Mandy Wiener: What’s cooking in the country? Ominous signs of July unrest repeat

There have been ominous warnings issued in South Africa over the past few weeks, like glaring red flags that are nearly impossible to ignore.

Considering our experience as a country in July last year, we would be foolish and naïve to not heed these warnings.

We have seen a string of violent and mass shootings in the past few weeks. Many of these have occurred at taverns in townships. Service delivery protests are bubbling and in Tembisa this week, they exploded into looting and torching of civic buildings. Four people died in the violence.

There is a growing view in intelligence circles that all of these attacks are attempts to destabilise the country and instil fear in the public. It is believed that they could be part of an intentional campaign. There are concerns that the various incidents are orchestrated, potentially by ‘forces’ opposed to President Cyril Ramaphosa, keeping in mind of course that we are in the middle of an ANC leadership succession battle this year. Who is behind the orchestrated campaign is unclear although there are suggestions that there are links to rogue former intelligence agents.

In stark contrast, others within the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster say that sowing the narrative of a simmering insurrection is unwarranted at this stage and we should remember that South Africa is an inherently violent country so these incidents are not unusual.

Considering just one year ago we experienced several days of looting and unrest ostensibly by ‘insurgents’ that are yet to materialise, we would do well to heed the warning that this trouble could well be brewing again.

National Police Commissioner Fannie Masemola has refuted claims that the rise in shootings in parts of the country are linked to organised crime. He told journalists that law enforcement is probing the mass shootings across the country with a fine-tooth comb as security structures scramble for answers.

Masemola said their investigation thus far shows no clear link between the shootings but that the motive appears to be extortion and drugs.

There are also concerns among police intelligence and state security that this week’s violence in Tembisa could also have been a legitimate protest that was hijacked by rogue elements.

Speaking to Radio 702’s Bongani Bingwa this week, Ekurhuleni Mayor Tania Campbell said she was concerned that the violence may have been orchestrated. She believes there are groups trying to make the new administration in the city "ungovernable".

“There are external forces taking advantage of the situation. The same situation we saw in July last year when criminality took over real issues communities wanted to address. I will be in conversation with the provincial commissioner of SAPS and the Premier (David Makhura) on a resolution going forward,” she told Bingwa.

“When you have a look at the WhatsApp messages and the flyers that went out over the weekend, the Tembisa Community Forum did not coordinate this. It is definitely orchestrated,” said Campbell.

Gauteng’s Community Safety MEC Letlhogonolo Moseki echoed similar sentiments when he told me on the Midday Report that “this is a well-coordinated orchestrated move by some third force elements”.

On the anniversary of the July unrest this year, Business Unity South Africa CEO Cas Coovadia warned that South Africa could be ripe for a repeat of the 2021 unrest. Coovadia said that factors leading to the July insurrection remain, and law and order remain a disturbing weakness.

This was largely because there has been such little action in bringing the so-called instigators to book. At a briefing on the unrest, Defence minister Thandi Modise said that only 2% of the 2,435 cases enrolled in connection with the violence actually led to convictions.

At the memorial service for ANC stalwart Jessie Duarte last month, former president Thabo Mbeki warned that South Africa could experience its own “Arab Spring” if the growing unemployment, poverty, and crime in the country are not addressed urgently.

He said the people would erupt in anger because they were regularly hearing of ANC leaders being corrupt and nothing was being done to address these issues.

The report of the expert panel into the July unrest pointed to spectacular failures by not only the Security cluster in the country but even a blatant disregard of the national intelligence estimate that warned that conditions were ripe for unrest and possibly violence last year.

This raises the critical question now, as to how ready is the SAPS should there be another outbreak of violence?

Worth considering is the fact that the current police commissioner was the Deputy Commissioner and a key cog in police management during the July unrest. His inability as part of police leadership to deal with the violence cannot be disregarded. Many within law enforcement also see him as a lackey of Police Minister Bheki Cele, who is very much the de facto commissioner. Cele’s constant parading at crime scenes and meddling in operational issues has already weakened Masemola’s credibility.

The Crime Intelligence arm of the SAPS also remains in paralysis without a permanent head following years of infighting, mismanagement and political abuse. There are simply not sufficient operations being carried out to mitigate against any kind of orchestrated insurrection and solid intelligence is absolutely crucial in this regard.

We also need to consider whether the police are prepared operationally and whether the SAPS actually has the manpower to deal with any kind of orchestrated attacks, considering how severely stretched it was last July. Are there enough warm bodies trained in public order policing? And do we have enough armoured vehicles to do the job?

Whilst we should be wary of stoking fear or panic or perpetuating false narratives, we also cannot be fools and continue on naively. We placed our trust in the country’s law enforcement agencies last year and they failed to protect us. That failure was extremely costly in both lives and to the economy. The expert panel report warned us about what went wrong and what needed to be done to avoid it happening again. We would be fools to ignore these ominous red flags, especially considering the experiences of last July.