The failure of crime intelligence left the police in a vacuum, with no clear direction on how to respond to the rising crisis
As xenophobic violence gripped South Africa, the country’s security agencies appeared to be caught napping and seemed not to know how to respond to the spreading violence.
City Press has learnt that the police’s crime intelligence – the unit primarily responsible for collecting information on behalf of the police – has been hampered by instability and infighting in the upper echelons.
Several sources said that no intelligence was brought forward when the police’s top brass gathered in two meetings to discuss the violence that erupted last week.
The violence also brought to the fore a possible diplomatic fallout between Nigeria and South Africa, with the foreign government indicating its desire to send its police to help locals deal with their nationals – and it will push for government to compensate its citizens for the loss of property or injuries sustained during the mayhem.
Nigeria sent an envoy to the country last week, while other African leaders cancelled their participation at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town.
Even the national football team was left with no opponents after two countries pulled out, citing the violence as their reason for doing so.
According to several sources, what was alarming was that even at the height of the chaos, the various policing arms could not emerge with a concrete, unified plan to tackle the scourge.
The first meeting was held on Tuesday in Ekurhuleni.
Among the officials in attendance were Gauteng community safety MEC Faith Mazibuko; Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina, Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi and provincial police commissioner Lieutenant-General Elias Mawela.
A senior police officer who attended the meeting told City Press that there was no intelligence presented or any plan of action on how to deal with the acts of violence and looting.
“Mawela told us that these were acts of criminality, but he could not explain who was behind them … We did not know what we were dealing with. There was no plan of action,” said the insider.
“It appears that there is a leadership vacuum with regard to intelligence-gathering. Even after so many hours of discussions, we could not come up with a 72-hour plan of action.”
This account of events was corroborated by another official, who was also part of the meeting, and said the police promised to formulate a plan to deal with the “acts of criminality” within 72 hours.
According to the source, the violence was blamed on the striking truck drivers in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as hostel leaders and taxi owners.
“What became even more worrying, and added to the puzzle, were the attacks that occurred during violent evictions of foreign nationals, as well as some South Africans, at the Mandela section in Katlehong. These appeared to be acts of tribalism as the people who chased the residents out were isiZulu speakers and those targeted were mostly Xitsonga speakers from Mozambique and South Africa,” the officer said.
“Everyone left without any plan of action on how to handle the violence. We were just handling the unrest as it happened, without any preventative measures being in place. Our intelligence is dead. You remember when the police were attacked in the Johannesburg CBD a few weeks ago – they went there without any intelligence about how many people [migrants who were selling counterfeit goods] and what they were armed with,” the officer said.
At a national level, the country’s National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (Natjoints) met on Thursday, when the issue of the attacks was discussed.
A provincial police commissioner said there was no directive on how to handle the violence, leaving each provincial police chief to come up with their own strategies at provincial, cluster and police station level.
“There was a lack of directives on who was behind the attacks and how to handle them. Those who have been arrested are mainly people who just joined in and started looting the shops – but they were not the masterminds,” said the provincial commissioner.
At least five crime intelligence operatives told City Press that they had not received any word from management in terms of tasking them with gathering information about the recent spate of violent acts.
“There is a fight at management level as well,” said a source, adding that more problems would arise if things “continued in the current state”.
Three station commanders echoed the same lack of directive from the police’s top brass on the matter.
“In the past, when issues like this occurred, we would receive guidance from the national office on how to deal with the unrest and where the hot spots were,” said one station commander.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said: “The violence which erupted in and around Johannesburg since last Sunday was spontaneous. It stemmed from a flat that was burnt by a jealous lover. Those who were involved in the violence were none other than opportunistic criminals. This is not a situation which the intelligence environment or anyone else, for that matter, could have anticipated.
“Thanks to rapid interventions from the national office as well as intelligence-gathering together with the provincial office, as soon as the violence erupted in Joburg and surrounding areas, over 90 people were arrested within a short space of time.
