Guest Column

Mmusi Maimane | Covid-19 lockdown: the people are not the enemy, the virus is

2020-04-02 09:30
SANDF and police personnel at a road block in Khayelitsha. (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)

SANDF and police personnel at a road block in Khayelitsha. (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)

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We are trying to avoid loss of life during this difficult period and it is imperative that the security cluster join the nation in that goal, writes Mmusi Maimane.  

As we are nearing the one-week mark of the national lockdown, it is important to reflect on its effectiveness and as the president would call it, "mistakes".

We need to remain vigilant as civilians because the state has an extraordinary amount of power in this time, we are placing our lives and way of life in their hands in an unprecedented manner.

The lockdown is a necessary tool to flatten the curve, that is not in dispute.

However, in times when you give away so much agency to the government, it is important to ensure that those who are administering the lockdown do so with maximum restraint and in good faith. 

From the onset we have been clear on the goal, we are fighting Covid-19.

When President Ramaphosa declared the State of National Disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act, he was clear that it was to facilitate an integrated and coordinated disaster management mechanism that will focus on preventing and reducing the outbreak of this virus.

The people are not the enemy, the virus is the enemy.

Watching the events that have unfolded over the past six days, we have seen some actions from the security cluster where they have treated the people like the foe.

So much so that there have been clear and numerous human rights violations documented by many civilians on their smartphones and distributed widely on social media. 

This demonstrates the gaps in the lockdown administration and its application.

While those who are driving are given the presumption of being on the road legally, the same has not been done for pedestrians.

It is unclear how one is expected to walk to the shops to buy essential goods if one is being beaten up by the police or the military for merely being on the streets.

There seems to be a case of broken telephone within the system, civilians are being told one thing by government ministers, but being told another by the police and military.

For instance, we were all told by Bheki Cele that we could be in our yards during the lockdown, but over the weekend in Khayelitsha we saw grandmothers who were standing innocently in their yards being instructed by police to "go inside and close the door". 

It is this type of megalomania we need to stop at once. 

We saw different treatment of civilians in suburbs who bucked the rules and decided to go for a jog, a cycle or for a surf, these civilians were rightfully arrested, charged and fined.

In the townships we have seen a heavier hand being applied. We saw the police defy the terms of the lockdown in many instances by disregarding civilian rights.

People were being frog-marched; people were being forced to roll on the ground; in the dust and in dirty puddles of water; people were being smacked on the head by the security cluster, without being asked any questions as to where they were heading or what they were doing outside.  

Two stories exemplify the worst outcomes of police negligence.

In the first instance, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), Sibusiso Amos, 40, was shot to death in front of his mother on the family veranda in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, with the deceased's nieces and nephews also suffering severe injuries from the shrapnel.

In the second instance IPID is investigating a man's death allegedly as a result of police action - Petrus Miggels collapsed and died after allegedly being beaten with a hammer and tasered by the police.

Whenever the floodgates of abuse are opened, there will be those who will push the envelope and end up killing people. The extremes are as a result of the attitude and conduct of the group, they are not outliers to it. 

In both these instances the civilians were involved in the purchase and consumption of liquor - they were in violation of the lockdown regulations.

Without entering into a debate about the merits of the cigarette and alcohol ban, it is critical to recognise that violating the terms of the lockdown is not a license for the security cluster to do as they please.

It is certainly not worth losing your life at the hands of the police.

The Constitutional Court determined in the Makwanyane case that the right to life in South Africa is sacrosanct.

It is high time for all ministers in the security cluster to call for strict adherence to the laws of the land from those on the ground enforcing the lockdown.  

In this country we have a long history of protest and violence in our communities. There have been numerous instances where the public has taken the law into their own hands and instituted vigilante justice.

As we head into the second week of the lockdown, there is likely to be an increase in public frustration and anxiety. We are already beginning to see signs of that in some communities.

If the army and the police continue to act in ways that agitate and brutalise people in vulnerable communities, it is foreseeable that at some point they may decide to fight back.

Looking at Italy, there have been some instances where civilians who were desperate started raiding supermarkets and disregarded the lockdown regulations.

Being confrontational with civilians is not the way to avoid this, it is a way of precipitating confrontation.

We are trying to avoid loss of life during this difficult period and it is imperative that the security cluster join the nation in that goal.  

To improve accountability, I would advise that we use the community policing forums.

Reporting matters of abuse within the security cluster through IPID is likely to be difficult for people.

Not only is it difficult to ascertain the identity of the officials as they are wearing masks, their security numbers are often not visible due to their small font.

With community policing forums activated, complaints can be lodged locally at the police station and the relevant patrolling officials can be identified.

Using the forums will also encourage cooperation with the police and army as people will feel like they have adequate recourse in real time.

It is critical that at this time we maintain appropriate relationships between communities and the security cluster.   

We must avoid a breakdown in trust and in the relationship between the government and its citizens.

We have a long way to go ahead of us and in order for this to work all stakeholders have to be fully committed and participate in the process.  

- Mmusi Maimane is the Chief Activist of the One South Africa Movement

Read more on:    saps  |  ipid  |  sandf  |  bheki cele  |  pandemic  |  coronavirus  |  police brutality


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