What were the Zuma insurrectionists thinking?

Willem Steenkamp explains the likely objectives of the RET forces, and what went wrong for them

Considering what we saw transpire in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng earlier this month, it is self-evident that the massive, strategically targeted destruction that has been instigated and orchestrated, cannot conceivably be deemed to have been merely legitimate political protest born out of frustration induced by poverty, by the hardships caused by the pandemic and by any perceived slight of their man and their tribe (in the form of the incarceration of Zuma).

Firstly, there were no overt signs of typical protest – no marching, no placards, no statements. People were bussed to strategic targets and, yes, there was looting on massive scale, but then it went further, to deliberate and massive destruction in the form of burning down infrastructure and fixed property, to a value ten times exceeding that of the goods looted. The targeting as such (cutting the highway and roads network, attacking 139 schools) point to a deliberate strategy to cause economic pain and social disruption, in order to try and extra-legally achieve political goals that could not be achieved constitutionally and democratically. This, by any definition, is not protest, but is an attempted insurrection – as President Cyril Ramaphosa has rightfully been pointing out.

It is important here to understand that such unrest is typically driven by imitation (i.e., copycat action). Someone sets an example, which others then follow by imitation. This psychologically creates the mob dynamic in riot situations. As a consequence, it is axiomatic that (for the vast majority of participants) their involvement is as a reaction to both the stimulus (i.e.., to the “spark in the powder keg”) and to the example set. It is therefore not very enlightening to assert that the “Zuma riots” were reactionist, since riots always are, for the vast majority of participants. The true question, from a national security perspective, concerns the objectives of those lead elements who had set the example to be imitated – the instigators of the protest or insurrectionist action.

Tactically, the Zuma faction has been trying to use the revolutionary playbook of the seventies and eighties, which is based on subverting the existing power by means of mobilising the masses to make the country ungovernable. In order to mobilise the masses, the first necessary step is to conscientize, then to polarize, radicalize and finally mobilise into an irresistible force. The conscientization (message implantation) in the Zulu ambit has evidently been thorough, given the numbers who participated in the destruction – but still, far from complete (important leadership elements such as the Zulu royal house, the taxi association and Zulu politicians who have remained loyal to the constitutional order, shows that, despite the numbers of those who did participate in looting and destruction, the Zuma gambit of a popular uprising had failed, even in KZN and Gauteng.)

What the Zuma faction had needed in order to advance from conscientization phase to polarization and full mobilisation, also in the rest of South Africa, was to trap the Ramaphosa government into a violent response to the looting. The revolutionary playbook had shown that nothing alienates and polarizes so effectively as heavy-handed security force action that’s not properly planned, adequately logistically supported or commanded and controlled with politically-sensitive discretion (as the then security forces’ disastrous handling of the June 16 1976 protest in Soweto, for example, more than amply demonstrated). The recent looting and destruction was therefore provocative in the extreme, set precisely as a trap (in any other nation on the planet, including in the West, destruction on such a scale, with such deliberate strategic targeting, would very likely have elicited a massive security response from government, using legitimate force – but then losing the political battle for the hearts and minds of those who had lost sons, daughters, relatives and friends in the riots).

So, the tactical scenarios that the Zuma clique probably had gamed out in their minds, revolved around two likely outcomes they anticipated, either of which would have represented a win for them: They probably reasoned that, if they could instigate violent destruction and economic damage at the scale they in fact achieved, then the government would have no choice but to try and stop it, one way or the other. This could only have been in one of two ways: either a deployment of force (which would have needed to be massive and oppressive, given the sheer scale of the challenge) igniting a spiralling cycle of alienation, polarisation, and mobilization, because it would be Ramaphosa’s security forces shooting Zulus, Blacks, in order to protect the property of Whites and Indians.  The only other possible way that the Zuma clique likely believed the government could stem the violence without setting the security forces on the looters, would have been to release Zuma and plead for calm.

The ideal phase one outcome for the Zuma group would have been if the government had chosen to forcefully contribute to an escalation of the violence, by pell-mell deploying the unprepared and under-equipped security forces and ordering them to suppress the unrest by force, without adequate intelligence, planning or numbers. It is undeniable that, the moment that security forces shoot dead large numbers of “unarmed protesters”, then that becomes the story dominating the media coverage, not the protest as such. This is already underscored by Julius Malema now claiming the Ramaphosa government to be illegitimate merely because it had to deploy soldiers – one can imagine how this illegitimacy attack would have looked, had the security forces killed large numbers of people (no  matter whether justified or not).

