'It was carefully planned and orchestrated': experts on violent unrest

Graeme Hosken Senior reporter
Institute for Security Studies policing researcher Dr Johan Burger has weighed in on the recent unrest that engulfed Gauteng and KZN. File photo.
Institute for Security Studies policing researcher Dr Johan Burger has weighed in on the recent unrest that engulfed Gauteng and KZN. File photo.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

It started with attacks on strategically located cellphone towers last week Saturday, before those behind the seven days of deadly violence mobilised supporters hours later to carry out assaults on the N3 and Durban harbour.

As the N3 was brought to a grinding halt with the torching of 25 trucks within less than 12 hours, armed gangs attacked Durban’s port and its surrounding industrial areas.

Then, the mass looting of shopping centres began.

“Everything about this was organised,” said Institute for Security Studies policing researcher, Dr Johan Burger. “It was carefully planned and orchestrated, right down to what happened when. There was nothing random or spontaneous about this violence.

“Key to this violence and what we believe was a strategy from the onset was that the looters were not to go out to attack or kill people. The focus remained solely on destroying business infrastructure and creating as much confusion and destruction as possible. The other idea behind not attacking or killing people was to ensure that the face of the rioters did not lose legitimacy.

“If no such order was issued a lot more people could have died.”

Since the outbreak of the violence, which has left 337 people dead — 79 in Gauteng and 258 in KwaZulu-Natal —  the ISS and its researchers have been mapping the unfolding mayhem, documenting when and where the attacks took place.

Burger said information at their disposal was that there was high level of organisation to the attacks.

He said if such attacks were spontaneous they would not have started as they did.

“These incidents occurred simultaneously across strategic provinces in very specifically selected geographical locations, such as highways, a port and busy malls.

“The attacks were co-ordinated and designed to cause maximum disruption.”

Burger said over 200 shopping malls had been targeted, with the majority requiring people drive to them.

“It is not like there were a large number of malls in close proximity that were attacked. These are malls which people had to get into vehicles to travel to. People came in trucks, cars and delivery vehicles. They knew of the looting to take place before hand, with a lot of the infrastructure which was targeted being on or close to main roads.

“That planning took into account what to attack first, such as the cellphone towers, the busy N3, the harbour and then the malls.

“It was designed to split the police numbers across vast areas to minimise their effectiveness. The closure of strategic roads was designed to delay response time.”

He said looking back at the violence from when it began just after demands for Jacob Zuma’s release from prison and threats of violence if he was not freed, there were just too many coincidences for it too have been spontaneous.

Burger said instigators tapped into people’s desperation and the high levels of inequality and poverty to fuel the violence.

He said government would need to act quickly to stop the exploitation of the poor to prevent similar outbreaks of violence.

Professor Lindy Heinecken, head of Stellenbosch University’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, said the insurrection was a mix of grievance and greed.

“It was definitely organised and planned over some time, with a clear strategy for how to delegitimize Cyril Ramaphosa’s government and stop the campaign to end corruption.

“Those behind the violence tapped into SA’s major developmental issues of poverty and lack of jobs and education.”

Heinecken, who is the chair of the international armed forces and conflict resolution research committee, said what was really concerning was the strategy  used.

“This includes cutting off supply lines, destroying sources of food, getting  the population hungry, harming food security and driving people’s desperation.

“Undermining things such as food security makes it easier to mobilise people as it intensifies their grievances.”

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