Lockdown Level 4

The curfew – and other crackdowns – raises disturbing questions for South Africa’s democracy

By Marianne Merten 30 April 2020
Caption
Illustrative image | source: Soldiers in Umlazi township on April 09, 2020 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

In a curious take on easing the hard lockdown, the government has imposed a curfew. Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in Wednesday’s briefing mostly avoided using the word curfew, instead saying: ‘When you come back from work you have to be at home…’

The curfew from 1 May that will confine South Africans in their homes from 8pm to 5am – movement is only allowed with a permit – has raised hackles regardless of the Covid-19 public health emergency.

The possibility of a curfew from Level 4 to Level 1, where modelling puts coronavirus infection as a minimal threat to the health system, first arose on Saturday when Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel briefed on government’s risk-adjusted proposals to reopen the economy.

 This caught opposition political party leaders by surprise on Saturday – a curfew had not been mentioned by President Cyril Ramaphosa days earlier in their latest in a series of such discussions.

DA interim leader John Steenhuisen said on Saturday the curfew was a “complete surprise”, pointing out the high voluntary compliance levels to date with the lockdown.

“A military curfew is a draconian step. We believe it is unlawful. This is not a State of Emergency. The Level 4 lockdown is remarkably like Level 5 – with a military curfew,” said Steenhuisen.

“It’s out of order. This is not a State of Emergency,” said United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa, who had joined the conversation with the president a little late.

Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said a curfew could not be supported. “We are opposed,” he said. “[Ramaphosa] is quick to say on television ‘I have consulted’ with party political leaders, which gives the impression we are in support. That’s not the case.”

On Wednesday, several Cabinet ministers maintained the latest lockdown measures as crucial to the fight for South African’s health in the coronavirus pandemic, while reopening the economy. The hard lockdown pulled South Africa further into recession, with an estimated one million job losses in the formal sector. Hunger has hit hard nationwide as millions of informal sector traders have been unable to work.

Since the weekend, the government has made much of the return of 1.5 million workers as Level 4 sees a greater measure of retail operations alongside the full reopening of the agricultural sector and, progressively, mining.

“In the evenings, although more people will be going to work, when you come back from work you have to be at home… You have to go back home between 8pm and 5am… If you are not having a permit to be out, you cannot be out.”

That’s how the curfew was officially proclaimed by Dlamini-Zuma – alongside other measures like the overturning of last week’s presidential announcements that cigarette sales would be allowed in favour of maintaining that ban alongside the booze ban.

The curfew announcement came after the day’s meetings, first of the National Command Council, and then Cabinet.

The president and ministers may be the public face of South Africa’s measures against the Covid-19 pandemic. But in the background operates an extensive security web that plays a key role in the lockdown.

Some details of these security operations have seeped into the public domain over the past two weeks. For example, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (SA’s Constitutional Democracy?: The path of Ramaphosa’s letter for major SANDF deployment raises serious concerns around separation of powers) told parliamentarians of the role of NatJoints, the National Joint Operations and Intelligence Structure, which is an entity established by a Cabinet memo without basis in legislation.

On Wednesday the SAPS shed further light on the role of NatJoints, which has its own intelligence committee, and its reach throughout the lockdown.

“The NatJoints national command centre will proceed with operationalising the directive by the National Coronavirus Command Council,” ends the SAPS presentation titled “Police Management of the National State of Disaster Lockdown” which defines the national lockdown as “a state of isolation or restricted access and movement instituted as a security measure”.

The NatJoints has established a network from district security units and provincial structures to ultimately reach the National Command Council chaired by Ramaphosa. At this council, NatJoints presents its plans for adoption, before Cabinet takes the final decision. In many ways, this is tantamount to a formality, as many Cabinet ministers also sit on the Covid-19 National Command Council.

To look specifically at “national stability issues”, NatJoints also has established its own intelligence committee of state security, police crime intelligence, military intelligence and the statutory National Intelligence Coordinating Committee (Nicoc), itself a structure at least established in legislation to coordinate intelligence services.

That NatJoints intelligence committee must “assist in providing intelligence” on such national stability issues, including the impact of Covid-19 in jails, status of ports of entry and the border, readiness of state entities to respond to Covid-19, adherence to lockdown regulations and, as the presentation put it: “How the rest of the world is responding to the pandemic”.

While the SAPS does not necessarily lead the various NatJoints work streams, the only one the SAPS does not sit on is economy.

Wednesday’s SAPS presentation to Parliament’s police committees hauled out the numbers. Stats like 27,352 law enforcement officials deployed on any given lockdown day. Or 191 roadblocks held every day, with another 681 vehicle checkpoints.

But over the past five weeks of lockdown, tales of police abuse of power and brutality have emerged across the length and spread of South Africa. Most recently the grapevine buzzed with the seizure of pineapples and yeast at roadblocks and elsewhere, even though neither are prohibited in the regulations that also do not ban the consumption of alcohol in one’s private home.

After years of civil society and government campaigns to provide girls with sanitary pads so they do not miss school – common sense means sanitary pads are personal hygiene products permitted by lockdown regulations – police in some places have confiscated sanitary pads.

Such seizures of sanitary pads were brought to the attention of Dlamini-Zuma by MPs during a virtual parliamentary committee meeting on 21 April. 

“It is not true that sanitary pads are not allowed to be sold,” she responded, urging lawmakers to let her or the police minister know details of where this was happening.

Seeking medical attention was expressly permitted during the hard lockdown, yet Eastern Cape police stopped the elderly parents of an ill toddler going to see a doctor because they did not have a permit, reported the Daily Dispatch in early April (Eastern Cape couple’s nightmare journey to help sick infant). Although no permit is required for seeking medical attention, police had told the couple to call an ambulance – it didn’t arrive – or get a permit from a councillor.

Examples abound. From the farmer who was fined R1,000 for crossing provincial boundaries to get from his house to his farm on the other side of the river – and in another province – to the Free State farmer stopped from delivering vegetables to the Johannesburg fresh produce market because he was crossing provincial boundaries.

The SAPS on Wednesday told lawmakers to date they had charged 118,735 people in 114,377 dockets, or cases, in relation to contraventions of the lockdown regulations.

The presentation reflected under “to court” 42,388 – it’s not clear if that’s people or dockets – with 65,965 admission of guilt fines paid and 9,176 warnings.

It sounds impressive, except the police’s numbers don’t match those of the prosecution services.

On the same day, Wednesday 29 April, in another virtual committee meeting, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) presented different numbers: a total of 22,944 persons were arrested, resulting in 18,803 dockets.

The NPA statistics show 15,338 persons were arrested for “failure to confine oneself to his place of residence”, leading to 12,625 dockets. The next largest category of “convened and/or attended a gathering during lockdown” led to 1,600 dockets and 2,313 arrested persons. It’s a long list of violations of 28 lockdown regulations, including one count of charging “excessive, unconscionable, unfair, unreasonable and unjust prices to consumers”.

But on Wednesday evening it largely was up to Dlamini-Zuma to reiterate government messaging, including how Covid-19 would do more damage to the economy than lockdown measures.

“The virus is draconian,” Dlamini-Zuma said, adding later:

“We should not be saying this is draconian as if it was a military thing. We are hoping all the citizens can understand this and will fight together [with the government]…”

That’s the official line.

But the curfew and the powers given to police, soldiers and metro and traffic police, alongside a bureaucratic system of permits for movement, raise deep and difficult questions for South Africa’s constitutional democracy. DM

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