Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe: Repression and state violence are not public health strategies

South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe: Repression and state violence are not public health strategies
Members of Not In My Name SA Movement protest in solidarity with Zimbabweans at the Zimbabwean Embassy on August 07, 2020 in Pretoria, South Africa. It is reported that the group protested against the alleged human rights violations taking place in Zimbabwe. The country is facing challenges with the decaying economy, the health system has collapsed and the unemployment rate is alarming. (Photo by Gallo Images/Lefty Shivambu)

In July 2020, a victim of a house demolition south of Johannesburg declared: ‘We are human beings. The president said wear a mask and stay at home. What do you do when they take your home away?’

The securitised interventions by the South African, Kenyan and Zimbabwean governments are fundamentally out of tune with the needs of the moment. Equally, they are ineffective in dealing with the pandemic’s multiple crises.

All three countries opted to rely on repressive means to address an unprecedented public health crisis. From local government officials to police and other security forces, the response has been eerily similar; lockdown regulations have been used as a cover for cracking down on legitimate concerns around the socio-economic fallout from nationwide lockdowns that have decimated livelihoods and disproportionately affected the poor.

In mid-July 2020, with South Africa’s confirmed Covid-19 cases rising rapidly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) emergencies chief, Michael Ryan, warned that this could be a precursor for an acceleration in new cases across the African continent.

Kenya began to see a spike in infections since the phased reopening of its economy, announced on 6 July 2020. Since then, infections have more than trebled from just over 8,000 cases to 30,120 (at the time of writing).

Despite easing some restrictions, the Kenyan government announced new measures in July, including the banning of alcohol sales in restaurants, closing bars and an extended dusk-to-dawn curfew.

South Africa has had its own ban on alcohol sales – which will be lifted in the coming week – and a night-time curfew following the phased opening of the economy that has since seen confirmed cases rising to 587,000 and over 11,000  deaths, according to the latest statistics.

The Zimbabwean government has also put in place a dusk-to-dawn curfew as new cases began to increase there too.

These announcements are part of a series of measures implemented in all three countries. However, elements of managing the health crisis have also seen incidents of police brutality, repression, forced evictions and other incidents of violations by security forces.

This pattern of conduct calls into question the use of securitised approaches to the global health emergency and what it means for the broader public health response that is needed. 

South Africa 

Many in South Africa expressed outrage at images of Bulelani Qolani being dragged out of his shack naked during an eviction and shack demolition by law enforcement officials in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. This was the latest in a wave of evictions ordered by municipalities across South Africa during the Covid-19 lockdown. These brutal evictions have been ordered despite being prohibited under lockdown Levels 4 and 5. Under lockdown Level 3, the execution of eviction orders granted has also been suspended until the end of Level 3. As a victim of a house demolition south of Johannesburg in July 2020 declared: “We are human beings. The president said wear a mask and stay at home. What do you do when they take your home away?”

The C-19 People’s Coalition – a broad civil society collective established as the pandemic began in South Africa – has been recording abuses by security forces during the lockdown. To date, over 90 such incidents have been recorded, most of which are assaults.

The public interest litigation hotline has recorded a further 53 cases of police brutality and unlawful arrest. In May 2020, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) stated that they had received 376 cases pertaining to the lockdown, 10 of which are deaths as a result of police action and 280 of which are assaults by the police.

The now well-known judgment in the Collins Khosa case – following the brutal assault and killing of Khosa at the hands of South African soldiers – found in favour of the family and highlighted the problems with unclear lockdown regulations and the heavy-handed and overly securitised enforcement of the regulations. The Khosa family approached the courts for justice, but also sought relief that would urgently address the rampant police and army brutality witnessed during the lockdown. Among other findings, the far-reaching judgment required the government to develop a code of conduct to guide lockdown enforcement and to publicise their commitment to upholding the right to life. 


Meanwhile in Kenya, in early May 2020, authorities demolished hundreds of homes and evicted over 8,000 people in two informal settlements in Nairobi, sparking widespread outrage and protest. Like South Africa, these mass evictions took place despite there being a court order barring them. Both the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing and the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have called for states to declare an end to all evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting that “in the face of this pandemic, being evicted from your home is a potential death sentence”.

