July civil unrest probe: President, Cabinet ’must be held accountable’
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OPINION: The SAHRC commissioners must consider when they conduct these hearings, how to acknowledge victims and the violence and harm suffered. At the same time, they have the responsibility to avoid causing further divisions in these bitterly divided communities, writes Yasmin Sooka.
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC’s), public investigative hearings into the July civil unrest in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng, began on Monday.
The unrest, labelled by President Cyril Ramaphosa as an “insurrection”, is usually defined as “an organised and usually violent act of revolt or rebellion against an established government”.
The president must confront the fact that this was not a spontaneous uprising of the poor but a systematically planned, targeted violent campaign that began when heavily armed and masked gangs hijacked trucks near the Mooi River Toll Plaza, using them to block the road before torching 25 vehicles, effectively crippling the lifeblood of the South African economy.
During the insurrection, many businesses were burnt as South Africans witnessed domestic carnage on a scale not seen in the country since the brutality of apartheid. The damage is said to be irreparable and insurance brokers place replacement costs at between R25 billion and R30bn. Many businesses do not intend to reopen.
More than 350 people were allegedly killed, raising the democratic state’s obligation to prevent violence and to protect its people from harm. The president has not appointed a state inquiry to investigate why the state institutions failed to foresee the insurrection or to examine their culpability once they knew of the carnage taking place across the two provinces.
This spectacular failure by state institutions is reminiscent of the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection.
The state, including the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), must consider whether the crimes perpetrated during the insurrection constitute a crime against humanity and whether those with command and superior responsibility, including the president, Cabinet ministers, heads of police and national intelligence, should be held accountable for what happened as well as their failure to investigate and to hold those responsible accountable. This would include those who planned and instigated the insurrection.
The state’s failure makes the SAHRC hearings very important. While different in scope and context, the hearings before the SAHRC remind to some extent of the Truth Commission hearings, held more than two decades ago, as they too gave victims a voice as well as investigate systemic issues behind the violence.
The SAHRC hearings heard the poignant testimony of Zama Nguse, a resident from one of the informal settlements in Pietermaritzburg, of how her nephew was killed when businesspeople allegedly set shacks alight, attacking and shooting those they accused of looting and burning their businesses.
Another witness, Sham Maharaj, was repeatedly questioned on whether the killing of 30 people in Phoenix could be defined as a massacre. He responded: “The massacre thing got coined by the media and certain opportunistic politicians.”
The definitive question of our time, which must be linked to the legacy of the transformation of in South Africa, is whether the state’s failure to implement the TRC recommendations has deepened racial divisions and inequality. South Africans, of all races, live on a constant knife edge, but this is so much more attenuated in places like Phoenix and in Gauteng. Witnesses testifying before the SAHRC have argued that most Indians are racist. This perception, is real for many people in KZN, while the spectre of the 1948 riots looms large in the minds of Indians.
While 56 people, implicated in the shooting and killing of civilians, have been arrested and charged, there is a stunning silence on the authors and instigators of the insurrection, including those who used social media. It is common cause that the economic sabotage and wanton destruction of property and infrastructure witnessed during the unrest was systematically planned and orchestrated by those claiming to be incensed by the treatment meted out to a former president.
It’s imperative that the SAHRC’s hearings not only provide answers on the killings and the structural causes of the insurrection but how to build bridges between racially divided communities. Racially constructed narratives must be deconstructed to offer people more than inflammatory suggestions of “how many killings constitute a massacre”.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for South Africa, as it laid bare the class, gender and economic fault lines in our society. More than 12 million South Africans are unemployed and one in five people live in extreme poverty.
The SAHRC commissioners must consider when they conduct these hearings, how to acknowledge victims and the violence and harm suffered. At the same time, they have the responsibility to avoid causing further divisions in these bitterly divided communities.
When people are killed, the question should be not only “why?” “who” and “how?’ but it needs to go beyond holding only the trigger pullers accountable as the state failed its people and, ultimately, should be held accountable for what the commission terms a “massacre”.
*Yasmin Sooka is a human rights lawyer. She is a former commissioner at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.