Police admit failures during July unrest

From left to right, SAHRC Commissioners Chris Nissen, Andre Gaum and Philile Ntuli listening to National Police Commissioner, General Khehla Sitole who testified virtually. Photo by Nokulunga Majola

The national police commissioner admitted that the police were overstretched during the unrest that tore through KZN and Gauteng.

On the sixth day of the National Investigative Hearing into the July Unrest by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the National Commissioner of Police, Khehla Sitole said the police could have done better in how they handled the riots and looting. The commission has heard testimonies of people from Phoenix, Bhambayi, Amaoti, Zwelisha, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu who were affected by the unrest.

Sitole was speaking virtually on Monday at a hearing held in Durban. An early warning had been issued, he said, but without knowing the modus operandi of the threat, there was no approved operational or contingency plan. He admitted that the public order policing unit cannot cope beyond a ‘level 3’ crisis plan because of “extremely limited capacity of that particular reserve compliment”. He also told the commission that at the time of the unrest he was on sick leave and, Major-General Tommy Mthombeni was acting commissioner in his absence.

He said there is also a need to sharpen and capacitate their intelligence unit. Also testifying at the commission on Monday was Gauteng police commissioner Lieutenant-General Elias Mawela who said SAPS did not receive any intelligence that the July unrest would happen. He said they received early warnings regarding other domestic issues, but no warning of unrest, which they ought to have because the unrest was co-ordinated though many looters may have joined for no other reason than it’s ‘cool to loot’. Mawela added that the police had been outmaneuvered by social media as information like the locations of roadblocks was shared via social media.

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Former Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula testified that the president had requested the deployment of the army on 11 July before the police had made any such request. “The president called me asking for the deployment of the SANDF; by then there was no request which has come from the police. So… I then picked up the phone and spoke to the minister of police and I said, this is the wish of the commander in chief and at that point, the minister says I actually think it about time, so I say well, put it in writing.”

According to Mapisa-Nqakula, the SANDF was initially tasked to guard national key points. But as the riots continued and infrastructure had been targeted, soldiers were tasked to assist the police.

It is reported that over 300 people died during the civil unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Last week, the commission heard how the police failed to prevent the riots and looting. Pietermaritzburg and Midlands Chamber of Commerce CEO, Melanie Veness testified that she received little to no support from the local police and KwaZulu-Natal Premier, Sihle Zikalala, who she had personally attempted to contact. She told the commission that police officials had admitted to her that their leadership had instructed them to stand down and not intervene in the mass looting and violence that ensued. “We had been directly told by some police personnel that they were told to stand down and not get involved. It came from their leadership. They received instructions from somewhere that everyone had to obey. We were alone, helplessly watching this stuff unfold. The looting went on for days. People sat on the side of the road with their looted goods, waiting for their transport,” Veness said.

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Her testimony was supported by that of Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO, Palesa Phili who said businesses were on their own as there were no police. “Metro police confirmed to me there was no public order policing. The commissioner and his generals’ phones were off on Sunday, 11 July and Monday, 12 July. Their phones didn’t even ring,” Phili said.

July unrest victim, Chris Biyela led the commission on an inspection in loco at various spots around Phoenix where various roadblocks were erected. Photo by Zimbili Vilakazi

On Friday, the commission conducted an inspection in loco at various spots around Phoenix and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. Phoenix, north of Durban was the epicentre of vigilantism with allegations of torture, assault and murder of Black people. The commission was assisted by one of the witnesses, Chris Biyela from Bhambayi, an informal settlement situated near Phoenix who had testified that he had been slapped, insulted and removed from his car by a group of Indian men at a barricade they had erected as defence against looters.

One of the spots that Biyela led the commission to was on the Phoenix highway where he alleged Black South Africans were racially profiled and attacked. This was just outside the Phoenix police station.

The KZN and Gauteng premiers are expected to give their testimonies about the unrest on Friday. 

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