Home PodcastJulie Alli Beyond SAHRC Findings: Recounting the July 2021 Unrest

Beyond SAHRC Findings: Recounting the July 2021 Unrest

by Zahid Jadwat

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) announced its findings into the July 2021 unrest. [Picture: Reuters]


There is a common experience that remains etched in the memory of every Durbanite. In the minds of some of its four million inhabitants, the words ‘July Unrest’ tear open old wounds, gushing forth a flood of emotions. In others, it might trigger the telling of heroic tales about the week civilians saved the city.

It was Tuesday, 29 June 2021. Packed and ready to visit my mum in Johannesburg, this was the last time I would see Durban as I knew it. Little had I known that the place I called home, for a whole decade, would be on its knees the next time I visited.

That same day, as I readied to depart, a majority judgement in the Constitutional Court ordered former President Jacob Zuma’s incarceration for contempt of court. This was the judgement that set into motion a buildup of anarchy and violence that would eventually erupt nearly two weeks later. And when it rained, it poured.

“Obviously, one has to look back at the time when the former president was incarcerated for contempt of court. That was probably the stimulus, impetus and catalyst to actually get people mobilised into action,” said Narendh Ganesh in a recent interview on Salaamedia.

The Durban-based community activist was responding to the final report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), released this week. After all those hearings, which included testimony by President Cyril Ramaphosa, it found there was no evidence the former president’s imprisonment caused the mayhem.

By the time I landed back in Durban on 9 July, parts of KwaZulu-Natal were up in flames. Zuma’s supporters were clearly infuriated by the Pietermaritzburg High Court’s decision to uphold his conviction and 15-month sentence. In the dark of night, the bright orange flames of burning tyres on the N2 highway were distinct. We zoomed past, just in time.

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Tension and riots

Over the next 48 hours, a thick fog of tension, thicker than the humid ocean air, rolled over the province. Even with the false safety of my neighbourhood on the South Coast, everybody was on edge as we heard tales of cars being pelted and roads being shut down. By Monday, the residents of aManzimtoti blocked the main road. Those in other suburbs followed suit.

Before I knew it, I was out on the street, pulling an all-nighter with neighbours whose faces were entirely new to me. Here we were, strangers defending against an unknown enemy with no more than baseball bats and hiking sticks.

The constant gunfire, the wailing of police sirens and the chopping noise of a hovering helicopter meant that we all felt safer on the street at 3am than in my home. In time, a coffee stand was set up near our ‘roadblock’ and the conversations around our bonfire naturally gravitated towards the state of the country. I can safely guess the same happened at the hundreds of other civilian-manned checkpoints across the city.

Over the next week, the city was brought to its knees. Schools were shut, roads were blocked, stores were stripped bare, casualties mounted. The police were stretched. Communities were dangerously armed.

It was the kind of situation that led Ganesh to note, nearly three years later: “What was a political matter became a criminal matter and eventually, it was made out to become a racial matter in the context of Phoenix”.

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Fanning the flames of anarchy

While brave civilians stood on the front lines of the battle against lawlessness, there were certain powerful individuals who used their influence simply to stoke the big bright flames that engulfed KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. The leading warriors of anarchy: Dudu and Edward Zuma.

“KZN we see you,” was one of the widely circulated tweets by the fugitive’s daughter. It was the caption of visuals celebrating destruction and carnage. It was the kind of message that fanned the fire that caused R50 billion in damage and decimated 150 000 jobs.

With the intervening years giving us a good vantage point of the unrest that battered the provinces that week, we have a better idea of what happened.

We know the uppermost echelons of the security apparatus knew something was brewing, but police were paralysed when the time came. We know factional battles within the ruling party had a hand in that horrible, tragic, heartbreaking series of events. We know poverty and hunger were strong forces at play, and so too were the latent racial undertones Durbanites want to pretend are non-existent.

After months of investigative hearings, between November 2021 and June 2022, SAHRC’s recommendations to authorities in 2024: find and prosecute the masterminds; collaborate with communities.

But in Ganesh’s “candid opinion”, the SAHRC hearing now appears to have been “an entire waste of time, money and energy”.

“No matter how much we want to look at social cohesion, this will forever remain a scar on the history of South Africa. It worries me because if we don’t tackle the root cause and finger people who are trying to destabilise the country, we will have repeated incidents like this and where does it stop?” he asked.

The activist demanded it was about time authorities grew a pair and went after those “primary actors” the SAHRC report accused of instigating the looting. Hearing that, the optimist in me hoped justice would be served and lessons learnt from that horrible week.

“At the end of the day, they [the Zuma siblings] fueled the fire. Instead of taking the responsible step of alleviating the tensions, the violence, the looting, the criminality, they exacerbated it and it’s sad that no action has been taken thus far.”

“Perhaps they [authorities] were fearful that it might escalate a very volatile situation, but if we are going to continue in that vein – that we are fearful of certain people in this country – then where does law and order start and end?”

But the realist in me knows this is wishful thinking in a country like ours, one so close to the brink of lawlessness and disorder.

My memory of July 2021 is cemented in an isolated moment of stillness on one of those nights of patrols, when a fireball pierced through the dark pre-dawn sky. It was at that moment those of us gathered around our fire realised we were on our own. The state had long abandoned its duty to serve its citizens.

Everything about that week made everything about the state of our country glaringly obvious. ‘July unrest’ reminds us of a painful week and an even more painful realisation.

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