“It was also purely thanks to intelligence that we were able to contain the violence within the trucking industry and arrest over 20 suspects in KwaZulu-Natal. There has been continuous, multidisciplinary consultation with representatives in the trucking industry as well as with communities. I can confirm that an additional 74 persons were arrested in Katlehong last Thursday, bringing the total of arrests made since the violence erupted in Johannesburg to 497.
“It is also our view that the collaboration with other law enforcement agencies, the government and political leaders, community leaders, the taxi industry, Izinduna, and other key stakeholders and crime intelligence has enabled us to restore stability in the province,” he said.
“It is important to add that it is not conclusive that these attacks were motivated by anti-foreigner sentiments. On the contrary: of the seven people who died during the violence, no more than two were foreign nationals; the rest were South Africans. So, could this be xenophobic?” Naidoo asked.
Parliament heard last week that a total of 24 266 people were deported over the past financial year, at a cost of more than R24 million to the home affairs department.
Provincial departments painted a bleak picture of how severe underfunding has crippled some of the department’s crucial functions.
Offices are severely understaffed and go for days without security – despite housing sensitive information – because of a lack of funds.
SA Policing Union president Mpho Kwinika blamed the total collapse of crime intelligence for “the poor state of policing” in the country.
“You do not have to be a rocket scientist to know that claims that the so-called police had intelligence about fake goods are a myth,” he said.
“Crime intelligence is on auto pilot. To say that we have poor leadership is an understatement. There is no leadership at all.”
Addressing students at the University of Johannesburg on Friday, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said a lack of police visibility, coupled with the army’s failure to monitor the country’s borders and a weak immigration policy, were “the root causes of the issues and the anger” that had gripped the country and led to attacks on foreign nationals.
“Once you knock on the doors of the justice system and the police and nothing happens, then there is the danger that people will take the law into their own hands – that is what we see manifesting now in South Africa,” Mkhwebane said.
“The weakest link are the police, who were not visible and failed … to prevent, combat and investigate crime. If we have issues relating to criminals or people selling drugs to the youth at taxi ranks, but we have police who are supposed to be visible and proactive in dealing with that [and are not], it is a challenge.”
While a diplomatic fallout appeared imminent, Nigerians were still eager to travel to South Africa – their visa applications were still coming through even as the safety of foreign nationals was under threat.
Bobby Moroe, South Africa’s acting high commissioner in Nigeria, told City Press: “The number of visa applications for Nigerians seeking to travel to South Africa continues to increase even when they are discouraged to go there.”
Moroe said that even after a decision was taken on Tuesday to close the high commission in Abuja and the consulate in Lagos as a precautionary measure, given the vandalism and attacks meted out on South African businesses, “we were still getting calls from people inquiring about their visa applications”.
Nigeria believes that the violence was fuelled by xenophobia as foreign nationals – including Nigerians – were targeted.
President Muhammadu Buhari sent a special envoy to Pretoria to present the government’s concerns, which included a proposal for Nigeria to send its own law enforcement officers to work with South African police in xenophobic hot spots.
Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, said: “South African police will have the benefit of Nigeria’s input in their engagement with the Nigerian community and the threats against it. Our police will understand Nigerians better [and] will be in position to provide certain intelligence that may not be available to South African police. There has to be accountability and responsibility for compensating Nigerians who have suffered. We are going to absolutely push for that.”
In response, Moroe said Onyeama was referring to the early warning mechanism draft document proposed by the two countries about two years ago.
“We are still looking at the draft and have not signed anything, but Nigeria is emphasising the clause seeking compensation,” he said, adding that processes were in place if Nigeria wanted to have law enforcement officers in South Africa.
Moroe expressed concern that some government officials in Nigeria were making “careless statements.
Under normal circumstances, when leaders subscribe to a certain view, civilians will go on the rampage, believing they have the support of leadership.”
Moroe said that diplomats were staying indoors since the mission offices had been closed and that the wrath was also felt at school by children of South Africans working at these missions in Nigeria.
He said one child had received a threatening voice note while another was told by a teacher that “their people were killing Nigerians in South Africa”.
Additional reporting by Setumo Stone and S’thembile Cele