really interfered” with plans to meet.

“I had wanted the NSC to have a focus on the security situation in the country and when Covid-19 exploded on us it kind of stopped. A great mistake on our part but at the same time, without putting it forwards as an excuse, we were called upon to focus more on the pandemic.”

On the expert panel report, Jones asked Ramaphosa if he received any report from the “intelligence sources and operatives”.

Ramaphosa said: “Prior to the unrest, the sum total of the reports were around the mobilisation of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association and sometimes it would be the truck drivers who have blocked the road.”

Jones asked Ramaphosa about Dlodlo’s testimony in which she told the panel she did provide intelligence reports that warned about the attacks in July and that there were sufficient warnings to the police about the unrest.

“On the one hand, [police] minister [Bheki] Cele denies receiving intelligence reports. The former minister of state security asserts, in very strong terms, that these reports were delivered to Natjoints and at some point, wanted to have a discussion with you, but you were not available.”

Ramaphosa replied: “I guess the lack of co-ordination has also been singled out as a problem by the Africa Report [expert panel report], which we have considered. The substance of the reports that were to be given never really alluded to finally the unrest and details of the unrest as it unfolded.”

He said: “I am yet to see such a report that says ‘this is what we knew’ and how it was going to unfold. I have not seen such a report because it would have had to say, ‘these are the planners, this is what they intend to hit, they will move from this mall to the next mall,’ and all of that.”

Ramaphosa said there are always attempts to meet with him.

“There is never a shortage of ways of communicating and to say you only relied on solely one method of communication is taking a short cut.”

Ramaphosa told the panel he will not blame the police as they were dealing with limited resources.

“With the benefit of hindsight, with regards to the intensity and organised nature in which it happened and the speed with which it happened, given their lack of resources, the lack of being properly organised themselves, I think they would have been challenged, as they themselves concede.”

Ramaphosa said the public order policing aspect was not well structured and didn’t have all the personnel needed to tackle the unrest.

“They were also too centralised and didn’t have all the equipment they needed.”

However, he said: “I should hasten to say the police did the best they could under very difficult and challenging circumstances. The weakness they suffered from was the system. It was inherent in the system they operated under, so I will not find fault with the bravery and courage they demonstrated. I think they were failed by the system.”

TimesLIVE

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