Van Riebeeck to blame, again

William Saunderson-Meyer says the SAHRC report on the July 2021 riots lacks credibility


The absence of intellectual fibre in the African Nation Congress’s cadre-deployment diet has reached dangerous levels. 

It negatively affects every department, state-owned entity, government agency and byway of officialdom, with the possible exceptions of the Revenue Service and the Treasury. The Chapter Nine institutions, particularly, have been so starved of cerebral nourishment through the appointment of ANC apparatchiks that they have long lost any credibility they might have had.

This week’s release of findings into what is euphemistically called the 2021 “unrest” in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng confirms that erosion. The reports by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights Commission (CRL) demonstrate that what were intended to be the bulwarks of democracy are enfeebled and barely sentient. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The CRL report is so poor that it’s barely worthy of mention. Two-and-a-half years of effort have produced a flimsy 24-page document more reminiscent of a primary school-class project than a serious inquiry by an important state institution. 

In essence, the HRC subcontracted the “Phoenix massacres” in KZN, where 33 of 36 people known to have died were black Africans, to the CRL to play with, while it looked at the bigger picture. The CRL’s headline finding, according to its public presentation, was that there were “adversorial (sic) relationships” between the Indian community and their African neighbours; that inherent Indian prejudice “continues to marginalising (sic) the African people”, and that “as exemplified by some woman from Emawote”, Africans have to “migrate daily” to Phoenix to buy goods and attend Indian-dominated schools.

One solution, declares the CRL, is to strengthen social cohesion. “We recommend Inter sports activities like soccer, swimming, netball, etc … to encourage interaction. Another solution is that “anyone who is found to be a racist must be charged and be made to serve his sentence in the prejudicial (sic) community, in order to combat racism in all its forms must be every bodies (sic) business.”

One step up from this shallow garbage is the HRC’s much more slickly produced 252-page report. The HRC strives for literary cachet by incorporating in the name of its report — July’s People: The National Investigative Hearing Report into the July 2021 Unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal — the title of Nadine Gordimer’s 1981 dystopian novel July’s People. July 2021 riots, July’s People? Geddit?

It’s a bizarre thing to do. Set in a post-apartheid South Africa wracked by civil war, July’s People has a white protagonist and his family leave the city to seek protection in the rural kraal of their black servant, July. (That’s his forename but the po-faced HRC hilariously insist on calling him “Mr July” throughout.)

Ironically, the book was temporarily banned from schools by the Gauteng government because “any condemnation of racism is difficult to discover, so the story comes across as deeply racist, superior and patronising”. The HRC, however, writes in what amounts to a What I Read During My Holidays book report, that July’s People is a “remarkable interrogation of the complex interdependencies, tensions and conflicts that permeate across racial, cultural and class differences”. Sadly, this fluffery is possibly the most cogent analysis to be found in the entire report.

Even more jarring than the HRC commissioners’ literary affectations — Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Golding’s Lord of the Flies also get an airing — is its key conclusion. Astonishingly, the HRC reports that there is no evidence that the 2021 unrest, which President Cyril Ramaphosa described at the time as “attempted insurrection” — was in any way linked to the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. 

While the HRC concedes that the two events coincided exactly, this was merely a “[blurred] intertwining … an intersection [that] led many to conclude that the two are related”. This jaw-dropping assertion by HRC is an emphatic rejection of the findings of the Expert Panel which in 2022 covered the same ground as the HRC. 

Where the HRC report meanders through reams of “maybe, could be, who knows?” sociological analysis that seems calculated to avoid anything that could exacerbate divisions in the ruling party, the Expert Panel was far more critical.

The Expert Panel identified Zuma’s incarceration as the event that “lit the tinderbox” in a “ripe environment” of poor service delivery, unacceptable living conditions, a sickly economy and persistent poverty. It warned that “as a matter of national security”, the ANC should address the degree to which “internal differences within the governing party” contributed to the violence.

The Expert Panel found, “unequivocally” that the intelligence, police and security services failed to respond timeously or adequately, that there was a “lapse of leadership” at the presidential executive level, and that the violence was “planned and orchestrated”. It noted that South Africans “felt abandoned by the state”. 

