Eight days in July: at the heart of the unrest and looting that shook South Africa


A policeman guards a group of suspected looters who were apprehended at a shopping mall on July 13, 2021 in Vosloorus, Johannesburg, during looting and riots sparked by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma. (Photo by James Oatway / Getty Images)

In July 2021, with the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma, dramatic and violent scenes of unrest and looting unfolded in KZN and Gauteng. More than 340 people lost their lives and the damage exceeded 50 billion rand. Putting together the full story, reporters Qaanitah Hunter, Jeff Wicks and Kaveel Singh sifted through hundreds of pages of leaked documents and intelligence notes. Eight Days in July is a compelling first-hand account of what really happened, reported from the epicenter of the chaos.

Eight days in July, a book written by three News24 journalists and published by Tafelberg, comes surprisingly quickly after the events it covers – the July riots and looting that erupted shortly after former President Jacob Zuma was imprisoned for contempt of court .

Getting Zuma jailed had been a long and complicated process, with a lot of anger on the part of his supporters, including the repeated threat that some sort of massive public protest would follow his imprisonment.

Eight days in July takes all of this into consideration and asks the relevant questions about the extent to which the July riots were planned, what their planners’ goals were, and who exactly those planners were.

Many of these questions remain unanswered, or not fully answered. How do we understand the events of July? It is still difficult, even today, four months later, to decide on the right terms: is it an uprising, a revolt, a riot or a plunder? An attempted coup, as some members of the ruling party called it?

Was it coordinated or spontaneous or a combination of the two? What actions trigger other actions? Was it the work of agents provocateurs engaging in sabotage, trying to destroy infrastructure and sow chaos in order to make the life of President Cyril Ramaphosa more difficult?

After all, it is Ramaphosa who is seen by Zuma supporters as their main enemy: he deposed Zuma at the ANC elective conference in 2017, and he vowed to fight corruption and the capture of the ‘State – of which Zuma and several friends are accused. In essence, there is an old power bloc that is at war with the new authorities, especially because Ramaphosa’s reform agenda is likely to cauterize their flow of patronage.

Some of Zuma’s supporters who encouraged the looters were arrested, but many were not. It is not known how the proceedings against them are unfolding. Intelligence agencies claim to have predicted the looting and the police paid little attention to it, but the Police Minister disputes this. Certainly, in the first days of the looting, the police were conspicuous by their absence.

Eight days in July

JOIN THE VIRTUAL LAUNCH: Book editor Shaun de Waal will be in discussion with the authors on Monday, November 8 at 6:00 p.m. at News24.com/books. Join us to watch the conversation live.

Eight Days in July provides the kind of analysis needed if South Africa is ever to understand what happened during those days of looting and arson – the authors take an in-depth look at intelligence reports and others stories to try to discern what was known, what was understood and what was foreseeable as these “July Days” approached.

But the book does more, taking the reader into the midst of that chaos, especially through the eyes of reporters who were on the ground when it happened. Kaveel Singh was in KZN, the epicenter of looting and riots, and Jeff Wicks faced looters in Gauteng. Their accounts are agonizing, a shock to those who have watched events unfold from a distance. Qaanitah Hunter brings it all together, including his experience of Durban right after the destruction.

The book is, as News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson puts it in his foreword, “a masterful draft of a story” – a story that always unfolds uncomfortably.

Eight days in July

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