Police officers in South Africa are resorting to violence to enforce a strict nationwide lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, using rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse citizens gathering in public.
And in at least one case, a police officer was captured on video using an African whip known as a sjambok to repeatedly attack people he believed were breaking the rules.
The plainclothes officer, seen by journalists from the Mail and Guardian and AmaBhungane, was recorded using the whip on several citizens walking on the streets of Hillbrow, one of Johannesburg’s most densely populated suburbs.
The reporters say they saw the plainclothes officer whip one resident up to eight times. When they approached a uniformed officer who also on the scene, he was unapologetic about the actions being taken:
“We are sjambokking people … People cannot be disciplined without it,” said the uniformed driver of the vehicle. “We don’t want to see three people together without carrying anything. What are they doing? Then you ask, ‘Where are you going?’, [and] they don’t answer.”
South Africa’s government announced a three-week-long nationwide lockdown on Friday, but authorities have so far struggled to enforce it, particularly in many of the country’s overcrowded slums and townships where many people live in single-room shacks.
South Africa has reported over 1,300 confirmed cases of coronavirus to date — the most of any African country — and just three deaths. But experts fear that the crisis could get much worse in a country with a seriously underfunded healthcare system.
In a bid to stop the crisis getting worse, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced strict lockdown measures on Friday, shuttering all restaurants, fast-food outlets, pubs, and bars. The transportation of alcohol has been banned.
South Africa has also effectively closed all airports, ports, and land border crossings to passenger traffic.
People are only allowed to leave their homes for essential trips like grocery shopping or to seek medical attention, and face up to six months in jail for leaving for other reasons.
But within hours of the lockdown being announced, there were huge lines at supermarkets across the country, with little to no social distancing being observed and a tiny police presence to enforce the rules.
In Cape Town, the authorities quickly deployed water cannons to disperse crowds outside a store. In Johannesburg, there have been widespread reports of police using rubber bullets to break up crowds gathering at grocery stores.
Then, on Sunday, one man was shot dead on the veranda of his own home in the township of Vosloorus on the outskirts of Johannesburg after police followed him home from a bar where he had been drinking.
As the police struggle to deal with the crisis, the army has been deployed in some of South Africa’s poorest communities, where troops are attempting, with limited success, to disperse crowds who continue to gather in public.
So far, more than 1,000 people have been arrested for breaking lockdown regulations, but reports of police and army overreach persist, despite Ramaphosa’s call for respect and support.
“You are required to support our police, work with them, walk among our people and defend them against this virus,” Ramaphosa said when he announced the deployment of the military. “You are required to do this in the most understanding way, in the most respectful way, in the most supportive way.”
Cover: South African police and National Defense Forces patrol in downtown Johannesburg on Monday March 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)