South Africa could experience a repeat of the 2021 July Riots due to a lack of capacity in the police and intelligence services and a failure to address the root causes of unrest – unemployment and poverty.
This is feedback from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which published its report on the July 2021 unrest that unfolded in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal (KZN).
The riots and destruction that took place in July 2021 saw widespread looting, violence, destruction of property and the disruption of economic activity in KZN and Gauteng.
During this period, 354 people lost their lives, and over 5,500 people were arrested. It was also reported that an estimated 40,000 businesses and 50,000 informal traders were affected, with 150,000 jobs at risk.
The financial damage of the unrest was estimated at R50 billion.
The report said that organised groups and individuals opportunistically used this period as an attempt to upend the rule of law by looting goods and committing acts of violence.
However, the report could not find “clear evidence identifying specific groups or individuals as primary actors.”
In particular, the report raised serious questions and red flags about the competency of the police, private security companies, and intelligence agencies that failed to handle the situation.
“The state’s intelligence apparatus and approach to the unrest have self-evidently proven to be ineffective,” the report reads.
The police failed to detect the planning and execution of the unrest due to the lack of capacity, resources, and excessive secrecy.
This points to a “need for urgent and comprehensive improvement within SAPS and the crime intelligence structures to address systemic issues and restore public trust, confidence, and prevent future instances similar to the unrest”.
While warning that South Africa’s police remain unequipped to deal with social unrest, the SAHRC said the underlying reasons for the July Riots remain unresolved and are likely to result in the recurrence of such violence.
“The socio-economic challenges in South Africa, such as high unemployment rates, poverty, and spatial inequality, provided fertile ground for the unrest to escalate.”
“Addressing these underlying socio-economic issues is crucial to prevent similar incidents in the future,” the SAHRC said.
The Commission urged political leaders to learn from the events of July 2021 and take decisive action to address the shortcomings discussed in the report.
This is not the first time South Africans have been warned of a repeat of the July Riots.
The South Africa Special Risk Association (Sasria) warned last year that South Africa risks a repeat of the July 2021 riots if youth unemployment and load-shedding are not addressed.
The state-owned company’s CEO, Mpumi Tyikwe, said, “The biggest worry is youth unemployment…the youth are sitting and idling”.
Sasria specialises in covering losses from civil unrest and other ‘freak’ events like flooding. The company was overwhelmed by claims worth over R30 billion from the July Riots.
Other things on his mind include “load-shedding, less grid failure but load-shedding. It would be a big worry if it can continue for a sustained period.”
Gauteng co-operative and governance and traditional affairs MEC Mzi Khumalo echoed comments from Tyikwe, saying a failure to respond to the unemployment crisis could “lead to a revolution in this country”.
“All hands are needed on deck to address the ill. If we don’t do that, those young people’s anger can be ignited,” he said.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has warned that South Africa’s high unemployment rate, particularly among its youth, is a “ticking time bomb” that could result in social unrest.
The UNDP released its South Africa National Human Development Report last year, which focused on analysing South Africa’s youth employability.
“Youth unemployment in South Africa is a multipronged challenge that limits the earning potential of youth, stymies business growth, threatens social cohesion, and puts pressure on public resources,” the report said.
“There is no doubt that the high unemployment rate is a ticking time bomb.”