Coronavirus: Army moves from 'peacetime' to 'wartime' footing as 21-day national lockdown announced

2020-03-23 17:38

Infantry soldiers have begun mobilisation in Gauteng as part of Operation Prosper and Operation Chariot, in support of government's efforts to contain the spread of the deadly Covid-19 disease.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is to announce further restrictions and regulations tonight after the number of confirmed infections jumped almost 47%, from 274 to 402 cases in the last 24 hours.

According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of discussions at the highest level of government, Ramaphosa could announce the enforcement of a national lockdown of 21 days. This might well entail the closure of various non-essential businesses and the regulation of movement in especially Gauteng. The army will provide support to the police. 

The acting chief of the army, Major General Mannetijes de Goede, has taken charge of the operation and has instructed his commanders that the situation in the country is "serious" and that preparations for a "total shutdown" should be accelerated.

He has also ordered the army, at the instruction of the chief of the South African National Defence Force General Solly Shoke, to change its footing from "peacetime" to "wartime".

"This is a national crisis… total shutdown," De Goede apparently said.

sandf, coronavirus

SANDF personnel from various units gather outside the Rand Light Infantry  in Johannesburg. (Photo by Gallo Images / Dino Lloyd)

According to multiple sources with direct access to force preparation, De Goede and his senior commanders have been preparing to take a more active role in South Africa’s response to the spread of Covid-19 - the disease caused by the novel coronavirus - since last week.

Deployed to 8 provinces

News24 has also confirmed the authenticity of a document widely being circulated that sets out the army’s initial planning for deployment nationwide. The document - classified as "restricted" and titled "SA Army Infantry Formation Warning Order 01/2020, Deployment of support of the people in support of other state departments to mitigate the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak" - sets out initial force preparation and deployment details.

The document states that one company will be deployed in each of all the provinces, except for Limpopo, to provide support to other government departments and that deployment will commence on Monday, 22 March 2020, and continue for at least 21 days. Two companies will be deployed in Gauteng.

All force preparations were completed by Saturday, and a combat readiness certificate was issued to the army on the same day.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA MARCH 23: SANDF personn

SANDF personnel from various units gather outside the Rand Light Infantry  in Johannesburg. (Photo by Gallo Images / Dino Lloyd)

The document states: "The maintenance of law and order remains primarily a SAPS function, but circumstances necessitate the support of the SANDF (to the police). During such planning, the tasks of the two forces must be spelt out separately and clearly. The presence of SAPS with SANDF on a continuous basis is preferable."

The document does not, however, explicitly say what the army’s tasks during its deployment will be, but sets out the rules of engagement, and emphasises the use of "minimum force" remains a standing order.

In his instruction to senior commanders, De Goede said Operation Chariot would commence on Monday at 13:30 when mobilisation in the eight provinces ahead of deployment would start. He has also instructed his officers to ensure that roadblock equipment is ready for use.

Army 'too small'

The army constantly maintains a company ready to be deployed in every province as standard operating procedure. An infantry batallion is also always at the ready as part of standard force readiness.

According Helmoed Romer Heitman, an independent defence analyst, the army is too small to enforce a nationwide "lockdown" and that they will not be able to man and patrol every street.

"A company typically consists of 140 soldiers, and if the army is deploying only one each to every province, they’re going to be very thinly spread. We have 65 000 permanent force soldiers and 12 000 reservists. The army – the infantry – only has 40 000 soldiers. Even if you mobilise everyone, you won’t be able to place the whole country on 'lockdown'."

He said the army’s deployment, and the force readiness document, was "standard operating procedure" and would be done in accordance with Sections 18 and 19 of the Defence Act, which regulates the deployment of troops domestically. These sections refer to the preservation of "life, health and property" and also support of the police.

The troops that will be deployed are well-trained and have experience in support operations in conflict areas in Africa, he said.

Theo Venter, a political analyst at the North West University, told News24 the deployment of troops would be in support of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus and that it is normal procedure.

He added, however, that this operation could lay bare the deficiencies in the defence force and expose some recent decisions to trim it down.

Read more on:    army  |  sandf  |  cyril rama­phosa  |  mannetjies de goede  |  coronavirus  |  covid-19
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