The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will be deployed across the country to help the police and government enforce measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Monday night.
Although the deployment of the cash-strapped defence force is likely to be limited, it could help the SAPS enforce restrictions on gatherings, movement and trade after Ramaphosa on Monday announced a national shutdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“The nationwide lockdown is necessary to fundamentally disrupt the chain of transmission across society,” said Ramaphosa.
“I have accordingly directed the South African National Defence Force be deployed to support the South African Police Service in ensuring that the measures we are announcing are implemented.”
Daily Maverick understands that SANDF units were instructed to be ready for deployment by Monday afternoon and that a company, comprising around 250 SANDF members, will be sent to each province, with two sent to Gauteng, where the highest number of Covid-19 cases has been recorded.
In such internal deployments, the SANDF is often mandated to assist the SAPS and can carry out joint operations, with SANDF members required to hand over suspects to the police should they make any arrests.
The SANDF has been deployed locally on multiple occasions, most recently in the Cape Flats. It was also deployed in Cape Town ahead of former president Jacob Zuma’s 2017 State of the Nation Address and in places like Bekkersdal and Alexandra during the 2014 elections, and again in Alexandra to curb xenophobic attacks in 2015.
The Sunday Times this weekend quoted Health Minister Zweli Mkhize saying that if restrictions to prevent Covid-19 have to increase, “[We] might have to begin to bring in the army to go out and work around the people, talk to them about hygiene, getting them to go sanitise, and so on.”
John Stupart, African Defence Review director and Daily Maverick newsletter editor, said deploying the SANDF would act as a pressure valve, freeing up police and emergency services to perform critical work.
“It’s a good thing, it’s necessary.”
“The big question is where the funding is going to come from,” said Stupart, noting the SANDF’s long-term complaints about a lack of funding.
“Essentially, we’re now reaping the whirlwind that we’ve sowed for the last 10 years for not funding our defence forces.”
Dr Jakkie Cilliers, head of African futures and innovation at the Institute of Security Studies, said the Constitution makes clear provision for the internal deployment of the SANDF and it could be used “to try to instil amongst the public the seriousness of the situation”.
He said the SANDF had the manpower to support SAPS and help enforce regulations to limit the spread of Covid-19.
“If South Africa does not flatten the curve now then we’re going to pay a huge price later on,” said Cilliers. DM