Dirk Kotze | Is this the Zuma legacy - A failed insurrection, a South African Spring or just looting?

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Supporters of former president Jacob Zuma on the N3 highway in Peacevale in KwaZulu-Natal. Photo: Rogan Ward, Reuters
Supporters of former president Jacob Zuma on the N3 highway in Peacevale in KwaZulu-Natal. Photo: Rogan Ward, Reuters

Dirk Kotze questions whether the events of the past week were as a result of a crisis of government or pro-Zuma insurrection gone wrong.

South Africa has experienced within one week the whole spectrum of turmoil, from demonstrations in support of President Jacob Zuma, to violence on the roads, to looting of the economic infrastructure, to a proverbial suicide by the people of KwaZulu-Natal. 

Is this a crisis for the government or for former President Jacob Zuma? Was this another dramatic exposure of the state's lack of capacity, lack of preparedness, lack of police and government leadership, or lack of foresight? Or was it an early signal of a "South African Spring"? Or a pro-Zuma insurrection gone wrong or an ethnic revolt without a leader?

Answers to these questions are not yet clear. We need to know whether this was planned and fuelled by supporters and family of Zuma, as several government persons are suggesting. Or did Zuma's incarceration become a catalyst for a public explosion fermented by socio-economic hardships and the frustrations of the pandemic's lockdown regulations? And why was it concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal and later also in Gauteng, while the poorest provinces, like Limpopo and the Eastern Cape were hardly involved in it?

Such a situation depends on quality intelligence information and analysis, because that determines the government's anticipation and response. Should this be treated as primarily a political matter, a public grievance or an opportunistic crime? 


In his address Friday night, Ramaphosa presented it as an insurrection characterised by economic and infrastructural sabotage. Its immediate impact was to threaten the Constitution and democracy – therefore nothing short of treason. In his view, the insurrectionist planners exploited the socio-economic conditions of many people and the dire implications of the Covid-19 pandemic as justification for the widespread looting. Noteworthy is that Ramaphosa never referred to Zuma and his incarceration as the catalyst of these developments. Still, he presented it as essentially a political motive that catapulted KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng into this tragedy. It appears as if the response to the political issue is to suffocate it with a security response. 

Irrespective of the situational analysis, the immediate response in all cases would be to contain the violence and looting and then stop it as quickly as possible. That requires effective policing and military support, where necessary. If it is a public grievance, the government decision-makers should publicly acknowledge the need for immediate attention and be seen to act on it. If it involves a conspiracy, as suggested in this case, the suspects have to be detained as soon as possible to disrupt their communication network. The bottom line is that state capacity is required as a first response, irrespective of the motivation for the violence or looting. (Political Science research emphasises state capacity and uses a theoretical premise that relative deprivation will not always end in conflict if the state's capacity is sufficient to suppress it, especially in democratic conditions.)

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Therefore, the focus is in the first instance on the government's security cluster of the police, military and intelligence. Friday night Ramaphosa unequivocally conceded that the state institutions were not prepared for this situation. He promised that a thorough assessment of the state's security capacity (presumably intelligence and the police) would have to be done. 

It is common knowledge that the national police service is experiencing a leadership crisis for several years already. A high turnover of the national commissioners and long-standing problems with crime intelligence, together with insufficient training of the police in general, have paralysed the service to act in crisis situations. As a result of the police's inaction when a crowd gathered at Nkandla after Zuma's conviction by the Constitutional Court, and violated public order regulations, an authority vacuum became apparent. The police could never thereafter regain their authority. Broadcast nationwide, it exposed the state's authority deficit. It explains how the Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans' association and the amaZulu fighters (amaButho) could usurp control of the public space at Nkandla and defy the police. This was the most significant catalyst that gave the green light for all the events that followed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. 

Last option

The introduction of the military at a much later stage changed the scale of the power balance. A military demonstration might always be the last option, but it also is a concession that the police had failed. 

Crises often stimulate innovation.

Though the Sydney Mufamadi panel on the intelligence services has submitted its recommendations already, their implementation is very slow. Intelligence as a component of national security, domestic stability, international diplomacy and crime-fighting, is the backbone of any government. The dramatic failure of intelligence to prevent this insurrection is, therefore a public embarrassment for the government as a whole and will invariably force serious changes in the intelligence infrastructure.

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The National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoints), including all the justice, crime prevention and security cluster departments, is currently the main intelligence coordinator. It is, however preoccupied with managing several aspects of the pandemic and lockdown.

Ramaphosa was forced to look for innovations and announced this week that he would meet twice a day with the National Security Council, a body of ministers and senior officials from the same cluster. By re-activating this Council, which was operational during the Mbeki era, a centre for high-level intelligence coordination is again established. Hopefully, it signifies a new appreciation of the importance of quality and reliable intelligence as an integral part of government.

Calls for a state of an emergency

Public calls for a state of emergency (in terms of the Constitution's Section 37) as the only remedy for the situation, have been made. It is one of three options available to the government. The others are a national state of disaster (in terms of the National Disaster Management Act) and a state of national defence (Section 203 in the Constitution). The current disaster regulations provide several emergency options, such as a curfew, restrictions on movement, and public gatherings or events. A state of emergency would possibly detain persons without a trial for up to ten days, but it requires more parliamentary oversight than a state of disaster.

Only three emergencies have been declared in the last 60 years: in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre, during 1985-1990 in the face of the political upheavals, and just before the April 1994 elections only in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. A similar arrangement only for KwaZulu-Natal was certainly an option.

READ | Elmien du Plessis: Do we need a state of emergency for the current violence?

Local communities have emerged in this context as the local heroes filling the gaps left by ineffective state actions. Equally important is the role played by taxi drivers, local businesses and others to protect local infrastructure and provide security for the inhabitants of those areas. It takes one back to the role played by the street committees of civic associations in the 1980s and the local peace committees established by the National Peace Accord during the 1990s. This civic tradition has become very important for modern South Africa.

Civic assertiveness and caring as a public norm has become a significant characteristic of society today. It provides a stabilising presence, but a state cannot indefinitely depend on it. 

Ramaphosa's response in the coming weeks to these developments will reveal to us what were the lessons learnt by government and how much his economic recovery paradigm can be adjusted to deal also with these glaring problems.

- Prof Dirk Kotzé, Department of Political Sciences at Unisa.

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