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Social media was ‘instrumental’ in July unrest expert tells SA Human Rights Commission

Durban residents seen looting on Queen Nandi drive in the vicinity of Briardene, Riverhorse Valley during the unrest in July. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

Durban residents seen looting on Queen Nandi drive in the vicinity of Briardene, Riverhorse Valley during the unrest in July. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 3, 2021

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DURBAN - A CONSULTANT to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) inquiry into the July unrest yesterday that social media played a major part in encouraging the looting.

David Bruce, an independent researcher and consultant at the ISS, said social media posts had encouraged unlawful behaviour during the July unrest.

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“Everybody owns smartphones nowadays. There were messages that were sent on social media that created the perception for people that they could take whatever they wanted and there would be no repercussions.”

Bruce said the police could have handled the situation better by using social media.

“The police could have used social media to their advantage, they could have communicated with the public, discouraging lawlessness. The police could have announced their presence at certain malls with social media, and made the public aware that they were there if they needed help.”

Bruce said the situation reached a point where it was necessary to deploy the SANDF.

“The July unrest did come to a place where it was unprecedented and the police were overwhelmed in that they couldn’t be at every place at the same time. However, the word ‘unprecedented’ shouldn’t be used as a generalised excuse for the shortcomings of the police.”

Bruce said the police needed to have other innovations to deal with large crowds, instead of just using force.

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“When the police use force to disperse a crowd, that can escalate to violent confrontations. Using force on crowds doesn’t necessarily mean it is effective as it may only disperse a crowd for a short time, and the chances are they can simply come back.”

Bruce said he felt that the use of rubber bullets was dangerous when dealing with large crowds.

“Rubber bullets are potentially lethal weapons, and are not less lethal. Rubber bullets can cause injury and even death. The use of rubber bullets was not effective during the July unrest. The other thing is that when you use rubber bullets people not involved can also be injured.

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“Remember that when the police use rubber bullets it is directed at an entire crowd, but it could be only certain individuals who are involved in unlawful behaviour.”

He said it appeared that the unrest threats had emerged from within the ranks of the governing ANC.

“It just seems inherently problematic for our country if these type of threats to the security of the state emerge from within the governing party.

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“Along with that goes a particular conundrum for security services or governance of the security services, because one of the aspects of the governance of the security services that is desirable in a country is that their politicisation be minimised.

“But the situation in July seems to have been that if it was to have been pre-empted, it would have required that the intelligence agencies focus their scrutiny on elements within, or linked to, the governing party,” Bruce said.

He said that this had inevitably taken the country’s intelligence services into a situation where they were facing questions on whether they were being politically manipulated, and whether there was a kind of political preference or favouritism that was being applied by them.

“Ultimately, what this points to is a need for us to engage with the governing party about the problematic consequences of its internal dynamics and politics for the country as a whole, but also for the security services.

“We would hope that this would be an issue that would be foregrounded by this inquiry in the findings that it makes,” Bruce said.

The hearing into the unrest is expected to conclude today, with Police Minister Bheki Cele expected to be present.

THE MERCURY

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