President Cyril Ramaphosa visits a shopping centre which was damaged after several days of looting on July 16 2021. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD
President Cyril Ramaphosa visits a shopping centre which was damaged after several days of looting on July 16 2021. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

Few observers have commented on the subtle shift of language employed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his latest “fireside chat” to the nation. Instead of framing the recent events in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng as an insurrection as before — “nothing less than a deliberate, co-ordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy” — he now speaks of “deliberate, planned and co-ordinated acts of violence designed to create the conditions for unrest”.  

This is significant. It is not democracy that is under assault. It is the president. Ramaphosa’s statement speaks to an understanding of a different set of objectives on the part of the planners and raises the prospect of a different goal. Simply put, these faceless planners are seeking a political or “negotiated solution” to their problems. They want to work within the ANC and ultimately recapture the party and state. Ramaphosa stands in the way. He has to be removed. His opponents have been repeatedly blocked in the party’s national executive committee. The mayhem was (in an adaptation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famed dictum) “politics by other means”.

Those responsible know the noose is tightening and are desperate. They have no stomach for a coup, nor are they opposed to democracy, at least as understood by the ANC. The planners of the unrest want power. Democracy has not precluded enrichment, and it will not do so in future. In other words, what they seek is state capture, and chaos is their modus operandi to that end. It is the road to power.

Let there be no mistake, the recent mayhem was carefully planned. Seasoned observers and security experts have provided the details. Truck attacks on the N2 and N3 in KwaZulu-Natal over a number of years have been dry runs — allegedly at the hands of those aligned to the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association. But the latest events went well beyond highway assaults.

Value Logistics CEO Steve Gottschalk is adamant that those who looted his warehouse in Cato Ridge were co-ordinated by a commander. Similarly, veteran conflict analyst Mary de Haas has spoken of planning and co-ordination. The looted malls were identified for their easy access and exit points. Mobs were reportedly bussed in to loot in some instances. Other experts have pointed to attacks on communication infrastructure to compromise reactive capacity, and arterial roads blocked in advance of the looting.

Food supply chains were carefully chosen and targeted, as was the Durban port. The biggest refinery was closed. Notably, some rural towns were also identified for looting. Medicines, food and petrol were successfully targeted. Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils points out that if the insurrection was spontaneous and the result of abject poverty it would not have been restricted to two provinces. It all points to careful planning.

Here we are reminded of Ramaphosa’s initial claim of ethnic mobilisation. This was indeed part of the equation. The planners knew the incarceration of the “100% Zulu boy” Jacob Zuma had the potential to unleash violence within Zulu strongholds in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. Zuma’s apparent acceptance of his arrest was not accidental. “I will be a prisoner of conscience”, he said. Inevitably his incarceration (with all the surrounding drama) would detonate anger and calls for a presidential pardon. It would allow for a “Free Zuma” campaign, a convenient mantra around which to foment unrest and a timely opportunity for the planners.

It is simply wrong to explain the uprising as simply a failure on the part of the security cluster. We need to move away from “incapacity” and “bungling” as explanatory terms. Of course, it cannot be denied that rot has set in at the security cluster, but there is method in the madness. Appalling security lapses and weak responses to the chaos are not because of ham-handedness or ANC factional infighting. Quite the opposite. The planning of those at the upper levels of the security cluster has been exquisite. Contradictory statements, most notably the refutation of the president by defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and police minister Bheki Cele’s denial that he received timely intelligence from state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo, must be probed.

Ramaphosa has to place his security cluster under a microscope. He must jettison the notion of poor judgment on their part. Their judgment was precise, but events got out of control and Ramaphosa held his nerve. Rather than characterising those in the security cluster as idiots, we should see senior government and party leaders as complicit in the attempt to “create the conditions for unrest”. Efforts to sow chaos and force an ANC “negotiated solution” have failed for now. Ramaphosa read the signs correctly.

• Shain is emeritus professor in the department of historical studies at the University of Cape Town.

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