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Our first job wasn’t public order, it was to defend national key points, says military chief about July riots

Soldiers who were deployed to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were giving support to the police, not taking over.
Soldiers who were deployed to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were giving support to the police, not taking over.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

Army chief Gen Rudzani Maphwanya told the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) the job of soldiers during the July 2021 riots was not to directly attend to the unrest.

On Tuesday, he said the country’s soldiers — the first cohort of 2,500 — were ly deployed to Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal on July 12, 2021 to protect national key points while the police tackled issues of public order.

The SAHRC is hosting the second leg of hearings into the unrest and looting which erupted in July 2021 after the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma. Scores of businesses were looted and torched and more than 300 people died in more than a week of violence.

Maphwanya said it was only on July 13 when additional soldiers were sent to violence-torn areas that it was established that matters were getting out of hand.

Maphwanya said he received a call on July 11 from then defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula who wanted to discuss army deployment. He told her planning would start but they required an official request from the police service to intervene.

“She engaged with her counterpart [police minister Bheki Cele] and a request was put through on July 12,” said Maphwanya.

The military planning team met that night and on July 13 troops were deployed.

As the situation on the ground escalated, 2,500 more soldiers were deployed to defend civilians and property.

Later, 10,000 more soldiers were sent out and the third request to the military was for not more than 25,000 soldiers to be deployed.

Maphwanya said soldiers were deployed to affected areas, with plans in place for them to remain there for three months, as requested by the police.

The numbers contradicted the figures given by Gauteng premier David Makhura, who said only 500 soldiers were deployed to Gauteng, which was also experiencing unrest although not on the same scale as KwaZulu-Natal. 

Maphwanya said the 500 figure “baffled him”, and he could not comment as he was unclear how Makhura reached that number.

He said the army was not deployed to harm but was sent to defend.

While more than 300 people were killed during the unrest, Maphwanya said he had not received any reports of civilians being injured by the military during or after the unrest.

He said two soldiers were injured in a vehicle accident during that time.


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