The trap was thus set, the provocation instigated, and such forceful attempted immediate suppression would thus almost inevitably have escalated the spiral of alienation, radicalization and polarization to the point of eventually probably engulfing the entire country and pitting races and tribes against one another, leading to ungovernability and a rejection of the thus failed Ramaphosa government. Should such a spiral of violence, on the other hand, have led to Zuma being released (as a placatory measure to try and re-establish peace), then that would have been a clear political victory for the Zuma faction, which also would have shown that Ramaphosa had lost control and the ability to govern. That outcome would then inevitably result in a transfer of power back to his challengers.  

Tactically, should the phase one destruction not have sufficed to force the government’s hand into releasing Zuma and capitulating to his faction, then it appears now from reporting that a phase two may have been intended, targeting critical infrastructure such as communications, water works and the port. Together with the food shortages that undoubtedly already will be following the massive phase one destruction and road blockages, this would have been intended to shortly result in a population desperate for basic necessities, and again blaming the government for not being able to provide it, nor security. Again, these are the tactics of violent revolutionary warfare, of an insurrection, not of legitimate political protest. (Whether these allegations of a “phase 2” hold up or not, it is evident that any prudent government had to take cognizance of it, when it decided the priority deployment of its forces).

Tactically, the Ramaphosa government, on their part, was obviously driven first by their desire to retain their legitimately won power within the ANC, and therefore the State.  To do this, they had to engage in a delicate balancing act, leveraging four things:

- Firstly (subtly) letting play out the historical fear that the other tribes have, from Shaka’s time, for violent Zulu domination.

- Secondly, relying on the build-up of public revulsion in the now visibly disastrous consequences of the RET group's radical, reckless approach concerning the economy and around the use of violence for political ends.

- Thirdly, deploying first of all to protect the truly critical infrastructure from destruction – essentials such as water works and the port, the destruction of which could have led to long-term deprivation of basic services, leaving the population desperate for elemental necessities such as water and food for an extended period, which would then signify that the government had lost the power to govern and polarize communities against one another.

- Fourthly, they had to have the active engagement of the public, relying on the innate values and conservatism of the average South African who abhors violence and destruction and craves law and order; above all, the government had to retain the goodwill of the majority of the populace by being seen as restrained and rational, thus emerging as the “good guys” in the struggle for the hearts and minds.

In short, the government had to allow the RET/Zuma faction the rope to, through their attempted insurrection, make themselves to be publicly identified with the chaos, damage, loss of life and the very trying circumstances that inevitably will flow from the unrest, whilst as government positioning themselves as the democratically rightful, rational, responsible and peace-orientated faction, with as sub-text also them being the bulwark against radical political and economic experimentation, Zulu domination and rampant criminality.

For these wedge points to properly drive in, it was thus, paradoxically, to Ramaphosa's benefit that the violent destruction initially continued unbridled. Firstly, because it reinforced the image of “the Zulus” as violently addicted to their self-perceived “birth-right” to dominate the political scene, and secondly because the economic consequences (hunger, unemployment, lack of development) of the current devastation would turn the general public against the Zuma faction, also when the latter became so visibly associated with the criminal element exploiting the unrest.

It was therefore to have been expected that the Ramaphosa government would initially have done the bare minimum in terms of a physical assertion of power, in order thereby to achieve important tactical objectives. Above all, so as to avoid falling into the trap of “brutal repression”. Secondly, to obtain first a clear picture and plan properly (there’s no denying that there was a lamentable lack of intelligence, with no logistical capability to speak of and no contingency plans in place). Thirdly, to prioritize protecting long-term essential infrastructure such as water works, and last but not least, to give the other side the rope with which to hang themselves in the arena of public opinion, whilst thereby effectively also obliging the general public to come off the side-lines and range themselves against the violent insurrectionists, to actively take a hand in protecting their own areas and interests.

With his acute understanding of the playbook that the Zuma faction was trying to implement against him, together with his restrained, carefully-considered response (see for example the very clear standing orders regarding disciplined, restrained conduct that were issued to the troops deployed) Pres. Ramaphosa undoubtedly demonstrated great insight, rational restraint and statesmanship under severe pressure.

