UJ Prof. Theo Venter dismisses ‘No link to Zuma’ and points to KZN ANC as 2021 riot architects

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) conducted an investigation into the riots of July 2021 and found no direct link to the incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma. The report indicates that the widespread looting and property destruction were orchestrated by well-resourced ‘primary actors’ whom they did not identify. The HRC highlighted a lack of coordination among security forces and the significant role of social media as major contributors to the unrest. The riots, which occurred from July 8 to 19, resulted in the loss of 350 lives and an estimated R50 billion hit to the South African economy. In a BizNews interview, Prof. Theo Venter described the report as ambivalent. He likened Zuma’s incarceration to the events of July 2021 with the saying, “If it looks, swims, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.” However, in this case, he said the HRC saw all the signs but concluded it wasn’t a duck. Prof. Venter stated that most analysts of the July 2021 events would undoubtedly see a link. Regarding the unnamed ‘primary actors’ or agitators who planned and incited the violence, Prof. Venter suggested that the architects of the July 2021 riots are likely in the upper ranks of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, but it would be too uncomfortable for the ANC to deal with them. He also said that the Defence Force escaped the scrutiny of the HRC investigation. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:11 – Introduction
  • 00:58 – Prof The Venter on the key findings from the HRC investigation
  • 05:43 – The July riots and race
  • 08:43 – Was the HRC the right body to investigate this
  • 10:58 – Prosecutions and arrests
  • 15:10 – Primary actors in the riots
  • 17:02 – How do we take recommendations forward
  • 19:31 – Zuma being suspended from the ANC and what this means
  • 25:18 – Conclusions

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Edited excerpts from the interview


They have delved deep into the issue but their findings are quite ambivalent. They discuss a lot about the incarceration of President Zuma and the concurrent riots. They also delve into the racial composition of the riots, questioning whether it was a planned event or something that just happened spontaneously.

But the most ambivalent part of the report, which places this report in a difficult spot, is the fact that they describe, metaphorically, that if something swims in the water and looks like a duck, and you can see its little feet under the water, and everything points to the fact that it is a duck, then in all probability, what you are looking at is a duck.

Now, they went through a very similar kind of model. They saw everything. They saw the little feet in the water. They saw the image. But in the end, they said there’s no conclusive evidence, based on what they worked with, to link the unrest with Jacob Zuma going to jail. Although they describe the process and go into detail about what happened, they couldn’t find substantive evidence that links the two. So, I thought a commission like this would have done better.

They hide behind the fact that the exclusive mandate of the police, the SAPs, is to investigate and bring forward people who were planning it but there’s no doubt in the Commission’s report that it was a planned event.

This is where the ambivalence lies. They have no doubt that it was planned because they provide very good reasons. They talk about influenced communications, switched-off cameras, and robbed ATMs. They mention several things that suggest a planned event. Then they move on to who did it? Then, in one of the recommendations, they said that even if a plan emerged the day Jacob Zuma was incarcerated, the fact that it happened has no link to Jacob Zuma at all. I think they could have delved deeper into that because most people who analysed the situation, if you talk to the security guys, if you talk to the police, they would all tell you there is no doubt that there is a link and we know that several people were taken into custody

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Emphasis on “swart gevaar” and Phoenix out of kilter with this kind of investigation  

If you work through the report, you’ll see that most of the evidence was brought to the commission in terms of interviews. Therefore, it’s almost as if this whole report hangs on two things: lack of government response or intelligence on the one hand, and interracial community conflict on the other hand. It’s almost as if, when I read through it the first time, the events surrounding Phoenix, a well-established Indian suburb township in KwaZulu Natal, received special treatment.

It’s as if they came in for special treatment and that, to me, is a pity because they talk about those people who were the primary movers in this action. Then they spoke about the responsibility of the secondary actors. In other words, there were people planning it, and then the secondary ones were the people exploiting what happened. But they haven’t, in their report, looked at responses, how communities responded to a perceived threat. They used the old apartheid phrase of ‘swart gevaar,’ which I thought was a little bit out of kilter for this kind of investigation.

Social media turned KwaZulu-Natal into a little Tunisia

We know that several people were taken into custody, and the report also highlighted the significant role of social media platforms like WhatsApp in spreading fake news. This reminds me of the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, which identified fake news in 2024 as the top global risk in terms of politics and economics. We saw how fake news and social media had a profound impact in KwaZulu-Natal, reminiscent of the situation in Tunisia in 2012. That was the first time we noticed the influence of BlackBerrys. They played a major role in the unrest in Tunisia in 2012.

Now, everyone has a smartphone, and with smartphones, communication is essentially outside the government’s control. The commission spent a considerable amount of time analysing this aspect. This, I believe, points to a broader failure of intelligence.

