News Analysis

A member of the South African Police Services. (Image: Getty)
  • Some of the strategies the police should have considered during recent unrests in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng include implementing roadblocks to slow down the movement of people.
  • Crime Intelligence and the police should have studied the "high-level discontent" even before former president Jacob Zuma's arrest.
  • Looting and rioting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng left hundreds dead and resulted in extensive damage to infrastructure.
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More than two weeks ago, South Africa was rocked by widespread looting and rioting, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people - at least 200 shopping centres were ravaged and 11 warehouses plundered.

The unrest, which took place in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and parts Gauteng, was sparked by protests against the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma's for contempt of court.

Calm was eventually restored after seven days, but questions have been raised about why law enforcement could not quell the destruction timeously.

Business Insider spoke to experts in public order policing about what the South African Police Service (SAPS) should have done to curb the widescale destruction. Here's what they had to say:

Not fast enough

The first failure was a lack of urgency to the emerging crisis on the part of the authorities. Public Order Policing units, trained and equipped to act in situations of unlawful crowd activity, were slow in controlling the situation says Gareth Newham, head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies.

The police were not only slow, but also seemed to not know how to get a grip with the crisis.

"From what we witnessed, the police also lacked a contingency plan to deal with such large-scale and widespread incidence of public violence and looting," says Newham.

"From our experience during 2008, when we had the sudden outburst of xenophobic violence, which quickly spread throughout large parts of the country, one would have expected the formulation [of]… a contingency plan, should something similar happen in future. If such a plan exists, we have not seen its implementation during [the recent] violence and looting," he adds.

The SAPS should have not only deployed quicker, they should have also targeted the main instigators.

Following the Marikana massacre, police and security forces should have first cast their attention on the core conspirators behind the insurrection before the unrest gained momentum, according to David Bruce, an independent researcher and former member of the Marikana Panel of Experts report for police reform.

"They should've have focused on the core conspirators and aimed to arrest them on potential charges of treason, depending on the quality of intelligence that they might have had," he says.

Procedures were followed... But…

Critical policing and crime combating strategies should have begun as early as the demonstrations at Nkandla during the lead-up to the former president Zuma's arrest.

Although police acted in line with the recommendations set out in the Marikana Panel of Experts report (by not dispersing people using rubber bullets), intelligence structures should've started reading the high level of discontent displayed then, says Themba Masuku, programme manager for the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum and also a Marikana panelist.

"Part of what intelligence needed to do was to be on the ground, collecting information about the high-level discontent in the communities to be able to profile, analyse, and to put mechanisms [in place] that can neutralise the threat or mitigate the risk," he adds.

Following this, an operational plan detailing the potential threats, the required manpower to deal with the danger, and the desired outcome is put in place.


The police also needed to protect soft targets such as truck drivers, some of whom had their trucks torched.

"By the time flare-ups came up, we did not see a plan in place. Police didn't appear to have a plan to protect soft targets… like truck drivers. Trucks are very slow on the road, and they can be easily stopped. That is, if they had the information. If they didn't have the information, then it raises another problem," said Masuku.


Masuku also suggested that random roadblocks could have been set up in the affected areas to slow down the movement of people and razor wiring installed at the affected malls and warehouses to prevent looters from gaining entry.

Crime Intelligence could have also been more aware of looters' patterns and watched out for the instigators who seemed to break in at malls first before scourges of people followed, to prevent further damage.

"Crime intelligence and state intelligence should be able to pick [up] those tends and potentially arrest these people before the damage is done, but there didn't seem to be a coordination between information that state intelligence had and police responses," said Masuku.

(Compiled by Ntando Thukwana)

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