“Some of those who took part in the violence, looting and destruction appear to have been politically motivated people angered by the sentencing of former President Zuma to 15 months’ imprisonment,” the Expert Panel wrote. “They were responding to the national shutdown calls and the social media mobilisation of the so-called Radical Economic Transformation (RET) forces. 

“The ANC admits that some people inciting violence were their members. It called on them to put a stop to that behaviour, but it is unclear whether disciplinary action was taken against such members.” 

The HRC report refutes none of this. It doesn’t even address these core issues. 

In fact, it only mentions the Expert Panel report twice. It mentions the RET twice, in passing, but finds itself unable to deduce any nefarious involvement by this Zuma-supporting group in the unrest, despite an expert witness from the intelligence community giving evidence that just this one RET account sent out more than 22,000 tweets warning of “mass destruction” if Zuma were to be jailed.

When the HRC’s André Gaum in September 2021 announced the inquiry, he said it would be “inquisitorial in nature”. As inquisitorial, as Ramaphosa found out to his relief when he gave evidence, as having one’s shiny brow lovingly mopped with a scented handkerchief. 

Ramaphosa was not once probed about his assertion that the violence — at least 360 killed and R50 billion in direct property damage — was an attempted insurrection by a party cabal. Nor was Ramaphosa, or any of his Ministers, questioned about the ANC’s statement that it had evidence, which would be handed to the police, identifying a dozen senior ANC members — presumably from the RET faction — as the chief instigators. 

Comparisons, proverbially, are odious. They are also revealing. 

The Expert Panel was headed by Professor Sandy Africa and assisted by Advocate Mojankunyane Gumbi and Silumko Sokupa. The HRC inquiry was chaired by Gaum, assisted by Philile Ntuli and Andrew Nissen.

Africa is a director at the Institute for Strategic and Political Affairs at the University of Pretoria and was in an earlier life a deputy director-general in the State Security Agency. Gumbi is vice-chancellor of the University of Venda, a special adviser to the UN, was an adviser to President Thabo Mbeki, and was involved in various peacemaking efforts on the African continent. Sokupa, who has since died, was a former deputy director-general of the Secret Service and served on the National Intelligence Coordinating Committee.

In contrast, Gaum is a recycled politician, deployed to the HRC featherbed after 14 stolid and unmemorable years as an ANC MP. He also served briefly as deputy Minister of Education in Zuma’s Cabinet. The only consolation is that he has not been reappointed to the HRC’s commissioners’ staff.

Nissen is another political retread. A pastor and lifelong ANC activist, he served in the Western Cape provincial government as the ANC's MEC for Economic Affairs and then as Deputy Speaker. Nissen, who is chairperson of the HRC, was deputy chair of the inquiry.

Ntuli is the only one of the three on the inquiry panel who is not an obviously deployed cadre. She majored in English Literature and Political Science for her BA degree and has a master’s in gender studies. I suspect she loves Nadine Gordimer novels. 

As an aside, there are four other full-time HRC commissioners. Fatime Choha, the deputy chairperson of the HRC, was previously an ANC MP and a deputy Minister of Home Affairs. The newly appointed Dr Henk Boshoff is/was an ANC member, according to the minutes of the parliamentary portfolio committee that interviewed him. The other new appointment, Professor Tshepo Madlingozi, was challenged in his interview over his passionately held view that the South African Constitution is a Eurocentric liberal abomination.

That leaves only one full-time commissioner, Elspeth Kwinana, a former attorney, whose political colours are not firmly nailed to the mast. 

The HRC report is not all bad. It does lay blame on the security establishment for its failures, albeit in much gentler terms than the Expert Panel. However, it has produced an evasive, superficial and predictable report. 

The HRC is far more interested in sociology than accountability. At its core, July 2021 apparently wasn’t about despicable traitors. It was about the forces of history.

“As a nation on a continuous journey away from our colonial past, we must take the July Unrest as a marker, and a lesson … The Unrest was a wake-up call … a confrontation with the reality that the Bill of Rights must be realised … particularly for those to whom the same rights were deprived by the colonial and apartheid governments.” 

So, there it is. Another HRC mission on behalf of the ANC successfully carried out. Instead of having Jacob Zuma in the dock, we have Jan van Riebeek.

* The HRC report can be found here

* The CRL report is not online and they could not tell me when/if it ever would be. There is, however, a link to the Durban launch presentation document

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