#UnrestSA: Instigators of unrest 'couldn't have anticipated resilience of South Africans' - experts

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  • As the dust begins to settle on the violence that has engulfed South Africa over the past week, security experts say instigators have largely failed in their efforts to bring South Africa to its knees. 
  • According to experts, what started off as collective violence spiraled into collective opportunism as instigators lost control of the situation. 
  • Judging from locations that had been hit by the violence, it is clear many communities did not heed the call to violence. 

If the violence that has engulfed South Africa over the past week following former President Jacob Zuma's arrest was a coup attempt, it was so weakly organised that instigators are walking away with egg on their faces, according to independent security expert Jasmine Opperman. 

What started with blocking key highways and the burning of critical infrastructure last week - following a tense standoff between Zuma's supporters and law enforcement ahead of his arrest - had turned into something else entirely. It is clear instigators of the violence have lost control of the situation, Opperman said. 

READ | One suspected 'instigator' of unrest arrested

They did not expect the resilience of South Africans, many of whom resisted the call to mobilise. Calls to violence were quashed almost immediately, according to Lizette Lancaster, manager for the Crime and Justice Information Hub at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

On Friday, during his visit to the devastated Bridge City Mall in KwaMashu, President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to go after these instigators, News24 reported. 

"Our intelligence services and police now have a line of sight as to what was happening in terms of the instigation, coordination and planning… We are going after those people. We have identified a good number of them. We will not allow anarchy and mayhem to unfold," he said, calling the sustained attacks on crucial infrastructure "economic sabotage".

Losing their grip

Instigators initially relied on collective violence in the hopes that they could control and manage the direction of the riots to violently object to Zuma's arrest. But it is now clear amid the settling dust of the unrest, they have lost their grip on the situation, which had deteriorated into collective opportunism, according to Opperman.

A clear target and some level of control by those who used a pro-Zuma message for their benefit has since changed. The group who instigated the violence now have limited say and cannot provide sufficient direction to move the unrest forward, Opperman said.

"They are not as in control, beyond KwaZulu-Natal, as they would like to portray, and might have experience in how to create ungovernability, but they lack the ability and capacity to take this to a level where it expands nationally and where it fosters support for them at that level," Opperman said.

READ | #UnrestSA : Petrol prices set for whopping increase

"In general, they actually became the victims of their own strategy."

Opperman noted that these instigators had used a strategy that allows them to refrain from confronting government directly – a contrast to previous social unrest related to local government. This allowed them to, "... build a veil to protect themselves", from exposure.

A man fires a hand gun in the air to disperse a mo
A man fires a hand gun in the air to disperse a mob of alleged looters outside of the Chris Hani Mall in Vosloorus.

"For them, we are going back to the 1970s and 1980s – a clear reliance on a strategy that is familiar in which the local communities can be inspired and will be able to respond, and also in the hope that these communities will create shadow structures that will support their goal."

Strategies identified from locations of unrest

The damage that has been caused and the impact it has on livelihood has been devastating. This may have been the plan at first, but according to Opperman, they could not have anticipated the resilience of South African communities.

According to Lancaster, most of the areas targeted in the looting and rioting were already hotspots of political contestation in which South Africa has witnessed unrest before, including service delivery protests instigated by political opportunists. 

Many of these areas, including Reservoir Hills, Greytown, Alexandra, and Katlehong, have had persistent protests for many years and this week mobilised to cause chaos among its residents.

SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 16: Operation Clean-U
Clean-up operations at Jabulani Mall, Soweto, after recent violet protests and looting.
Gallo Images Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo

But there are many more hotspots where this type of contestation existed, but looting did not occur this time around.

"Something else was already in the mix," Lancaster said.  

Instigators of violence failed to mobilise in these areas, like Mafikeng in the North West, and ignite the feelings of anguish and resentment needed to take up violence.

The damage, however, has still been severe. Warehouses were targetted throughout the week, including a Bidvest storage facility and a Tastic Rice warehouse.

Still, according to Lancaster, "... it could have been far worse because many didn't take up the call in many communities across the country and across KZN. 

READ | Zizi Kodwa says 'experienced' people behind looting as residents stand to protect Soweto mall

"Although the destruction was massive, often when we look at, for instance, the farms and sugar cane fields being burned, it's a couple of people who go around burning it - sort of acts of sabotage –but you don't see thousands of people congregating necessarily to protest. And that, I think, is also slightly hopeful.

SANDF members patrol the streets of Alexandra.
Gallo Images Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo

"One should look at the actual numbers of people who were against it [the violence] rather than the people who were for it. Far more South Africans are disgusted by this and did not [participate]. People have agency, and they made certain choices, and most people said 'not in our name'," Lancaster said. 


And while some information relayed to the public by the government suggests an orchestrated attempt to target critical infrastructure, very few of those attempts have been successful.

"For instance, we saw attempts in eThekwini, people trying to torch certain sites like landfills, water treatment [plants] and so on, but that was quickly put out. I think the traction and the organisational skills to really go for the maximum infrastructure [was lacking].

"They did not have the numbers to be successful in those plans, but we also saw quick action by private security and such to look after the critical infrastructure," Lancaster said.

READ | SA's lockdown laws have just been changed to help stop looting in Gauteng, KZN

However, the extent of the damage will only be known in the coming days, Lancaster said. While it is difficult to predict, the level of orchestration seen so far may well disappear if the criminal justice system can arrest and charge the organisers.

For now, maintaining law and order will be the easy part, Opperman noted, as there is already a decline in violence in Gauteng while KwaZulu-Natal seems to be of extreme concern. The next steps of the government and the ANC will be of utmost importance in the face of a pro-Zuma faction that aims to see President Cyril Ramaphosa fail in a moment of crisis. 

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