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Opening statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa before the South African Human Rights Commission Investigative Hearing into the July 2021 Unrest

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I am grateful for this opportunity to address you, but also to address the people of South Africa.

I also want to thank the South African Human Rights Commission for its decision to conduct these investigative hearings.

For one week and one day in July 2021, we stared into the heart of darkness.

We watched in horror as parts of Kwa-Zulu/Natal and Gauteng were engulfed in violence, looting and destruction.

We saw scenes of homes being ransacked and destroyed, and shops, businesses and warehouses being looted and torched, and of people being beaten and humiliated.

We felt uncertain and fearful for ourselves, our loved ones, and for our country.

We felt the greatest sense of betrayal that there were amongst us those who would go so far as to plot to destroy this very country we have spent the past 28 years building.

As I said in an address to the nation on Friday, 16 July 2021, “The events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated, and well-planned attack on our democracy… intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken – or even dislodge – the democratic state.”

We are still struggling to come to terms with the cost.

There is the economic cost of over R50 billion rand that was wiped off our economy, and to the livelihoods of those who looked on helplessly as their businesses were damaged or destroyed.

There is the cost to the families of those who lost their lives so tragically, and those who were injured.

We are grateful to those who have testified in these hearings.

As government we are taking decisive steps to ensure that such events do not happen again, and that those behind them are brought to justice.


What is also hard for us to come to terms with is how those behind the unrest cynically took advantage of society’s most vulnerable to further their aims.

As I said in my address to the nation on Friday, 16 July 2021, “Using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection.

“They have sought to exploit the social and economic conditions under which many South Africans live – conditions that have worsened since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic – and to provoke ordinary citizens and criminal networks to engage in opportunistic acts of looting.

The chaos was used as a smokescreen to carry out acts of economic sabotage like attacks on commercial trucks carrying goods, the raiding and torching of shopping malls, factories and warehouses, and the blocking of roads and highways vital to economic activity.

We have heard from media monitoring and data analysis agencies in these hearings how instigators led well-orchestrated campaigns on social media to inflame racial tensions, spread fake news and disseminate misinformation.

But try as they might, they did not turn us against each other.

To the contrary, South Africans came together as never before.

As has been the case so many times in the past, the people of South Africa showed that they love their country dearly, and will always stand united against threats to its security.

I will confine myself in this opening statement to a few observations:

Firstly, what were the causes of the unrest?

Secondly, how did government respond to the unrest?

Thirdly, what remedial measures are being taken to prevent a recurrence?

On the first question, there is broad agreement that there were several contributing factors.

The fundamental cause of this unrest was a deliberate decision by certain individuals to instigate, coordinate and incite widespread destruction of property, violence and looting.

The identity of these individuals and the motives for their actions are the subject of ongoing investigations and legal proceedings.

The socio-economic conditions in the country played a role in the causes of the unrest.

This could explain why so many ordinary South Africans would participate in the looting; risking arrest, injury and, in some cases, death.

There were likely criminal elements stoking the flames, in the seemingly wellorganised targeting of factories and warehouses but also in the violence that broke out between certain communities in KwaZulu-Natal.

The second question I would like to address is the response of the state to the unrest.

We have acknowledged that as government we were poorly prepared for an orchestrated campaign of public violence, destruction and sabotage of this nature.

In my address on Friday 16 July 2021, I said:

“While we commend the brave actions of our security forces on the ground, we must admit that we did not have the capabilities and plans in place to respond swiftly and decisively.”

What this country experienced was not a popular uprising of the poor, as the peddlers of misinformation sought to characterise it at the time.

It was not the bubbling over of discontent over an allegedly legitimate political grievance.

It was an attempted insurrection.

That economic infrastructure was targeted in the manner that it was, shows clearly that the intention was to bring our economy to its knees and thereby destabilise our democracy.

Regardless of their intent, it was a situation for which we were not prepared.

While there had been intelligence reports about the possibility of instability, neither the security services nor the government more broadly anticipated the nature, extent or ferocity of those events.

This was a failing that we acknowledge, and which we are hard at work to address.

On the 5th of August 2021 I appointed an expert panel to lead a thorough and critical review of our preparedness and the shortcomings in our response.

The members of the panel were Prof Sandy Africa, as chair, Adv Mojanku Gumbi and Mr Silumko Sokupa.

The panel submitted their report – which has become known as the Africa Report – in December 2021.

It details the response of the various state entities to the unrest and identifies several weaknesses and shortcomings.

It further provides specific recommendations on remedial action to safeguard the integrity, security and stability of the country.

The Africa Report is in the public domain and has been submitted to the Human Rights Commission.Its findings and recommendations have been accepted by government, so I will not dwell on the matters covered in the report.

This brings me to the third question I wish to address, namely the remedial measures we have taken, and continue to undertake to strengthen and prepare our security services.

To deal with the problems that impacted our state of readiness and response to the July unrest, government has taken certain decisions regarding the intelligence services and the police.

The work of strengthening the capacity of the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) Cluster is ongoing.

We have begun the process of filling vacancies in the State Security Agency

We will be promulgating regulations that will require the intelligence structures to provide intelligence to the National Intelligence Coordination Committee (NICOC), so that intelligence is shared and used, properly and timeously, by relevant structures.

