The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus (COVID 19) a global pandemic. South Africa as part of the global community, has taken decisive actions such as travel bans, quarantine rules, social distancing and lockdowns. All these are an attempt to contain the disease. We are informed there is no cure yet for this virus.
Police and other law enforcement agencies including the supporting role of the South African National Defence (SANDF) were brought in after the President announced the 21 days lockdown from the 27 March 2020. This has subsequently been extended by another two weeks.
During this period the law enforcement agencies played an instrumental role in keeping South Africans safe and prevent the spread of the virus. A number of regulations were gazetted to guide on how we conduct ourselves during the lockdown period.
A number of South Africans heeded the call to stay at home so as to prevent the spread of the disease. Only a few continued to deliberately undermine the nation’s resolve to stop the spread of the virus in our communities. The regulations gazetted provides the law enforcement agencies with a mechanism to arrest those that violate the lockdown. They do not provide any law enforcement agencies a right to violate our constitution that protects its citizens.
At the start of the lockdown, there was a high number of people arrested for violating the lockdown regulations. By 31 March 2020 Minister of Police Bheki Cele reported that police arrested about 17 000 people across the country.
Reports were also received of heavy-handed measures applied by the law enforcement agencies on the ground, whilst enforcing the lockdown regulations. The government came out strongly to condemn the use of any acts that are not respecting the rights and dignity of everyone in the country.
South Africa is a constitutional democracy and expects the conduct of all its officers to be in line with the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996). Government would not hesitate to investigate any acts that undermine the rights of its citizens as enshrined in the Constitution.
All allegations of human rights abuse are taken very seriously. Oversight responsibilities are in place to detect and take action where there is a need. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) is the structure that is responsible to investigate allegations of any unlawful conduct by law enforcement officers.
During this lockdown period, some reports have suggested that the police killed eight people. This is far from the truth, most of the incidents that were reported to IPID during this period, had nothing to do with alleged heavy handedness of the police enforcing the lockdown.
We are aware of a private security company that shot a person in Vosloorus while in another incident a girlfriend was shot by her boyfriend who is a Police officer over allegations of infidelity. Both of these incidents are being investigated and have nothing to do with police brutality while enforcing lockdown.
Overall, our security forces including the SANDF deserve praise on how they are executing the task assigned to them by their Command in Chief, President Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa. The men and women in uniform have been on the frontlines of this fight. They have had to face the frustration of unhappy individuals and communities, but overall they have executed their task professionally.
We remain truly inspired by those who went beyond the call to not only enforce regulations but also help assist the elderly and people with disabilities. The sight of security forces assisting people during the social grant payment cycle will live long in our memory.
As the lockdown progressed, there has been a drop in the number of complaints against the police as more citizens began to comply and understand the importance of adhering to the regulations.
For this lockdown to be a success in containing the spread of the virus, it is not only police or SANDF that must act in accordance with the law.
We must all play our part by ensuring that we abide by the regulations to stay at home, practice social distance, self-isolate and leave our houses only if we have a valid reason for doing so.
Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from the enforcement of lockdown regulations. These measures are aimed at combating the virus and ensuring that all South Africans are and feel safe. We are encouraged by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s report that the lockdown is definitely yielding positive results.
Our law enforcement agencies including the SANDF will continue to uphold the rule of law and maintain stability in partnership with communities they serve. Working in partnership, we can ensure that we reduce the number of people who get infected and save lives. As part of the global community, we also continue to respond to the World Health Organisation’s call to countries to fight the spread of the disease.
Phumla Williams, Acting Director-General at GCIS.