Millions of South Africans shopped, drank or prayed their last day of freedom away on Thursday before the national lockdown took effect at midnight.Roads were gridlocked, shopping centres were thronged with frantic shoppers and liquor stores were emptied through the day, before the country settled down to national prayer called by religious leaders and President Cyril Ramaphosa as he announced that the number of people infected with Covid-19 had shot to over 900.Ramaphosa, who was giving final orders to police who will enforce lockdown regulations confining citizens to their homes for 21 days, urged them to show compassion as citizens were already in a state of panic. “Our people are terrified. They fear they will lose their jobs, that they won’t have enough food, that they will become sick, that they will become bored in their homes.“You are expected as police officers of South Africa to have compassion and understanding to be able to give help and assistance. You will not do anything that will violate the rights of South Africans.“You were not only trained to fight crime, you were also trained to save lives,” he said.Ramaphosa urged citizens to obey lockdown rules and avoid doing anything that would cause police to take steps against them. A group of young friends gathered at the Freedom Square yesterday to ‘enjoy their last beer’ ahead of the midnight lockdown. “There will be those that take chances and cut corners, deliberately challenging the state. This is not the time to play with fire and the people of South Africa must follow the rules ... we are deadly serious about saving lives,” he said.In Maritzburg, crowds flocking to the Mills Superspar in Hayfields on Thursday morning nearly brought traffic to a standstill in and around the area. Streams of cars were stuck trying to get in and out of the parking lot. Motorists in the CBD also sat in gridlocked traffic. Although customer traffic at the Cascade Centre’s Woolworths was manageable, the store manager told The Witness they had seen an increase in customers from Tuesday.She said some shelves in the store were regularly emptied and they had to be replenished.While some shops tried to enforce social distancing, most of the customers did not comply and still stood close to each other in queues. Many people also swarmed the city centre Freedom Square on Thursday afternoon “to celebrate their last day of freedom before the lockdown”. Enjoying a casual drink at a carwash in the CBD before the 21-day lockdown yesterday were (from front) Lindo Mkhize, Sthembiso Zimu and Sandile Ndlela.A large group of over 100 youngsters drinking told The Witness they had stocked up on huge quantities of alcohol for the 21-day lockdown. “It’s torture that the liquor stores are going to be closed. The government should have been more lenient,” said one of them.Many stores at Brookside Mall, such as Clicks, Checkers and Checkers Liquor, limited the number of people allowed to enter the stores at a time. People queued waiting for their chance to go in.A manager at the Tops at Jonathan’s Spar said the store was busier than normal, but there was no panic buying. “It’s been a busy day. There is no panic buying, but the store is busier than normal. Some shelves are bare because people were stocking up enough to last them for 21 days. Most of the customers said they didn’t want to leave home during this period.” A shopper, who asked not to be named, said she was buying wine. “I bought a few bottles of wine. I’ll do my groceries [during] the lockdown because we will be allowed to go out to supermarkets.” Traffic came to a standstill in different parts of the city on Thursday. Commenting on The Witness Facebook page, Trevor Maartens said: “I can’t understand the panic buying because we were promised there would be enough stocks to last the lockdown. “I do however find it unacceptable that already there are no stocks of chronic medicines, items which cannot be ‘panic bought’ but which are dispensed with a medical script.”Leon Pillay said: “People, stop bulk buying. Think about those that can’t afford it, Bluff Meat Supplies fridges are empty. There are no cold meats. “Think about those that have not been paid for months, think about those that have very little who live from day to day, hand to mouth.