On the flip side, though, it was essential for government to not appear to have been totally incompetent or so caught up in the paralysis of ANC intra-party unity, to the extent of thereby losing the faith of the public in the government’s ability to effectively govern; to protect them and their interests. In this, the government was perceived by many to have been less successful. As admitted by the president himself, there were very serious management and organisational problems associated with launching effective counter-action in a timely manner (although evidence will probably start emerging soon of important threats to things such as critical infrastructure, that were successfully averted).  

As the immediate impact of the admittedly shocking media images die down, a better public understanding of how serious and complex the challenge to our constitutional order was, may emerge. An understanding for the reality that this was not simply rampant, blind mob violence and criminality allowed by an incompetent government to go un-answered, but in fact an instigated, strategically targeted attempted insurrection aimed at the subversion of our democratic constitutional order, which above all had to be countered with the brain, not first and foremost with the fist.  This understanding will likely be aided by the eventual release of the intelligence that the government had to act upon, in relation to priority deployments required to protect vital infrastructure, ahead of rushing to the likes of (already looted and burning) malls and liquor stores. What will NOT help the government’s cause, nor its credibility and appearance of competency, is if individual ministers haphazardly persist in putting conflicting messages in the public domain.

It bears repeating that what the Ramaphosa government had to avoid at all costs, in this struggle for the hearts and minds of especially the non-White population, is a perception of brutal overreaction in its use of the security forces (such as Zuma for example had suffered because of the perceptions created by the Marikana incident). Ramaphosa simply could not afford to be equated in any manner with the propaganda image of the "Apartheid-era security forces".

Judging by a number of key pointers, one can safely say that this first round of its venture into attempted insurrection was a disaster for the Zuma faction, and that they now know it:

First there is the incontrovertible fact that the Zuma faction could not succeed in instigating their insurrection in any other parts of the country than where the Zulu demographically dominate.

Secondly, they could not sustain it, even in KZN and GT, in the face of the steady mobilization of government and communities to counter them.

Thirdly, Zuma is still very much incarcerated.

Fourthly, in the minds of the vast majority of the population the Zuma faction has now, even more firmly than ever before, established themselves as “Public Enemy #1”.

Lastly, by the subsequent actions and declarations of the suspected ring-leaders themselves, who are now ducking and diving on a grand scale to try and save their backsides, one can aver that they have lost badly, and very much realise it.

An opinion survey done by the agency Polity, for example, found that 98% of respondents supported the deployment of the SANDF against the insurrectionists, and 94% supported the jailing of Jacob Zuma. In another survey, 92% of respondents felt that legal action against perceived instigators such as the Zuma children would be justified.

Within the ranks of the justly proud Zulu nation, the consequences of the destruction at economic and health services level in especially the Zulu residential areas (where it will hit by far the hardest), will probably also begin to lead to reflection on whether Zuma should be supported simply because of his blood – the Zulu king and leaders such as Prince Buthelezi are already taking a strong stance in favour of the constitutional order and the need for the "rehabilitation" of the Zulu image after the damage caused it by this shockingly illegal and immoral over-reach instigated by the Zuma clique.

Certainly, this should also bring reflection on whether the propaganda pretence that Zuma was only charged because he was fighting the supposedly manipulative and exploitative WMC, holds any water (the pretence in terms of which one can supposedly therefore “rightfully” steal from those who have, as a radical form of redistribution and also at the same time as just punishment of the evil WMC for their “political manipulation”).

The South African public will surely also reflect on whether any of this in the end truly served the interests of the poor — when after this, for a significant period of time, many of them in the affected areas are not going to have food, jobs or health services.  

The criminal element that had exploited the turmoil for looting and plundering, is also likely to encounter more active public opposition, as can already be seen from taxi circles and community forums. This may bring greater public engagement to combat crime in the future, and also affect the course of debate/policy around, for example, privately owned firearms.

This is an edited extract from a longform essay soon to appear in the upcoming edition of the national security history magazine, the Nongqai, Vol 12 No 8.

Dr Willem Steenkamp is a former National Intelligence Service analyst, Ambassador & Lawyer. He is co-editor of the Nongqai.