Intel analysis security situation around SA Elections

ABSTRACT: Intel Analysis security situation round SA Elections – An intelligence analysis of the national security situation likely to pertain just prior to, and especially in the aftermath of the 2024 South African general elections, shows a high probability that unrest will occur. Without wishing to be alarmist and knowing that South Africans have been capable of achieving miracles (at least in the eyes of foreign observers – such as during the 1994 transition to a non-racial democracy), there remains a possibility that a new government will again be quickly established with no instability of note. However, this time round the probability that high levels of unrest will occur in at least some areas of the country, is assessed as significant. Things are, however, in a state of flux and it is not possible to specify here exactly where disturbances are likely to occur (except in general terms), what their severity will be in each locality, and how long such instability will persist. What cannot be ruled out, though, is that the levels and duration of such violence, as well as the footprint, may significantly exceed that witnessed in July 2021.  (This assessment is based on open sources and analytical logic, not on hard tactical intelligence of a secret nature, so that greater specificity is not currently possible – however, for planning purposes it is essential to now already take cognisance of the perceived probability of violent unrest, if only on the basis of “better safe than sorry”; all will rejoice if this assessment proves wrong and everything in fact passes tranquilly).

FOCUS KEYWORD: Intel Analysis security situation round SA Elections

KEYWORDS: South African general election 2024, Cyril Ramaphosa, Jacob Zuma, MK Party, ANC, EFF, Operation Vula

AUTHOR: Dr Willem Steenkamp (retired intelligence analyst, ambassador, lawyer, co-editor Nongqai SA Forces History Magazine).



Historical background

Ever since the 1950s organised Black politics in South Africa (just as in much of Africa) has been marked by a division between moderate elements who would prefer to adhere to non-racial, Western-style policies, and those who strive for a so-called Africanist approach. Within the ANC this gave rise to the Africanist PAC element splitting off in the late 50s (also because of their resistance to the influence of non-Black communists within the ANC/SACP alliance). In the seventies the Black Consciousness Movement came to the fore.

Within the ANC/SACP alliance itself, the “Lusaka” and “London” wings were clearly discernible, with the latter (personified by eventual president Thabo Mbeki) representing the moderate tendency. The fact that President Nelson Mandela had embraced the moderate approach in the late eighties as a matter of realpolitik (without disavowing the Africanist or communist wings) ensured that the ANC moderates were in control during the transition negotiations (which meant that they no longer insisted upon the notion of a Marxist people’s republic and adopted a Western-style constitutional democracy).

This did NOT mean, however, that the Africanist wing had abandoned their dreams of a National Democratic Revolution (NDR). Tactically, they had merely recognised as priority the need to first get rid of the white government, with the NDR to follow at an opportune future moment.

The ascendancy of the moderates came to a fall at the ANC’s Polokwane elective conference in December 2007. The “Lusaka” wing’s master tactician, Mac Maharaj  (who my father, the late general Frans Steenkamp,  former head of the SA Police Security Branch had always described as the most dangerous ANC leader) and sworn enemy of Thabo Mbeki had identified the flaw in the ANC’s internal constitution that would allow his man, Jacob Zuma, to be elected as party leader. What was needed was to flood the conference with delegates from KwaZulu-Natal (from a multitude of new branches which had legitimately been registered there).

Since the South African constitution is structured in such a way that the dominant faction within the dominant party (if it holds a majority of the seats in parliament) effectively appoints the head of state, Zuma was duly inaugurated as the country’s president.

During his presidency Zuma already gave clear signs of his Africanist convictions, although he then made no attempt to amend the existing Western-style constitution.

In fact, it was Zuma who expelled from the ANC the radical young Turks who would then form the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) under the leadership of Mr Julius Malema.

Zuma soon enough found himself surrounded by “advisors” bent on milking the state coffers. This negatively affected the popularity of the ANC.  Together with the fear among other ANC members that Zuma was also giving Zulus disproportionate power within the ANC, and with backing from white business, the “moderate” wing mounted a comeback, forcing Zuma’s resignation and the election as party president of Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2017.

