Date: Jul 22, 2021 Type: Country:

South Africa: Investigate loss of life during unrest and looting spree and ensure accountability

The almost weeklong looting spree and violent destruction of private property which resulted in the death of more than 200 people in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng province last week has exposed the country’s glaring security failures to protect people’s lives, Amnesty International South Africa said today. The organization believes that government’s admission that it was poorly prepared to deal with the riots calls for the need to hold to account high-level public officials who apparently failed to discharge their responsibility in the security cluster to protect people and private property from the riots.

“With the number of people who died during the looting and violent unrest known to be 276, South African authorities must reveal what they knew and when in the days leading to the violence which unnecessarily cost people’s lives,” said Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa.

“The minister of state security is on record saying that they had information and that they passed it on to the minister of police but failed to act. The National Security Council must take full responsibility for the loss of lives and violence that put many more lives at risk.”

The unrest negatively affected human rights, particularly the rights to life, health, food and freedom of movement. The protests, which eventually descended into riots, began in Kwa-Zulu Natal, after former President Jacob Zuma handed himself to the police for contempt of court on 8 July and began serving his 15-months jail sentence.

Violent unrest and looting spree

The first signs of unrest were already evident on the day Zuma handed himself over to police. Before the former president was taken to an Estcourt correctional services facility late in the evening, some of his supporters reportedly started causing traffic jams in some areas of KwaZulu-Natal.

The following day on 9 July, protest action calling for Zuma to be freed from prison started spreading in the province. This was also the first day of reported looting in areas of KwaZulu-Natal, the N3 highway was blocked by protesters, and trucks carrying goods were set alight.

By July 10, the violence and looting continued in KwaZulu-Natal and had spread overnight to some areas of Gauteng, including Johannesburg where looting and burning of private property, including retail stores, were reported. By 11 July, the unrest  and looting started to spread fast in and around Johannesburg. KwaZulu-Natal, especially Durban, was hard hit as shops, malls, factories and warehouses were looted and burned down, vehicles set alight, and police attacked by looters. Journalists covering the riots were also starting to come under attack.

State security failures 

It was only on 12 July, four days after the unrest started, that police officers on leave were called back to provide support for those already on the ground and the South African National Defence Force announced that it would deploy soldiers to assist the police. The deployment was not immediate and at first only 2,500 soldiers were made available. On 15 July it was announced that the deployment of soldiers would be increased to 25,000, and yet by 20 July, only 2,500 boots were on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal, where the violence began.

Despite this, the unrest and looting  continued in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng with many communities having to take on the role of protecting themselves, patrolling their areas and putting up barricades, as rioters tried to access some residential areas and shopping centres, as police failed to get the situation under control.

“It is outrageous that it took the government four days to start taking seriously the unrest  and violence that were playing out on live news broadcasts, and deploy resources on the ground to help protect lives and property, and bring the situation under control.” said Shenilla Mohamed.

When the security cluster ministers – Police Minister Bheki Cele, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula – first addressed the media on 13 July, 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.

Minister Cele said at the time that the situation on the ground was under “strong surveillance” and that they would ensure that things did not deteriorate, yet looting and violence continued unabated in the two provinces with signs that it was spilling to other provinces, including Mpumalanga and North West.

On 13 July, the death toll had risen from 10, reported by President Cyril Ramaphosa the day before, to 45.

Dlodlo and Cele, denied that they had failed to do their job during the briefing. However, it was clear the security cluster ministers were caught napping, and in media interviews and briefings to parliament, they contradicted each other on why it took so long to properly address the situation.

In an interview with the national broadcaster, SABC TV news channel after the joint media briefing, Dlodlo told the public broadcaster that state security had passed on all relevant information to the police but there were not enough police and soldiers on the ground. She said she did not want to throw Minister Cele “under the bus” because it was a collaborative effort.

Dlodlo said: “We were not caught sitting on our laurels, information had been flowing… ”

However, on 20 July, Cele denied the claim that police received intelligence from the State Security Agency on the unrest. He told parliament’s joint standing committee on defence and the portfolio committee, parliament oversight body, during a visit to Chatsworth, Durban.

On 14 July, Mapisa-Nqakula briefed parliament’s defence committee where she admitted that the country’s security agencies were nearly caught with their “pants down”. She reportedly said intelligence reports of attacks on malls in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were received too late.

President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted that authorities could have “acted quicker” to quell the violence during his visit to areas hit by the unrest in Durban on 16 July. He also praised the community groups who worked with the state to stand up against violence.

There have also been contradictions between president Ramaphosa and some of his ministers on describing what happened as an “insurrection”. Defence Minister Mapisa-Nqakula, initially openly went against  the president’s description of the events, but later did an about-turn on 19 July, conceding that the unrest was an ‘attempted insurrection’.

“These contradictions by the different ministers show a government in chaos, unable to coordinate security to protect the people. People deserve to know the truth about what happened and the government has a duty to be honest and ensure prompt, thorough and transparent investigate into the unrest and violence, and ensure accountability.”

“The government, and the security cluster ministers, need to stop playing the blame game and take full responsibility for these inefficiencies.”

Amnesty International is continuing to look into what unfolded and, including the causes of deaths that occurred during the unrest.

“At this point in time there is no clear answer as it appears that the causes were multiple. The fact remains that the death of more than 200 people is deeply concerning to us and it is something that we are seriously looking into,”  Mohamed said.

Riots also disrupted healthcare provision and vaccination schedules as South Africa battles the third wav e ofCovid-19, the deadliest yet, which is overwhelming healthcare services. Food security was also under threat. Billions of Rands have been lost due to destruction of property and targeted attacks on shopping malls, distribution warehouses and factories producing essential supplies such as food. Delivery trucks were also being burnt, as well as some farms, and key transport routes, such as the N3, were closed.

Amnesty International is calling on the government to take full responsibility for the unrest, loss of life and damage to property.

Amnesty International has noted the arrests of some of the alleged instigators of the violence.

“Those suspected to be responsible for the violence and looting must be held accountable in fair trials.”

For more information or to request an interview, please contact:

Genevieve Quintal, Media and Communications Officer, Amnesty International South Africa: +27 (0)64 890 9224;

Public Document 


Amnesty International South Africa office, 97 Oxford Road, Saxonwold, Johannesburg, 2196