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Defence & military veterans minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/DEAAN VIVIER
Defence & military veterans minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/DEAAN VIVIER

That there was confusion in the immediate aftermath of the assault on SA just over a week ago should not be a surprise.

SA’s government will not be the first one to be caught unawares by acts of mass criminality. After the event, we can look back at the Twitter activities of some of the alleged instigators and argue that the chaos could have been foreseen.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. That was certainly not the case in the US Capitol in January, where a crowd of “insurgents” sought to reverse by force US President Joe Biden’s victory in the election of November 2020.

Here we are talking about a country that was left standing as the world’s only superpower at the end of the Cold War. We’ve all grown up in awe of the US military prowess, despite huge setbacks such as Vietnam and, more recently, Afghanistan. And yet, the world watched as the seat of government was overrun, and protesters breached the US Senate chamber and lawmakers were left to run for safety.

Could this be the country with the famed and feared intelligence agencies? Journalists have written much about the weakness of SA’s military and police services, and the corruption, incompetence and factionalism that bedevil spy agencies. Them being caught out on the day isn’t something that necessarily should surprise anyone.

But what are we to make of the utter confusion in government more than a week later? President Cyril Ramaphosa took way more than enough time before he finally gave the nation a proper address on the mayhem that broke out the previous weekend, and he came out with some strong words.

“It is clear now that the events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, co-ordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy,” he said, adding that “the constitutional order of our country is under threat”.

The violence, first sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, who had sought to undermine the constitutional order in a different way, was “intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken — or even dislodge — the democratic state”.

Strong words indeed. But two days later, his defence minister, whom one would assume had received the same intelligence, contradicted him in no uncertain terms. Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, whose most recent claim to fame was a daft decision to take ANC leaders on a joyride to Zimbabwe on a military jet, said she had no evidence to indicate the events “so far talk to an insurrection or a coup”.

And on Monday it was left to Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, the acting minister in the presidency, to reiterate the official line. Talk of an insurrection wasn’t sucked out of anybody’s thumb, she insisted. It was informed by
discussions at the National Security Council, chaired by the president himself, and briefings by military commanders, who report to Mapisa-Nqakula.

Claims by police minister Bheki Cele that his force had prevented plots that included the torching of hospitals should be taken with a pinch of salt, as should security minister Ayanda Dlodlo’s suggestion that excellent intelligence gathering meant what we saw was the only the tip of the iceberg. But it’s clear to anyone with eyes that what we saw last week was not just  “a counter-revolution creeping in the form of criminality and thuggery”, as Mapisa-Nqakula would have us believe.

This raises a number of questions, the most urgent being why is she still in the cabinet? Can Ramaphosa really have any faith in her? And if she’s correct, what does this say about her military commanders? She clearly can’t retain faith in their ability, or loyalty, if she believes they are capable of providing the president with such misleading information.

Talk of a cabinet reshuffle has been going on for months, and despite the weakness of the bench that the ANC sends to parliament, Ramaphosa can’t delay it much longer.

Just over a week ago, we thought our biggest problem was the lack of a permanent health minister in the middle of a pandemic. That has multiplied now and the leadership is doing very little to reassure us that it’s up to the task. 


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