Zuma has been defending himself ever since against legal accusations of corruption. His brief incarceration in 2021 for contempt of the Constitutional Court led to an outburst of violent protest and looting, principally in his home province of KZN. He was rapidly made part of a general sentence remission and released.

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What the July 2021 unrest demonstrated

The July 2021 unrest underscored three crucial points, each very relevant to this analysis:

  • Firstly that, as tool for exerting political pressure, instigating such violent unrest UNDOUBTEDLY WORKED;
  • Secondly, the security forces were totally INCAPABLE OF MANAGING THE SECURITY SITUATION; and
  • Thirdly, for the instigators there HAS BEEN NO CONSEQUENCES.

That said, by the end of 2023 it had become increasingly clear that Zuma’s “Stalingrad” stalling tactics in court had effectively reached the end of the road. This time, Team Zuma analysed the national constitution. Based on proportional representation and thus systemically favouring the creation of a multitude of small parties, the opportunity was there for Zuma to once again become a member of parliament.

Forcing a coalition government by weakening the ANC

More importantly, though – if the ANC could be brought to below 50% of the seats in parliament by siphoning off a chunk of their traditional voters with Zuma’s new MK party, then the ANC would be forced to seek coalition partners and the tail may end up wagging the dog. (The fact that the MK name and logo were chosen, makes it clear that the principal objective is to siphon off ANC voters to this “purified” or “original” party harking back to the liberation movement days; the part’s manifesto with its Africanist and NDR objectives also makes this clear).  

The importance of all of the foregoing when one assesses the probability of violence prior, during and especially after the elections, is that the peaceful nature of the elections held from 1994 till 2019, were in most part due to the fact that it had always been a foregone conclusion that the ANC would win an absolute majority. Now, however, there is for the first time the probability (according to the opinion polls) of the ANC not achieving an outright majority. This means that the election as such, will be no more than the initial scene-setter this time round.

It is not the 2024 election that will determine the composition of South Africa’s next government (if, as predicted, no party wins an absolute majority). It will be those politicians newly elected to parliament, through horse-trading among themselves. Trying to form a stable coalition.

Which raises these pivotal questions: won’t there be just as great an effort AFTER the election to influence the said politicians, as there was prior to it to try and influence the voters? Or will our elected leaders enter into some local equivalent of the Sistine Chapel and there piously apply their minds in earnest genteel debate to who should emerge victorious, guided purely by divine inspiration? Will our populace stand outside, solemnly and with quiet patience in whatever will pass as our St. Peter’s Square, waiting passively for white smoke to emerge from some chimney to signal that our new pope has been chosen?

How long will all of this take?

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The coalition scenario brings new, unfamiliar risks and challenges

This potential coalition-building scenario is fraught with risk, from a national security perspective:

  • First of all, if the ANC does not emerge with a clear majority then everybody – the security forces included – will immediately sense that their current political masters are on borrowed time, which will seriously impact the authority of the lame-duck ministers (being just human, the individual members of the security forces will also each have their own party-political and tribal affiliations, to further complicate matters).
  • Secondly, there are likely going to be immediate negative economic impacts, such as a significant weakening of the Rand.
  • Thirdly, emotions will run high – both among politicians (with livelihoods at stake) and the populace, clamouring for “their guys” to get a show-in.
  • Fourthly, there will be an overpowering temptation to try and influence that process of horse-trading; this will, most likely, not occur in a genteel manner of postulating your team’s merits, but strong-arm, in the form of demonstrating what the uncomfortable consequences will be if you’re excluded.
  • Fifthly, the bulk of common members of parliament will be focused on their particular party being able to share in the spoils (and thus themselves), without much deference to the personal preferences of their leaders – it may thus happen that, if there are leaders who for whatever historical interpersonal reasons do not wish to work together, those leaders may be jettisoned in order to enable partnerships, leading to further instability at party-political level if the likes of Ramaphosa, for example, is abandoned or resigns.
  • Last but not least, the vote-counting process – its duration and credibility – can give rise to unrest, especially if there are allegations of electoral fraud (for which Zuma has already been laying the groundwork).

