Police violence marred the first days of the pandemic blockade in South Africa when officers threw water cannons and rubber bullets at the poorest people in the country, who fought to keep social distances in slums and crowded neighborhoods.
A 21-day blockade ordered by President Cyril Ramaphosa began on Friday, with the aim of limiting South African coronavirus cases that rose to over 1,100 out of over 4,000 in Africa.
Increasing signs of police heaviness in South Africa have highlighted the difficulty of maintaining blockades in countries with large numbers of people living in crowded or impoverished conditions.
The South African blockade was launched with stricter restrictions than other countries, including bans on any sale of alcohol and cigarettes and exercise outside the home.
Ramaphosa ordered defense forces to treat civilians with respect as he deployed them last week to assist police during the blockade. “Our people will look at you to reassure them, not as a force of strength but as a force of kindness. They need to know you are going to take care of them, “said Ramaphosa.
But abuses have since been documented, including footage of a soldier with a balaclava who was seen kicking and beating civilians captured outside in the block. “You’re saying the president is fucking shitty,” he said as his fists landed.
The police launched a water cannon and fired rubber bullets to disperse people lined up outside the grocery stores, an activity permitted under the blockade of South Africa but where social distancing was difficult.
While the South African middle class was mostly able to accumulate supplies days before the blockade, queues were long in poorer municipalities and urban areas where workers were only recently paid.
In the Melville suburb of Johannesburg, police and private security contractors entered the home of 26-year-old lawyer Elisha Kunene, who had watched with her brother through the door as officers threatened to burn homeless property nearby. The blockade requires the government to welcome the homeless to temporary shelters.
“They searched the whole house, ripped everything out of our pockets, scolded us” and threatened a violent assault, Kunene said. “It was definitely a transgression and an illegal search.”
A South African police spokesman said officers “have powers to apply crowd management principles in places where people [are] linger as individuals or gathered in numbers during this blockade period. “
“The regulations are not there to punish people but to protect our people from the deadly Covid-19 virus,” he added.
Ramaphosa’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Police minister Bheki Cele welcomed the crackdown but denied the allegations of abuse. “Wait till you see more strength,” he said.
The ferocity “is not helpful at all” for measures led by Zweli Mkhize, the health minister, to track down and test the virus and quarantine the infected, said Ziyanda Stuurman, an academician who studied South African police.
“When people see police officers and violent armed forces, this really erodes Dr. Mkhize’s message for people to come forward,” said Stuurman.