Lack of funds for security service to deal with escalation of violence

Funding was a significant issue concerning the police and their deployment in this situation. One organisation that seemingly escaped scrutiny was the Defence Force. It’s worth noting that the Defence Force was also deployed, but they lacked vehicles to transport soldiers into KwaZulu-Natal. They resorted to hiring regular civilian buses for the journey to KZN. However, I haven’t seen any detailed analysis of this, except to mention that the Minister of Defence at that time, who is one of the key officials, has since resigned. Therefore, they’re not pursuing this matter further, and it appears to have been dealt with.

Prosecutions, government action to avoid a repeat of July 2021

It appears that SAPS members, particularly those in Phoenix, didn’t adequately address the situation. As a result, they’re now reverting to an old apartheid model. During apartheid, your ethnic background was considered. For instance, if you were a Zulu speaker, they would station you at a Setswana-speaking police station to prevent you from integrating too deeply into your own society. They’re making a similar recommendation here, cautioning police against placing people in communities where they can fully integrate. This subtly implies that the police were not performing their duties. Despite this, no one was prosecuted. Several people were arrested based on their WhatsApp conversations and internet activities, but nothing came of it.

Architects of KZN riots are in the upper ranks of the ANC; it is not spontaneous combustion 

I personally believe that if it was planned, and they’re sure that there was a comprehensive plan, then it wasn’t a spontaneous combustion. Here’s the problem: if it was a spontaneous combustion following COVID, bad economic times, and a host of other reasons which they provide as context, we are currently in exactly the same situation. Spontaneous combustion in politics doesn’t happen. It is planned. It is orchestrated. Someone must decide that the time is right.

Let’s use a typical South African example, there’s enough dry wood available and if you set a fire, you’re going to have a story. That is still the situation. Let’s consider a place like the northern parts of Pretoria, Tshwane, where we had a bad situation with water quality. This also created a situation where people could easily move into spontaneous combustion. I do not subscribe to spontaneous combustion in politics.

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I’ve never seen that happening anyway. Even if you look at the Glorious Revolution of 1648 or the French Revolution, or any of the revolutions, even some recent ones in Russia; they were planned. Somebody was the architect of what happened and I’m still of the opinion that there are architects and I think those architects are sitting in the ruling party, if you ask me. They are sitting in the upper echelons of the ANC in KZN. But that becomes very uncomfortable if you want to deal with them.

It is almost the same Catch-22 that the ANC confronted itself with the Zondo Commission. The Zondo Commission indicated that there are a lot of people who are obviously guilty, stole millions, but then there are the second-class guys who got a lot of benefits out of the big stealers, but they’re still sitting in the party.

HRC limitations, agitators escape

This is where the limitations of the Human Rights Commission become apparent. They invited people for interviews and hearings. However, those individuals [the architects of the violence] would obviously not attend a hearing. Someone must accuse them, but without proper facts, you’re in trouble. So, there’s a Catch-22 here. That’s why we need intelligence services, the national prosecuting agency, and similar institutions.

What we actually need here is an institution that operates like MI5, MI6, or the FBI, which can function almost independently of the political system and has enough autonomy to name people and take action. The Hawks were supposed to do that in their previous incarnation when they were called the Scorpions, but then Jacob Zuma, our dear Jacob Zuma, disbanded the Scorpions and replaced them with the Hawks, who are accountable to a minister in the cabinet. This means they can never do the independent work in a case like this, as the Scorpions or the FBI could have done.

Government response to KZN riots, Police is more organised; “we painted our vehicles.”

The path that Chapter 9 organisations follow is that this report is actually a report to Parliament. It will be presented to Parliament and, of course, to the Presidency. Then, Parliament would give instructions for certain things to happen. I see one of the requirements is that the President must present a progress report on their actions to the Human Rights Commission. This reminds me a lot of the International Court of Justice asking Israel to provide them with a progress report within a month’s time.

You can manoeuvre around that kind of recommendation. You can say you didn’t have time or capacity, or the difficulty was A, B, C, and D. It’s a very mild kind of statement. But that was their approach: these are our recommendations, you send us a report on what you’ve done. Now, the president can already indicate in a progress report that there’s a restructuring of the intelligence services.

He can present to them that since KwaZulu-Natal 2021, the defence force is better organised. They’ve actually painted all their vehicles and they got the vehicles, hundreds of them, sorted out in Bloemfontein and they send them from time to time on long trips so that people can see they actually have vehicles that are serviceable. The police, I think, are better organised.

I think a progress report can say a lot of things, but on the soft issues, the issues that the Human Rights Commission is really about, such as racism and national cohesion, I think there will be very little progress.

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