State agents loyal to Zuma may have sparked mass riots, says Ramaphosa

South African president tells inquiry of fears that some security operatives had gone rogue

South Africa's president has confirmed his government is investigating reports that state security agents loyal to his predecessor Jacob Zuma, who was jailed last month for defying a court order, were responsible for sparking the deadly unrest that followed Mr Zuma's incarceration.

Cyril Ramaphosa told a corruption inquiry that his decision last week to bring the State Security Agency (SSA) under the control of the presidency was partially based on fears that some of its operatives had gone rogue.

“There was a lapse [at the SSA] and we need to find out how it happened and how it manifested itself from a certain beginning right up until what happened in July,” he told the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector.

More than 340 people died during mass rioting and looting that broke out in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces after Mr Zuma (79) was jailed on July 8th for refusing to comply with a constitutional court order to give evidence at the corruption inquiry.

Public sector corruption

Mr Ramaphosa's appearance at the inquiry on Thursday was his second of the week. He was invited by the inquiry's presiding judge, Raymond Zondo, to answer questions about public sector corruption that occurred when he was Mr Zuma's deputy, from 2014 to 2018.

On Wednesday Mr Ramaphosa revealed he had threatened to resign as the country’s deputy president at the height of the corruption allegations, but decided to stay put to try to fix things from within government.

Mr Ramaphosa said he initially was unaware of the extent to which key state institutions had been compromised by corrupt officials, because of oversight gaps in cabinet that obscured his view of what was happening.

However, as time passed warning signs began to emerge, he said. The shock appointment by Mr Zuma of the little-known African National Congress MP Des van Rooyen as the country's finance minister in 2015 at the expense of the respected Nhlanhla Nene was one such red flag, he said.


Mr van Rooyen’s appointment sent the rand into freefall and Mr Zuma was forced to replace him as finance minister after just 48 hours due to a massive public outcry and internal pressure from the ANC that was led by Mr Ramaphosa.

In relation to the controversial Gupta business family, which secured billions of rand in suspect public sector tenders during Mr Zuma’s tenure, Mr Ramaphosa said the ANC was initially blindsided by their close friendship with the former president.

Mr Ramaphosa was the last witness to appear at the inquiry, which began in August 2018 and has cost almost a billion rand (€57 million), before it prepares its final report.

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South Africa