President Cyril Ramaphosa. REUTERS/ROGAN WARD
President Cyril Ramaphosa. REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

It was instigated. It was orchestrated. It was planned. 

The word from acting minister in the presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni is that violent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last week was “an attempt at insurrection”.

Ntshavheni was responding to contradictory, confusing and lazy government messaging that has fuelled the impression that SA’s political leaders have no real clue what happened.

The position of the government, as articulated by the president, is of an attempt at an insurrection,” she said. “That perspective is informed by discussions at the national security council, which is chaired by the president, and he receives briefings from military commanders and other law enforcement agencies.”

Ntshavheni added: “Any contrary view – we do not know where it comes from. It is not a view that is supported by facts from law enforcement agencies, including the military.”

Yet this was a direct swipe at her cabinet colleague Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. At a parliamentary committee meeting on Sunday night the defence minister left South Africans wondering whether government had made any progress in identifying the masterminds behind last week’s wanton destruction.

Mapisa-Nqakula was adamant: there was no evidence to suggest the unrest was in any way linked to “an insurrection or a coup”.

Our view is that, to be honest, it is none of those. We’ve heard people making reference to the insurrection [or] coup, and the issue is [that] if it’s an insurrection, [that] insurrection must have a face,” she said. “If it is about a coup, then the coup must also have a face – but none of [the facts] so far [point] to that.”

Instead, Mapisa-Nqakula said, we are probably seeing signs of a “counter-revolution, which is creeping up in the form of criminality and thuggery”.

Of course, her comments also contradicted President Cyril Ramaphosa, who last week spoke plainly about instigators who intended to “cripple the economy”, “severely weaken or even dislodge the democratic state” and “provoke a popular insurrection”.

Now, it seems, there’s sniping between senior leaders of the governing party, openly warring about what even happened. This mixed messaging has left South Africans with even less assurance that their leaders are on top of the biggest post-apartheid crisis this country has faced. 

Other cabinet members are equally unclear. Last week, for example, state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo labelled suggestions that the unrest was part of a coup attempt as “reckless” — only for her to be promptly contradicted by her deputy, Zizi Kodwa.

Nonetheless, Dlodlo did admit with some frankness that the provocateurs who lit the match that set off days of violent looting, sabotage and protest had even bigger objectives.

She said the instigators had intended to inflict greater destruction on key infrastructure, including airports, gas pipelines, power stations and warehouses. In saying this, she echoed comments made by the police that King Shaka International Airport and the Richards Bay and Durban ports had apparently also been “targets”.

Still, at this point, we can say that the pattern of the attacks — first burning trucks, and later warehouses and distribution centres — suggests a co-ordinated assault on the country’s logistics value chain. This impression is reinforced by the systematic attempt to destroy communication infrastructure, including 113 network towers, as well as the studios of community radio stations Alex FM, Ntokozo FM, Mams FM and Westside FM. 

The large amount of ammunition stolen, as well as the torching of schools, pharmacies and clinics, is also alarming. The destruction, here, seems wanton, and unlike the sort of damage you’d expect in a riot or looting spree.

And yet, faced with a crisis of this magnitude and a justifiable demand for answers, this government has proved unable to even name it.

* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM​

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