Eight Days in July: Inside the unrest and looting that shook South Africa

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A policeman guards a group of suspected looters who were apprehended at a shopping centre on 13 July 2021 in Vosloorus, Johannesburg during the looting and riots sparked by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo by James Oatway/Getty Images)
A policeman guards a group of suspected looters who were apprehended at a shopping centre on 13 July 2021 in Vosloorus, Johannesburg during the looting and riots sparked by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo by James Oatway/Getty Images)

In July 2021, with Jacob Zuma's imprisonment, dramatic and violent scenes of unrest and looting unfolded in KZN and Gauteng. More than 340 people lost their lives, and the damage exceeded R50 billion. Piecing together the full story, journalists Qaanitah Hunter, Jeff Wicks and Kaveel Singh sifted through hundreds of pages of leaked documents and intelligence briefs. Eight Days in July is a riveting first-hand account of what really happened, reported from the epicentre of the chaos.


Eight Days in July, a book written by three News24 journalists and published by Tafelberg, comes amazingly quickly after the events it deals with – the July rioting and looting that erupted soon after former president Jacob Zuma was jailed for contempt of court.

Getting Zuma into jail had been a long, convoluted process, with much huffing and puffing on the part of his supporters, including the repeated threat that some kind of massive public protest would follow his jailing. 

Eight Days in July takes all this into consideration and asks the pertinent questions about the degree to which the July riots were planned, what their planners’ goals were, and who exactly those planners were.

Many of those questions remain unanswered, or not fully answered. How do we understand the July events? It’s hard, even now, four months later, to settle on the correct terms: was it an uprising, a revolt, rioting or looting? A coup attempt, as some in the ruling party called it? 

Was it coordinated or spontaneous or a combination of both? What actions set off other actions? Was it the work of agents provocateurs engaging in sabotage, trying to destroy infrastructure and cause chaos in order to make President Cyril Ramaphosa’s life more difficult? 

After all, it is Ramaphosa who is seen by Zuma supporters as their key foe: he deposed Zuma at the ANC’s 2017 elective conference, and he has promised to fight corruption and state capture – of which Zuma and several cronies stand accused. Essentially, there’s a former power bloc that is at war with the new authorities, particularly because Ramaphosa’s reform agenda is likely to cauterise their flows of patronage.

Some of the Zuma supporters who cheered the looters on have been arrested, but many have not. It’s not clear how the cases against them are proceeding. The intelligence agencies claim they predicted the looting and the police paid little attention, but the police minister disputes that. Certainly, in the early days of the looting the police were conspicuous by their absence.

Eight Days in July


EXCERPT | Eight days in July: Inside the Zuma unrest that set South Africa alight

Eight Days in July provides the kind of analysis needed if South Africa is ever to get its head around what happened during those days of looting and burning – the authors look deeply into intelligence reports and other accounts to try and discern what was known, what was understood and what was predictable in the lead-up to those “July Days”. 

But the book does more, taking the reader right into the middle of that mayhem, particularly through the eyes of reporters who were on the ground as it happened. Kaveel Singh was in KZN, the epicenter of the looting and rioting, and Jeff Wicks was facing the looters in Gauteng. Their accounts are nerve-racking, a jolt for those who watched the events unfold from a distance. Qaanitah Hunter brings it all together beautifully, including her experience of Durban just after the destruction. 

The book is, as News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson puts it in his foreword, “a masterful rough draft of history” – a history still uncomfortably unfolding.


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