The politicians know what’s likely coming and obviously are already planning for it

It is not rocket science, grasping that these upcoming realities have already been comprehended by politicians of all stripes. They are certainly already thinking about and planning for how they can best position themselves in the event of such horse-trading. Important in terms of national security assessment, is what each party will be willing and able to actually do, post-election, in order to maximise its influence at the bargaining table (it should here be remembered that we aren’t talking only at national level – there are provinces that may end up requiring coalition-forming: KZN most clearly so, but also perhaps the Western Cape,  Gauteng – possibly even all of them).

What tactics will these parties employ? To what lengths will they be willing to go, nationally as well as with regard to disputed provinces, to further their respective causes? Will they trust in reason alone, or will some of them be willing to turn to physical action, to “mass mobilisation” to exert pressure? (As, for example, happened after the last election in the USA).

One can only go by history. The events of July 2021 speak for themselves, as regards the modus operandi of Team Zuma.

The spate of political killings already witnessed in KZN underscores that politics in South Africa is a deadly serious affair, not a parlour game. Going back somewhat further, there’s the history of tremendous Black-on-Black bloodshed during the run-up to the 1994 election. There’s also the “Lusaka” wing’s planning of Operation Vula, which was precisely designed to influence that election and the formation of the first non-racial government through armed violence, if matters had not gone to the their liking (and if the then security forces had not put a stop to Vula). Similarly, SWAPO had attempted the same violent “strong man” tactic in Namibia with their ill-fated invasion there on 1 April 1989, in the run-up to that election.

It is not slandering politicians and parties with their roots in revolutionary politics, to say that they have a different view of violence as political tool – after all, Mao clearly taught them that political power grows from the barrel of a gun.

Why politicians may be tempted to stir mass action to give them leverage during the coalition-forming

A number of factors will make it very tempting for certain politicians to try and influence by means of mass mobilisation and unrest, the post-electoral horse-trading that will likely result from no party winning a clear majority:

  • The fact that there likely again will not be any negative consequences visited upon them, for having done so (in other words, there is no effective deterrent in terms of their personal win-lose choice, with therefore effectively nothing to lose, and all to gain).
  • On the other hand, forming part of government may be the surest means of ridding themselves of their legal problems and staying out of jail.
  • The security forces likely will be even less capable of clamping down effectively than in July 2021, and these politicians know that.
  • Instigating unrest will benefit from the ease afforded by social media, as well as by the multiplication effect of general frustration and anger among especially the unemployed youth – plus the opportunity that the criminal element (as well as hungry hordes) will see in any breakdown in law-and-order, for going again on a looting spree.
  • With the quick release of Zuma after the July 2021 unrest, they have seen that stoking unrest is an effective political power tool – especially the notion that: “if you exclude us, then there will be no peace”.

A last factor that has to be taken into consideration, is the shifting power balance in the world, plus (related to it) the present trend in Africa regarding anti-imperialism and Africanism. The West is losing its dominance. With so much already currently on its diminishing collective plate (Gaza, Ukraine), the West will not concretely intervene if things start going badly wrong in South Africa after the election.

The West is actually being forced to withdraw from Africa, particularly the French and the USA (the British have long ago left). This is part of the growing division in the world, as seen from the Third World perspective. A division between “imperialist” and “anti-imperialist” forces (the West being identified with the former). This ties in with what the economist Arnold Kling wrote a decade ago, about opposing worldviews that lead different groupings to define political debate respectively in terms of struggles between “civilization and barbarism” or “oppressed versus oppressor” (with the latter being, in recent parlance, anti-imperialist versus imperialist).

This anti-imperialist, Africanist tendency that we now see sweeping down Africa from its North, is in part connected with the Ukraine conflict and the role of the Russian Federation in trying to oust and substitute the West in Africa. The Russians are pointing out (rightly) to Africans that these Western powers such as France in the sixties had resorted to sham independence simply in order not to be confronted with more wars of national liberation such as they had lost in Indochina and Algeria.

