President Cyril Ramaphosa has authorised the parole of selected categories of sentenced inmates as a measure to combat the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, which are considered high-risk areas for infection.
In a statement on Friday, the Presidency said the parole dispensation would apply to low-risk inmates who have already served their minimum sentence, or who would approach this period in the next five years.
Prisoners affected by this decision will not be pardoned or have their sentences remitted, instead, they will be placed on parole and will continue to serve their sentence under community corrections until they reach their respective sentence expiry dates.
"This dispensation excludes inmates sentenced to life imprisonment or serving terms for specified other serious crimes, including sexual offences, murder and attempted murder, gender-based violence and child abuse," the statement reads.
The decision by the president could relieve correctional facilities of just under 19 000 inmates out of a population of 155 000, according to the Presidency.
The Presidency further explained that these parolees may be rearrested and ultimately reincarcerated if they violate their release conditions.
"The placement of qualifying sentenced offenders will take place over a 10-week period and will commence as soon as all Parole Board processes have been finalised and all relevant rehabilitation and pre-release programmes are attended.
"The President has taken this decision in terms of Section 82(1)(a) of the Correctional Services Act of 1998 which empowers the President to authorise at any time the placement on correctional supervision or parole of any sentenced prisoner, subject to conditions that may be recommended by the Correctional Supervision and Parole Board," the statement reads.
Ramaphosa took this decision in response to a call by the United Nations to all countries to reduce prison populations so that social distancing and self-isolation conditions can be observed during this period.
"In South Africa, as in many other countries, correctional facilities have witnessed outbreaks of coronavirus infections among inmates and personnel.
"A number of countries across the world have already heeded the call by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and have released a number of offenders in detention."
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola is expected to provide more details on the parole placement programme in a public briefing, the Presidency said.
This will take place on Friday afternoon at 13:30.
As of 7 May, the Department of Correctional Services said there were 172 confirmed cases of Covid-19 at various prisons across the country.
Correctional centres in the Eastern Cape have been the worst affected, with 102 confirmed cases, most of which come from the East London prison where a number of officials and inmates tested positive for the virus.