(Johannesburg) – The South African government’s response to the unprecedented global health challenge of COVID-19 should fully respect the rights and dignity of everyone in the country.
With 1,655 confirmed cases as of April 6, 2020, the highest so far in Africa, the authorities have taken steps to limit and prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the 21-day nationwide lockdown declared by President Cyril Ramaphosa on March 23. The authorities deployed 24,389 security forces, including the army and police, to enforce regulations prohibiting people from leaving their homes except for essential purposes. Within the first seven days, security forces arrested more than 2,000 people for allegedly flouting the regulations, and domestic violence has skyrocketed.
“Abusive implementation should not undermine the robust and essential intervention by President Ramaphosa’s administration to protect public health and safety,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should remind security forces that a public emergency does not change the prohibition on police abuse, and that monitoring will be in place to detect and punish such abuse, as well as abuses against women and girls.”
The police should engage with the public to gain their trust and enhance their protection, not to further undermine their safety, Human Rights Watch said. Local media and social media are reporting abuses by the army and the police, including shootings, beatings, teargassing, and water bombing people suspected of violating the lockdown.
The South African Human Rights Commission confirmed in a statement that a Ekurhuleni Metro Police official and a security guard fatally shot Sibusiso Amos in front of his home in Vosloorus near Johannesburg on March 29. The commission commended the Independent Police Investigative Directorate for its prompt investigation, including the arrests of the policeman and security guard for murder and attempted murder. The statement also noted that children ages 5, 6, and 11 were injured during the incident.
The minister of defense and military veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, condemned abuses against civilians by soldiers deployed to enforce the lockdown regulations, and instructed the army chief to monitor the situation and to “deal with those members proven to have used excessive or unnecessary force against the citizens.”
During a media briefing, the small business and development minister, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, said that only small businesses owned and run by South Africans would benefit from a government relief package to cushion the effect of the lockdown. Police reportedly responded by shutting down immigrant-owned shops in low-income townships. The government of South Africa should immediately reverse this discriminatory move.
In a positive step, on March, 17, the human settlements, water, and sanitation minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, announced that her department would increase the provision of water and sanitation measures in high-density public areas, informal settlements, and rural areas.
The authorities should ensure the provision of these essential goods and services to everyone without discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. Special arrangements should be made to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, including refugees, asylum seekers, and the homeless, who may not normally have access to basic goods, including food, water – potable and washing – and health care. During the lockdown, the authorities should also ensure access to essential medication and support services for older people, people with disabilities and tuberculosis, and South Africa’s 7.7 million people living with HIV.
The national lockdown will be most effective if carried out, not only in accordance with the law, but also hand-in-hand with the fulfillment of the government’s obligation to provide basic goods and services such as food, water, and health services to vulnerable community members.
Police Minister Bheki Cele in a statement on April 5, noted the high level of complaints of gender-based violence. According to the statement, over 2,300 complaints had been registered since the beginning of the lockdown on March 27, 2020 until March 31, 2020, and from these, 148 suspects were charged.
The South African government should integrate a gender perspective into its national COVID-19 response, including steps to mitigate the problem and ensure that responses do not perpetuate gender inequity. Public awareness campaigns should address how domestic violence victims can report abuse and get services.
Services should be available to all victims, including those living in areas under movement restrictions or under quarantine, and those infected with COVID-19, as well as marginalized groups such as refugees, migrants, and women and girls living with disabilities. The government should take special measures to protect girls from physical and sexual abuse and exploitation, and provide timely help to victims.
The South African Human Rights Commission should also monitor and report on gender-based violence as part of its ongoing monitoring of the human rights situation during the national lockdown. The government should take steps to help victims of gender-based violence find alternative accommodation during the lockdown, and consider measures to require alleged abusers to shelter in isolation separately from victims.
“South Africa should make special efforts to protect the most vulnerable in the country amid the global health pandemic, and ensure that they are not victims of abuse,” Mavhinga said. “The challenges of this crisis are no reason to diminish protection of fundamental rights.”
***The news release above has been updated to reflect the reported number of cases of gender-based violence during lockdown as 2,300 rather than 87,000. The original number was provided in an official government publication on April 2, and was amended by an official statement on April 5.