From “independence” on, the French  had manipulated that it would be “Black” governments keeping the Black masses in check – but Black governments hand-picked by the French, governing on the French constitutional model. In reality on a “scratch each other’s back” basis of corruption. This relationship of perpetual dependence was usually achieved through the French elevating the smallest tribe in a country into the new Askaris who must keep the masses under control and allow the French their profit, while being allowed to skim off for themselves.

The current wave of Africanism coupled with anti-imperialism is a very powerful psychological and nationalist force which, in the South African context, supports the notion that the time has come here as well to replace the Western-style constitutional dispensation of 1994 with an Africanist model.

Whilst many South Africans have dreamt fondly about the day that the ANC meets its come-uppance at the ballot box, the resulting reality may not be an alliance of Western-style moderates that will be taking over.

Statistically, the current members of the new Multi-Party Charter barely achieved 33% of the vote at the last election. What could thus easily result from the ANC not gaining 50% this year, is that another, very different Africanist alliance in fact gain a two-thirds majority. An alliance of essentially the Africanist movements such as MK and the EFF, plus the ANC (now converted to full blown Africanist, in order to still be part of a governing majority) together with a collection of smaller parties such as GOOD. Allowing them collectively a sufficient majority in the new parliament to amend the current constitution.

The stakes are therefore high, with (ex)revolutionaries smelling opportunity and not much resistance – not locally from security forces nor internationally (in fact, with the likes of the Russian Federation and China lending them support, in order to weaken Western influence in Africa).

The potential for deliberate instigation of unrest, as well as for the spontaneous escalation there-of, should thus not be under-estimated.

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Where is unrest likely to manifest?

The obvious first region to focus on is KZN, given Zuma’s traditional power base there. Then, the other Zulu-dominated parts of South Africa, such as the North-Eastern Free State, Witwatersrand, and South-Eastern parts of the former Transvaal. Given that there is much more at stake this time than in July 2021 (when the unrest did not break out into the rest of the country), it is quite possible that it may do so now – especially in the case of provinces where no clear winner emerges.

Disaffected areas suffering under crime and abject poverty, where gangs may seize the opportunity, may be especially prone. Another “soft target” that may be perceived, and which ties in with the calls from the Africanists for land distribution, is the rural areas. It is conceivable that a state of political confusion may temp these parties to instigate land occupations as providing political leverage and relevance for them, as well as to demonstrate their popular power and dedication to the people.

What could serve as catalysts for trouble to break out?

Apart from the horse-trading phase as general consequence of a “hung” parliament described above, trouble could break out even before the elections if Mr Zuma is denied the possibility to be on the MK’s candidate list (the Constitutional Court must still finally rule on this). The spate of murders may also trigger unrest, especially if a very high-profile candidate is assassinated.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, all eyes will be on the electoral commission. If there is any perceived undue delay in the declaration of the results, or if allegations of fraud are credibly made, then that may lead to calls for mass mobilisation and protest, which may take on a life of its own and spiral into widespread violence.

Should a party decide to use unconstitutional, in effect revolutionary means to demonstrate it strong-man credentials (effectively its ability  to hold the country to ransom) then things may turn serious very quickly.

Going by what happened in July 2021, what could such a “mass action” strategy potentially entail?

Given the country’s topography and ethnic demographics, there could again be an effort to cut the main trunk roads – likely at the mountain passes (Van Reenen) or chokepoints (Mooi River). This may be accompanied by the disruption of a vital port such as Durban. Actions such as these, especially if the horse-trading phase becomes drawn-out, will present the instigators with considerable leverage over the (interim) government and the business community. It will clearly impact the delivery of fuel and food. (It should not be forgotten that the 1994 election result was, in the end, in fact an “agreed result”, rather than a mathematically correctly tabulated result, precisely because of such political considerations of avoidance of instability, so that a precedent does exist).

Communications nowadays depend very much on cell-phone towers, which may again be a target.

Essential infrastructure such as electricity and water supply may also be targeted, as a means to increase frustration and anger and to demonstrate the power to disrupt.

Calling out looters (or land occupiers) is obviously a high-impact manoeuvre, with fire being a cheap and readily available “weapon of mass destruction”.

What could the likely consequences be?

The implications for the national economy and the population at large may quickly become serious. Especially if a new government isn’t rapidly formed.

