Clean-up operations continue in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, after looting and rioting in the area. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSEL/SUNDAY TIMES
Clean-up operations continue in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, after looting and rioting in the area. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSEL/SUNDAY TIMES

The SA government can claim one easy win in restoring the trust of the traumatised people of the country after last week’s unrest and looting: come clean on exactly what and who failed and why more than 300 people lost their lives.

The weeklong spree of violence and destruction in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng abused human rights, particularly the rights to life, health, food and freedom of movement. But it also exposed SA’s glaring security failures. The state was unable to protect the people as it is constitutionally mandated to do, nor to protect their human rights. 

Ultimate accountability lies with President Cyril Ramaphosa and his security cluster ministers, who are tasked with keeping the country safe — and everyone who lives in it. That is why Amnesty International believes the government’s admission that it was poorly prepared to deal with the riots calls for high-level public officials to be held to account. The authorities must reveal what they knew in the days leading up to the violence and why no action was taken.  

Rev. Frank Chikane, who is part of the Save our Democracy campaign, made a salient point when Gauteng premier David Makhura met with civil society this week — we don’t need a commission of inquiry to investigate what happened; the security cluster should be able to provide that information almost immediately. 

But this is not happening. Instead, frictions within the state are playing out in the media. When the security cluster heads— police minister Bheki Cele, state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo and defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula — first addressed the media on July 13, they gave the country little reassurance that they were working together to ensure the situation was brought under control to protect people and human rights. 

At the time Cele said the situation on the ground was under “strong surveillance” and they would ensure things did not deteriorate. But they did. We then heard Dlodlo saying the State Security Agency provided intelligence but that there were not enough police and soldiers on the ground. Yet Cele has denied that any information was passed on to police. 

Makhura also said during the meeting with civil society this week that political leaders in Gauteng, himself included, kept passing on information to police. He said authorities had the information but had not planned sufficiently. “Something has happened in this period that needs to be accounted for. There was just no response,” he said.

So who is telling the truth? The people of SA have a right to know. While the ministers go back and forth on who did what and who to blame, there are hundreds of families mourning the death of loved ones, and people have been left hungry, jobless and without healthcare services or medicine.

Billions of rand has been lost due to destruction of property and targeted attacks on shopping malls and distribution warehouses. This is devastating for a country that is already dealing with high levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment, and a weak economy. 

The destruction, lack of accountability by those in charge and contradictions by the different ministers, show a government in chaos, unable to protect the people. This while we continue to receive reports of new threats, of police stations on high alert — especially those with arms-storage facilities — after receiving intelligence that “instigators” may be planning more attacks. How do we know that this time around, if this were to happen, our security cluster will be ready and prepared?

The government has a duty to be honest and ensure prompt, thorough and transparent investigation of the unrest and violence, and ensure this accountability. Amnesty International is looking into what unfolded, including the causes of deaths that occurred during the unrest, because at this point there is no clear answer.

What is clear is that those who were responsible must be brought to book and due process must be followed; we cannot afford to have more human rights abuses. But at the same time we also call on the government to take full responsibility for the unrest, loss of life and damage to property. It must do the right thing. 

• Mohamed is executive director of Amnesty International SA.

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