We will be ensuring that the NSC meets at least every two months without fail.

The staffing and training of the public order policing unit (“POP”) will be brought to the appropriate level.

The national Minister of Police, as well as the SAPS will be required to submit an updated report of the status and functionality of community policing forums to the NSC at its next meeting.

Yesterday, the 31st of March 2022, I announced the appointment of a new National Commissioner of Police to bring stability to the South African Police Service.

As part of our work to stabilise the country’s intelligence services, last month I appointed Ms. Thembisile Majola as the new permanent Director-General of the State Security Agency (SSA).

We have also re-established regular intelligence briefings for the President, and there are also briefings to Premiers taking place.

There will be consequence management on conclusion of all investigations currently underway looking into wrongdoing within law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

One of the learnings from the unrest of July 2021 is that we need to rethink the role of the private security industry, particularly as this relates to support to the South African Police Service.

We are prioritising the development of a National Security Strategy, which is one of the recommendations of the Africa Report. In doing so, we will ensure there is a rigorous and thorough process of public consultation.


As I conclude, I want to refer to one of the matters the Commission has raised with me, and it is the statement I made on the role of ethnic mobilisation in fuelling the unrest.

More specifically, what I said in an address to the nation on Sunday 11 July 2021.

In reference to what were then sporadic but increasingly violent protests, I said:

“It is a matter of concern to all South Africans that some of these acts of violence are based on ethnic mobilisation.

“This must be condemned by all South Africans at all costs as we are a nation committed to non-racialism and non-tribalism that is underpinned by the diversity and unity of all the people of South Africa, whatever their language, culture, religious beliefs and race.”

I understand why this statement was controversial, and appreciate that it may have caused ill-feeling to many.

This statement was based on reports that I had received of social media posts and messages that appeared to be using ethnic and tribal chauvinism to encourage unrest.

To the extent that this was happening, I condemned it.

I further wish to remind the Commission that as information emerged indicating that this was not in fact a prominent factor propelling the unrest, I acknowledged this, and timeously.

In my address to the nation a day later on Monday the 12th of July 2021 I said:

“At the beginning of this unrest, there may have been some people who sought to agitate for violence and disorder along ethnic lines. We know that the majority of our people have out of principle refused to be mobilised along these lines.

“However, what we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft.”

The day following this address, I had a meeting with interfaith leaders, where I said:

“In some areas, there were also suggestions of ethnic mobilisation, although it seems to be accepted that this was limited.”

Later in the same week, I visited areas affected by the unrest where I made it clear that the evidence that was emerging did not support the position taken earlier.

I was clear and I will be categorical again here today, the majority of our people have out of principle refused to be mobilised along these lines.

The question in the minds of many will then be, on what basis did I make the assertion.

Like many South Africans, I am a viewer, a listener and a reader.

Like millions of South Africans, I also followed the many conversations, watched the video clips and listened to the audio recordings being disseminated.

The conversations and hashtags in circulation at the time saying things like “#CyrilMustResign or #CyrilMustGo” are all expressions of the right to free speech enshrined in our Constitution.

But I, like millions of South Africans, have bitter memories of our past, where tribalism and ethnic chauvinism was used to promote hatred, and to divide.

It is a time I never wish to see recur.

That is why being showed conversations saying things like ‘iVenda alime kancane thina bantu bangempela sisalungisa izindaba zethu,’ and ‘Thina angeke sibuswe nge Venda’ went beyond being personally hurtful.

That is also why hearing testimony on Day 4 of these hearings by Ms Melanie Veness, the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg and Midlands Chamber of Business about graffiti sprayed across a truck in Pietermaritzburg depicting words ‘Ramaphosa must go back to Venda’ hit a particular nerve.

These words gave me cause for great concern. That tribalism, something the founders of the organisation that I lead, the ANC, sought to obliterate from the South African political and social landscape, was in this instance rearing its ugly head.

Of course, it has been proven that this sentiment was and is not shared by the majority of the South African people.

This is something I have acknowledged repeatedly, and will do so here again.

What I do not agree with, however, is the allegation made in complaints received by this Commission that what I said could have led to the escalation of the violence and looting.

A proper reading of my statements over those days, the chronology of when they were made, and an examination of the events that took place clearly show this cannot be plausible.

Notwithstanding the shortcomings of the state’s response, culpability for the violence and destruction must lie with those who planned them and carried them out.

What emerges most clearly from this terrible chapter is the determination of the South African people to resist efforts to tear our country apart.

It was the people of South Africa who peacefully and within the law worked to restore calm and protect lives, property and infrastructure.

The assault on our democracy failed because the people of South Africa would not allow it.

We must take action on the lessons that have been learned by strengthening the capacity of our law-enforcement and other agencies to deal with any acts of this nature. We have already taken steps to do so, and further actions will follow.

This is what the South African people deserve. This is what those who lost their lives in the tragic events of July 2021 deserve.

It is my hope that these hearings will enable the country to move forward with confidence and hope, and that as a society we realise we must do everything within our means to ensure that they are never allowed to happen again.

I thank you.