Several large events and gatherings took place in Sandton and other parts of the country on Saturday (29 October), with citizens largely shrugging off a terrorism alert from the US embassy earlier in the week.
The embassy warned on Wednesday (26 October) that a terrorist attack might happen in Africa’s richest square mile, targeting large gatherings. The alert did not specify who was being targeted or how the attack might happen – but warned US citizens to avoid the region on the 29th and 30th of October.
The alert was followed by other embassies – like the UK, Canadian, French, German and Australian missions – issuing similar warnings to their citizens.
President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to the alert by calling it “unfortunate”, while security structures in the country were frustrated by the lack of information coming from the US embassy on the matter – ultimately taking the position that there is not enough evidence pointing to an actual threat, telling South African citizens that they would be safe.
The police and other security officials were put on standby, businesses ran security drills, and event runners doubled their security efforts for the gatherings – and everything planned for Saturday went off without a hitch.
All that remains is the diplomatic fallout.
Speaking to the City Press and Sunday Times, various sources have pointed to a gathering storm between South Africa and the United States over the matter.
Deputy minister in the presidency for State Security, Zizi Kodwa, is already on record stating that there will be repercussions for the US embassy breaking protocol on matters like this and undermining South Africa’s sovereignty and bringing South Africa’s security strength and intelligence capabilities into question.
Sources within the security sector speaking to the City Press, however, have speculated that there may have been an ulterior motive by the US in issuing the alert – such as setting the groundwork for installing a military presence in the country.
Other sources – speaking to the Sunday Times – said a diplomatic incident is looming over the role the US alert played in undermining and scuppering almost a year’s worth of work done by local security officials in tracking and monitoring the terrorist groups allegedly linked to the potential attacks.
Despite the different views on the matter, authorities agreed on one thing: the US did not share any solid or useful information with South Africa, leading to widespread speculation and panic, and creating undue anxiety among the population.
However, independent security experts said that information would have been shared with the country, but there is no guarantee it was shared with the right people or that it would make its way through the appropriate networks.
Senior Training Coordinator at ENACT Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, Willem Els said that South Africa has already demonstrated it cannot effectively handle security intelligence, referring to the complete intelligence breakdown during the July 2021 riots and alleged insurrection.
“They did not really manage to gather all the information. That may not be the case here, but it is a possibility,” he said.
On the other hand, foreign missions have the mandate to take care of their citizenry. “We know that several foreign missions picked up on this – if we (South Africa) picked up on credible threats in other countries, we would follow the same route (of issuing alerts).”
He said that the government’s position that information wasn’t shared was “complete nonsense”.
Martin Ewi, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said that sharing information is standard protocol before issuing alerts, and it was likely that the information simply never reached the appropriate people in government.
Read: Government slams US terrorism warning