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Eight Days in July — Harrowing first-hand accounts of violence and discontent that dragged South Africa to the brink

Qaanitah Hunter (left) and Kaveel Singh, co-authors with Jeff Wicks of ‘Eight Days in July’. (Photos: Supplied)

One of the authors of the book ‘Eight Days in July’, which documents the July riots and investigates the intelligence failures that contributed to the devastation, described on Thursday how the bodies of two boys lay beneath a bridge in eThekwini during the mayhem while KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala was ‘barking orders at police’ in the same area — for what appeared to have been a public relations exercise.

Kaveel Singh was expanding on the horrific find, which he described in the book, during a Daily Maverick lunchtime webinar hosted by journalist Pauli van Wyk. He was joined by co-author and News24 colleague, Qaanitah Hunter. The third author, Jeff Wicks, was not available for the webinar. 

The 222-page soft-cover book provides detailed insight into the devastating riots, including the eyewitness accounts of Singh and Wicks, while Hunter delves into the alleged reasons behind the eight days of unprecedented looting and arson, which cost the South African fiscus R50-billion and was this week named as one of the contributory factors to the shrinking of the economy by 1.5%.

Singh told Van Wyk: “We had been calling for the army at that point [on 14 July]. Police were either overwhelmed or… we had a lot of reports of police deciding not to do anything. At that point, there were reports that the premier sent out a communique via his media group saying that he would be out there, catching [looters] himself.

“It was a very strange thing because [the media] hadn’t really seen Zikalala [up to that point]. He was not very visible.

“We got to Nandi Drive [in the Durban North area] and there was absolute bedlam, chaos. It was one of the worst spots in the entire province, probably in the entire unrest [period]… the first bit of information that I got from private security… and the few community members I had spoken to who had mobilised, was that there were the bodies of two young boys who couldn’t have been older than 12 or 13.

“Their bodies were just lying underneath an overhead bridge — no covering, just, sort of, these corpses of these poor young boys, and when I went over to look, the boys just looked like they were asleep, lying there. 

“What happened was they had been there the previous night and there was a mass stampede, which happened in a lot of areas in the province. The boys were run over [by looters] and had no choice but to jump [from the bridge] and they unfortunately passed away.

“The thing that was really shocking about that situation was that the premier and a few members of his executive came to that area soon after, around midday or so, and he was barking orders at the few police that were there. ‘Arrest this person, do this, do that’.

“It was ironic because we hadn’t seen him for days… hadn’t seen the police for days. We hadn’t seen the army [yet]. People were left literally on their own in the community to fight for whatever infrastructure and belongings they had. 

“While Zikalala was [barking orders] the bodies of the two boys lay under there, and in the middle of the skirmish between the authorities and the looters, we ended up [as media] going down to that point, to that site, and the premier left. He just turned tail… But when he sent out his communication, it was as if it was the most important thing in the world that the premier would be there. But he left, and [the media] was there with these running skirmishes the entire afternoon.”

According to testimony given by KZN police chief Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) probe into the unrest, 281 people died in the province as a result of the unrest. The vast majority of these deaths were looters, crushed in stampedes while trying to steal goods, or killed by other looters while fighting over stolen goods. 

Sporadic unrest began on the night of 8 July, just hours after former president Jacob Zuma was jailed in Estcourt for contempt of court. Prior to this, hundreds of Zuma’s supporters had gathered at his Nkandla homestead — in open defiance of Level 4 lockdown regulations — to “defend” him from being arrested. Even at that stage, many of the supporters in the crowd were armed and drunk, with some openly telling media that “blood will flow” if police tried to arrest Zuma. Similar threats were being made openly on social media.

The mass unrest that spiralled from that, and the inability of the country’s intelligence divisions to provide early warnings, or those warnings being ignored or disseminated on a factional basis, remains a talking point, with four probes now under way to determine what exactly went wrong. 

A Presidential inquiry is taking place, with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Tyrone Seale, telling Daily Maverick on Thursday that the report from the probe was being “finalised” and would be handed to Ramaphosa “in the coming weeks”.

Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) is also probing the early-warning failures in camera, with the chairperson of the committee telling Daily Maverick that all of the information we requested “will be provided when the process is complete”. No one knows, however, when the process will be complete.  

The SAHRC finished the first leg of its probe last week Friday, with an expected public appearance by the State Security Agency (SSA) abruptly being cancelled for “national security” reasons. The commission will resume in Gauteng in February. 

Parliament’s police portfolio committee has said that it will wait for the SAHRC’s report before doing its own probe.  

Hunter researched the intelligence failures for the book and said that as early as 11 May this year, there was an intelligence warning coded orange saying that the “legitimacy of the state was going to be questioned”. 

The authors say in the book: “It was tempting to believe that this moment of reckoning had arrived in July. There was consensus among the ruling elite and those in the opposition benches, the media and civil society, and even big business, that South African society was a ticking time bomb of discontent.

“Joblessness was rife as the economy was battered by a string of Covid-19 lockdowns and a stacked deck of ratings downgrades, which saw the chasm between the wealthy and the poor widen further… By the time Jacob Zuma was imprisoned on 8 July, the [die] for rampant discontentment had been cast.”

Hunter said in the webinar: “Despite these warnings that something was going to happen, there appeared to be a lack of taking it seriously. One could argue that there was an overreliance on publicly available information… more than the deep intel that one would have expected.” 

Police minister Bheki Cele had publicly spoken about the proliferation of guns in the crowds at Nkandla, said Hunter, most of which were illegal and came from crime hotspots in Durban. Zuma’s supporters were “armed to the teeth”, she said, but the response to that was to set up roadblocks and desist from provoking the protestors. 

“One would say the response was insufficient, and that those at the centre of the unrest were able to manipulate the non-response or non-coordination of our security cluster. Then, in the days after the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma… there was a complete overrun of the security cluster.” DM

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