The police also came under fire for excessive use of force when implementing lockdown regulations. In a judgment handed down in April 2020, the High Court of Kenya (Nairobi) declared, among other things, that the unreasonable use of force by the police in enforcing a Covid-19 curfew was unconstitutional. The Kenyan judgment followed numerous reports of police brutality and abuse that has left at least six people dead in just the first 10 days of the curfew imposed on 27 March 2020.

A few hours before the first night of the curfew, police reportedly harassed and beat people, and fired teargas at commuters in Nairobi. In one case, a 13-year-old boy, Hussein Moyo, was shot while he was on the balcony of his family home. Since then, Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) reported in June 2020 that the police were involved in killing 15 people since the curfew was imposed and that 31 people were injured.

As mass Black Lives Matter protests gripped the US following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers, demonstrations were held in other countries – both in solidarity with protestors in the US and to highlight police brutality in their domestic contexts.

In the Mathare informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, a similar message was put forward by protesters around police brutality. The curfew and restrictions, however, brought another wave of violence. As protestors and organisations such as the Mathare Social Justice Centre have pointed out,  extrajudicial killings, especially of young people in places like Mathare, long preceded the pandemic. 


The pandemic has exacerbated existing economic, social and political fault lines in Zimbabwe: Food shortages have reached unprecedented highs and the healthcare system has all but collapsed. Health workers have been on strike over personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, poor working conditions and poor salaries recently.

In the latest Covid-19 regulations, the Zimbabwean government announced a curfew from 6pm to 6am, with those breaking the curfew “liable for severe punishment”. Critics argue that this has been done not only to curb the spread of the virus, but to also curb the planned protests.

As #ZimbabweanLivesMatter trended on social media during the first week of August 2020, international attention turned to the human rights violations by government and security forces in Zimbabwe. On 13 May 2020, three young women opposition activists were allegedly abducted and sexually assaulted by state security agents after being stopped at a roadblock following a protest against the government’s failure to provide social protection during lockdown. Later, President Emmerson Mnangagwa denounced what he termed “illegal, reckless and unwarranted demonstrations for political grandstanding” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 20 July 2020, news broke that freelance journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition party leader of Transform Zimbabwe, Jacob Ngarivhume were arbitrarily arrested and charged with inciting public violence. Chin’ono had been working on exposing government corruption, most recently in relation to Covid-19 interventions. At the time of his arrest, Ngarivhume was leading the call for nationwide anti-corruption demonstrations planned for 31 July 2020.

Undeterred by Ngarivhume’s arrest, protestors vowed to go ahead with the demonstration. On 31 July 2020, Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights reported that “scores of people were arrested”, including “pro-democracy campaigners, opposition party members and ordinary citizens”. On the eve of the protests in Harare, security forces cleared the streets and forced shops to close and a list of human rights defenders wanted for questioning was published. 

More of the same, even in a global pandemic 

In South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe, the brutality and heavy-handedness of the security forces is not new. It must be understood as stemming from systemic and long-standing problems with policing, repression, and failures of accountability. In particular, the criminalisation and brutalisation of poor communities is a common feature, and activists and those openly critical of their governments are usually targets of state violence.

The range of violations dealt with here – forced evictions, arbitrary arrests, the unlawful use of force, police brutality and efforts to stifle protest – are now taking place during a global pandemic. This crisis requires an effective public health response based on education to develop public understanding and support, and not a strong-armed approach.

Lessons can be drawn from the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where research has pointed to the success of initiatives that centred on engagement with civil society, religious and other organisations. The experiences from the Ebola outbreak illustrate the importance of responses driven by local community engagement and management.

During this crisis, these three governments have permitted national security forces to act in violation of international human rights law. The conduct of the security forces has violated the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality in relation to the use of force. The pattern of evictions in poorer communities has violated international human rights law on the right to adequate housing and violations of freedoms of assembly, association and speech have also violated human rights law.  None of these measures have advanced the urgent need for an effective health response to the pandemic at all.

The moment requires a public health response built on effective communication and education. What it does not require is a policing approach that deepens patterns of state violence and abuse, and undermines efforts to curb the virus by rendering people homeless, or throwing many, unnecessarily into jails. DM/MC

 This article was collectively written by members of the Anti-Repression Working Group within the C-19 People’s Coalition.


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