What families and communities need to plan and prepare for, is the need to stock up on basic necessities such as long-life food, drinking water, fuel, cash, and essential medicines.

Should basic utilities such as electricity and water go down, then it would be necessary to have access to solar power (at the minimum a small portable unit, of the general type shown below).

intel analysis security situation SA elections solar charger

In urban environments, especially in condominium-style residential complexes, one of the nasty consequences of a cut-off in the mains water supply is that sewerage stagnates in the pipes (through not flowing). One way of trying to limit this, is not to dispose of used toilet paper in the toilet, but to have a small, dedicated dustbin with lid next to it.

This is how most of the world dispose of such paper, and I can assure readers that there are absolutely no smells or nastiness. So, think twice before unnecessarily clogging the sewerage pipes with toilet paper, if the mains water goes down in your area.

Intel Analysis security situation round SA elections toilet paper bin

To sum up what each family needs to do: make a list of the medications, long-life food, drinking water, fuel, sufficient cash and the like that you will need, and stock up on those in advance, in timely manner.

Probably the biggest concern in the case of an outbreak of violent unrest, is for personal safety

The best remedy for that is to not be caught unawares and unprepared. There is indeed safety in numbers. It is imperative that families should join local legitimate, officially-recognised community organisations such as Neighbourhood Watches and Community Policing Forums. Avoid the on-the-spur formation of vigilante groups, which can land one in big legal trouble. Associate with the cool heads, not the hotheads.

Avoid an “us or them” approach – reach out beyond your own group. Otherwise, preparation (however well intended) can be seen as polarisation and worsen matters.

The vast majority of South Africans of all colours and creeds are peace-loving, law-abiding citizens who absolutely don’t want their communities or livelihoods destroyed. Together, that is a powerful force that one can join, reaching out on a community-wide basis and taking hands. Not to start a fight, but to actually deter conflict by being visibly prepared.

The bristling Switzerland principle, in other words – make your community so visibly united, prepared and thus formidable, that instigators and the criminal elements will steer well clear of you.  

Adopt a two-handed approach: not only preparing to defend your home and community, but also actively reaching out to promote peace and tolerance – such as holding an inter-faith, community-wide church service calling for a peaceful and democratic election, on the Sunday before the election. Reach out to, and unite in a pre-planned manner, all who have much to lose from violent destruction – such as the local taxi association, for example.

Above all, be informed and prepared, with a proper community safety plan. There are experts who can help with this: General Roland de Vries (who has helped more than 80 communities prepare their safety plans: CLICK HERE), and Mr Johan Botha of the volunteer Sinoville Firefighting Association:

If things do go seriously wrong for any length of time, then it would be necessary also to be ready to assist refugees from townships, which will in all probability be far more heavily impacted by unrest than the leafy suburbs. This possibility needs to be planned for, as a moral duty and so as not to leave groups of desperate people roaming the streets.

To conclude

In prudently preparing for any eventuality, it is psychologically important not to actually incite an aura of paranoia and polarisation. As said at the outset: South Africa is a land of miracles, and it is quite possible that the first exercise in coalition-forming may go quite smoothly, ringing in a new era of greater imclusivity, cooperation, and progress.

It would also be wrong to pre-emptively, without concrete proof, accuse any party of definitively planning dastardly deeds – this article certainly does not wish to pretend that the MK party or Mr Zuma, for example, are inevitably and intentionally up to no good.

However, as far as proof goes, one can only go by the historical record, which cannot be ignored – therefore, the prudent and responsible thing to do is to plan for the worst whilst also fervently hoping for the best.

But plan, one must.

And pray that the politicians will keep open minds and put the national interest above all else, when the electoral dust has settled, and a government must be formed…

PLEASE SHARE YOUR INSIGHTS WITH THE COMMENT FUNCTION: We at NONGQAI know that many of our readers are themselves trained and experienced observers of security matters. Please use the “COMMENT” function on this Blog to share with us your insights about this potentially serious situation. Let’s make this a community forum for such inputs, which will be very helpful for all. What do you see developing in your area?  Thanks in advance & stay positive, but also – stay safe!

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