‘Kill cop families, poison the water, burn hospitals’: Bheki Cele on threats made during July unrest

Instigators of the July 2021 unrest made threats aimed at intimidating the police, minister Bheki Cele revealed. File photo.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

Police minister Bheki Cele on Monday said intimidating threats had been made by then-faceless instigators of the July 2021 unrest which spread after the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma.

Cele said threats he heard at the time included calls for the destruction of reservoirs, poisoning drinking water and threats to destroy an oil pipeline from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng. They escalated to the point of suggestions that a Pietermaritzburg hospital would be set alight with patients inside.

“They wanted to escalate the anger of the people towards the government,” said Cele, adding that had any of these suggestions succeeded, people would have turned against the state.

He was testifying at the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) hearings into the violent riots and looting.

He labelled the July 2021 upheavals, which resulted in scores of businesses being looted and hundreds of people being killed, as “a failed insurrection — a close sister of a coup d’état”.

Cele mentioned the fear among police officers as the unrest instigators tried to “delegitimise the police and scare them”.

“It was about slowing them down. There were messages sent to the police from Umlazi not to come back home, saying even if they returned they would not find their wives and children there.”

He said these were all efforts to “kill the system” and, unfortunately, came at a time when “the ground was ripe among those who were poor and hungry”.

He recalled going searching for bread in the north of Durban. A scarcity of bread led to long queues. Cele said they were longer than the Sassa grant queues and it seemed the instigators of violence had devised a plan to “get them hungry, get them angry”.

Racial tensions flared, added Cele.

He said a female police reservist had been assaulted, her car torched and she was taken to a stream as her attackers debated how to kill her.

Cele said the woman had observed that the vehicles of Indian nationals were allowed to pass through the area where she was attacked, without any hindrance, giving rise to the belief that she was targeted because she was black.

Soldiers were deployed to police stations as threats circulated about the stations being easy targets for those looking for guns — by storming the stations and killing officers who resisted demands for firearms.

Cele said that during that time, false reports circulated about police officers choosing to stand back and he, too, had taken a stand-down approach in sympathy. Cele, however, said his absence from the first two days of the unrest was due to him being in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.

The police minister also faced criticism and threats from some community members who accused him of prioritising Indian areas over black areas and the same with businesses. He denied these claims and explained why on occasion he postponed a meeting scheduled with a predominantly black, disgruntled community.

Cele said the unrest threatened to spill over to Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape and North West provinces. Tribalism reared its head as voice notes began circulating — reportedly from Xhosa-speaking people in the Eastern Cape — warning Zulus from KwaZulu-Natal to keep the fighting in that province.

Cele has thus far admitted that the police were ill-prepared and that tensions within the ministry led to there being divisions that killed imperative communication between himself and the national police commissioner Gen Khehla Sitole.

Cele is expected to conclude his testimony and the commission will hear evidence from other police members on Tuesday. The defence force, community representatives from Alexander, Soweto and members of taxi associations are also expected to testify.