Who will watch the watchmen?

Who will watch the police and the army in South Africa as they act on behalf of the state to enforce COVID-19 regulations.

Government of South Africa Flickr CC.

It’s week two of the 21-day COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa. The South African state must be applauded for implementing these swift measures in the attempt to curb the spread of the infectious and lethal disease. However, as President Cyril Ramaphosa has ostensibly vowed to implement measures to protect the most vulnerable from the looming social and economic crisis, we see the beginning of another potential crisis: unchecked brutality by the security forces. Already video footage is circulating of police officers using excessive force in what can only be described as abuse of authority. This also appears to be happening in many other countries including, but not limited to India, Kenya, and Mauritius.

Last week, as the coronavirus spread the world over, President Ramaphosa declared a “national disaster,” in terms of section 27(1) of the Disaster Management Act, which limits gatherings, the use and public consumption of liquor and other activities deemed relevant to diminishing human contact. According to the regulations it is a criminal offense to disobey the rules and those who do are liable for a fine or to face a criminal sentence of up to six months. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) were deployed to assist the South African Police Service (SAPS) in enforcing the legislated social restrictions in the public interest.

Dressed in camouflage, President Ramaphosa addressed the SANDF ahead of the lockdown as “commander-in-chief” stating that the army was not only the “defender of democracy” but the “defender of the lives of our people.” While the protection of South Africans against the spread of the coronavirus was presented as the SANDF’s principle objective, the President also gave unambiguous instruction pertaining to the military’s behavior. Ramaphosa stated that the army’s mission was to “restore the lives of the people of South Africa” in the most “understanding” and “respectful” way. Yet, as the president uttered the words “this is not a moment for skop en donder (kick and beat up), for skiet en donder (shoot and beat up),” the camera panned to a member of the SANDF command laughing. It was an ominous image. Since then the SANDF, working in concert with SAPS, has been recorded forcing Soweto residents to do exercises—like squats and push-ups—as a form of public censure, as well as smacking people across the face and kicking them.

Considering the potential toll that the spread of COVID-19 would take on South Africa, decisive action by the government is welcome. However as the enforcement of the regulations is now under the auspices of the SAPS and SANDF, I am reminded of the Latin phrase from from the Satires by the Roman poet Juvenal, and more recently in the HBO adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen: “Quis custodiet Ipsos custodies (Who will watch the watchmen)?”

Indeed, who will watch the SAPS and SANDF as they act on behalf of the state to enforce these regulations?

There have also been reports of private security guards enforcing regulations. On Friday afternoon, a peer of mine shared a sickening incident on his Twitter feed—three police officers and three private security guards wielding “big machine guns” entered his home. As his tweet stated, the police “barged into our house, patted us down, poured our liquor into the fireplace, searched the whole house, threatened to break my fucking face and spent a while interrogating and berating us.” The police had turned on him and his brother as they were watching them tell a group of homeless people to get off the street, threatening to “burn all their possessions” if they were still there in an hour.

Another example of police and SANDF violence that circulated in the past week was captured in disturbing footage of the South African Police firing rubber bullets in the streets of Yeoville, a working class neighborhood in Johannesburg. The video shows a News24 journalist running for cover, with the security forces firing before inquiring whether or not those present were permitted to be outdoors (as an essential service).

We have also seen security forces fire rubber bullets at shoppers queuing for groceries in townships, while those shopping at grocery stores in leafy, affluent suburbs are left unsupervised.

The night before the lockdown was to begin, my husband and I were speaking to family members via video call. As the phone was passed to my uncle, he mentioned the last time he remembered police and army being deployed to enforce lockdowns—under apartheid’s many states of emergency.

“Ja, I remember,” he recalled, visibly agitated, “the SANDF with their tanks pushing everyone inside, under the state of emergency.”

For my uncle, growing up in the Cape Town suburb of Athlone in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, army tanks rolling through the streets were a common sight, poised to enforce curfew and stifle any form of collective gathering that might turn into organized political opposition. During apartheid, anyone could be detained without trial for 90 days during a state of emergency. Police violence was indemnified, and everything was permitted if committed with the intention to “restore law and order.” This period remains etched in the collective consciousness of a large portion of this country. It was only a few days ago that South Africa celebrated Human Rights Day (March 21), the day commemorating the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre where security police shot and killed 69 people, and which spurred the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency. While 60 years have passed since then, and indeed we are living in a constitutional democracy, we have witnessed echoes of that violence reemerging. We saw it in the 2012 Marikana Massacre, and now with each hour that passes, in video footage that emerges of police and the SANDF using brutal mechanisms to enforce lockdown compliance.

Should this continue over the next three weeks, we risk adding fuel to a crisis already gripping this nation. Unemployment remains at 29.1 percent, we are in an economic recession, and the social contract has been stretched to its limit. Informal settlements in South Africa, where large communities have no working taps and thousands share dilapidated porter loos, lay bare years of social neglect. As the State Capture Inquiry conducts its work, the fallout from corruption is felt most acutely by the poor who lack access to basic sanitation and health. We have seen many claim that if they do not die from COVID-19, they will die of hunger. The added trauma of police brutality is sure to tip people over the edge of a dangerous precipice.

South Africans will not stand for police brutality, as our history shows. Security forces continuing to abuse people in the streets will likely instill our society with a virulent rancor directed towards the state. Authorities ability to adhere to rule of law, as guaranteed by our Bill of Rights in our constitutional democracy, is as imperative during this time as containing the spread of the virus; and indeed, the two imperatives are not mutually exclusive. The unbridled use of force by security personnel to enforce social distancing may very well have the adverse effect of driving people to disregard the law, or even inspire them to mass protest. Instead of working to flatten the curve, this would catalyze the virus’s spread, the very thing the SANDF has been deployed to contain. There is a fine line between close, merciful watchfulness and a template of cruelty. And we, as members of a civil society, must strike a balance, between adhering to the guidelines for safety and calling out abuses of authority.

The nature of this crisis is such that a certain level of coercion is needed to ensure social distancing and adherence to the lockdown regulations. But as Ramaphosa specified in his address to the SANDF, the task must be executed in a respectful way, in which the rights of people are not violated. The choice need not be between the devil and the deep blue sea. This is a period where our strength—not only of our health sector—is tested, but also the mettle of all our democratic institutions, as we hang in the balance of keeping the country afloat and and our friends, family, and neighbors alive.

Further Reading

Keep the phones on

COVID-19 presents an unprecedented threat, but a campaign by South Africa’s security forces attempting to grind defenseless people into dust does not guarantee success.