Another July insurrection loading?

William Saunderson-Meyer on the veiled threats by Zuma's lawyers at the SCA and what could come of them


As South Africa sidles nervously towards the first anniversary of the July riots, there are veiled threats of chaos to come.

The first is a brazen attempt at intimidation. Jacob Zuma’s lawyers this week warned the Supreme Court of Appeal that when it decides on whether to revoke the former president’s medical parole, it should “take judicial notice” of the deadly unrest that followed last year’s imprisonment of Zuma for contempt. 

This is not the first effort by Zuma’s lawyers to use what President Cyril Ramaphosa called the “failed insurrection” — at least 359 people dead and R50bn of property destroyed — to sway the judiciary’s interpretation of the law. Last year, as part of Zuma’s corruption trial litigation, his lawyers suggested that the rioting had been the result of the Constitutional Court’s “unconstitutional” decision to jail him for contempt.

And when defending the then National Commissioner of Correctional Services’ controversial decision to grant Zuma a medical parole, they argued that the commissioner had been entitled to take into account “the public interest in avoiding a repeat of the looting which took place in July 2021” in making his decision. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

These actions are dangerously close to intimidation and one wonders about the toothlessness of the legal professions’ oversight bodies, that they continue to tolerate such behaviour.  A constitutional law expert, who preferred to be anonymous, describes to me Zuma’s counsel’s warning as part of a growing pattern of trying to bully the judiciary — and other lawyers.

“There is a problem of governance, it’s not strong enough. While the General Council of the Bar will hide behind the explanation that they can’t do anything without a formal complaint, there’s no doubt that they, too, are experiencing bullying calculated to encourage them to ignore such tactics.”

Second, in a similarly transparent vein, police unions this week warned Parliament that the SA Police Service (SAPS) would struggle to cope with any unusual demands, such as unrest, because there isn’t any overtime pay available. Representatives from Popcru and the SA Police Union told MPs this week that the morale of the police was very low and that poor salaries were a major reason for this.

The July unrest and policing of the 2021 municipal elections were some of the major events that emptied the R1.5bn SAPS budget for overtime, the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Police was told. “The overtime allocation amounts to R739m [and] must cover all provinces, divisions and components within SAPS. It is clear that the allocation is not nearly sufficient,” SAPU said. 

For the cops to seek improved overtime pay based on their performance in the 2021 upheavals in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng must be the ultimate in cheek. For the first four days of looting, arson and killing, the SAPS stirred not a finger to protect lives or property. 

In some KZN towns, they did not dare move out of their barricaded police stations. In at least one case, they were so ill-prepared that they begged on WhatsApp for civilians with firearms to give them any 9mm ammunition that could be spared. That’s a big ask, given that it was these very same civilian gun owners who were, until the military was deployed, literally the only barrier between the looters and their own neighbourhoods.

The question is whether the SAPS will be better prepared this time around. A security analyst, who also preferred not to be named, believes that it is.

For one, the acrimonious stand-off between National Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole and Minister of Police Bheki Cele, which paralysed SAPS for years, has at last ended. 

Sitole, having a few years earlier purged Criminal Intelligence of key officers, failed to foresee the July uprising, or to respond when it happened. He exited at the end of March after Ramaphosa — acting with his customary vigour and decisiveness — negotiated a “mutual agreement” for his resignation. 

Since then, says the analyst, the SAPS has been “shocked” into being more proactive. In August last year, SAPS responded to suggestions of new violence by deploying soldiers and police to guard some key installations, including the SA Broadcasting Corporation. In October/November, unreported in the media, there was another threat that never materialised, possibly because it became apparent to the plotters that SAPS knew of it.

On the downside, there is still an “incredible hesitancy” on the part of SAPS in particular, and the entire law enforcement apparatus in general, to deal with anything that has political fingerprints on it. “If the people involved are known to be ANC, no one wants to touch it, for fear of becoming caught up in the party’s factional wars,” he said. 

We shall just have to sit out the next month in tenterhooks and see how the SAPS performs, should it need to. Whatever the reassuring optimism of an expert, the public is likely more circumspect. 

It’s no secret that most South Africans believe that most of the police force is corrupt and to be feared. Low levels of trust and regard for SAPS have been recorded in countless polls and surveys. 

That’s an unusual and worrying situation in any young democracy struggling to contain steadily increasing levels of criminal violence. A state cannot function effectively if its citizenry views the law enforcement agencies to be illegitimate and corrupted. 

Human Sciences Research Council data shows that public trust in the police has been low throughout most of the democratic period. Between 2020 and 2021, however, there was a significant drop in the level of trust ordinary people had in the police.

But what is even more mind-boggling than the jaded view of the public, is that the police appear to agree. An internal SAPS survey shows that 53% of the officers polled believed that their colleagues were dishonest, while 54% said that their colleagues abused their powers. 

These startling statistics came to light, inadvertently, in that same hearing of the National Assembly’s  Portfolio Committee on Police. Deputy Police Minister Cassel Mathale told MPs that research was not meant to be made public, since it had been conducted solely to guide the SAPS leadership. However, the committee chairperson ordered that the findings should be disclosed.

It’s also worth remembering that it’s not only politicking and a lack of public trust that bedevil policing and the criminal justice in South Africa. It’s also the apathy and incompetence that are rife at every level of public service.

A field test by the Democratic Alliance of the ability of 140 national and provincial government departments to respond to telephone calls and emails found a dire situation. Almost two-thirds (65%) — including SAPS, the National Intelligence Agency, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the Defence ministry and the Presidency — failed to answer any of three separate calls or emails.

So, if you’ve got any hot info about any insurrection planned for next month, it seems you’re destined to having to keep it to yourself. In the meanwhile, stock up on that 9mm ammo. Your local cop shop is counting on you.

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