South Africans fear safety divide as Covid-19 panic takes hold

Some fear women and girls at risk of domestic violence.
Image: Jaco Marais, Foto24/Gallo Images via Getty

As South Africa prepares to go into a 21-day national lockdown to stem the coronavirus outbreak, poorer residents fear being exposed to worsening violence and scams as security companies jack up patrols in wealthier neighbourhoods.

A spike in coronavirus scams like fake door-to-door tests to break into people’s homes could leave residents in townships particularly vulnerable to crime and violence, rights activists warned.

“All South Africans are vulnerable to crime, but those with resources will be able to protect themselves in this uncertain time more than those in townships,” said Thami Nkosi of the local Right2Know group, which fights for freedom of expression.

South Africa is considered one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank, and the impact of years of apartheid spatial planning that set to physically divide the country’s different races lingers on today.

Inequality in cities could be further exacerbated by a rise in coronavirus scams, supermarket robberies and domestic violence during lockdowns, with the central bank warning that criminals are visiting homes to collect “contaminated” money.

“We issued a warning (for door-to-door coronavirus scams) over social media that went viral, with others around the country sharing similar stories,” said Ozanne Mac Adam, a coordinator for private security company TRSS Reaction.

South Africa has reported the most coronavirus cases in sub-Saharan Africa – nearly 1,000 – and public health experts are worried that the virus could overwhelm the health system if infection rates rise steeply.

“Communities are alarmed and nervous about the virus, but also about criminals taking advantage of the situation,” Mac Adam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

“Our clients in residential estates and shopping centres have asked for more patrols and security presence.”

Barbed wire, electric fences and panic buttons are a part of everyday life in a country with more than 20,000 murders a year – the world’s fifth highest murder rate in 2019, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Some fear that the country’s lockdown, due to start from midnight, could put women and girls at greater danger of domestic violence.

“We have extremely high crime rates in Alex,” said Ramatamo Sehoai, a journalist living in the Alexandra township of about 750,000 people.

“A lockdown in a township, where maybe 10 people share one shack, will increase violence against women and others,” he said in a phone interview.

Police minister Bheki Cele told reporters on Wednesday that the South African National Defence Force would be increasing foot patrols, roadbloacks and vehicle checkpoints.

Noting the fear of escalating violence against women, he said there are plans to “beef up” family violence and child protection units.

For Sehoai, the lockdown will limit movement and income for informal workers in townships, but the heightened police and military presence is “as close to private security as we can get”.

“Perhaps the military will help us fight the virus and crime too,” he said. “I just hope that when we leave our shacks to get food, we aren’t seen as loiterers or criminals.”

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Ramatamo Sehoai makes a very good point there.

Demonstrating the will to conduct this “lockdown” quarantine is noble and patriotic sounding. In a perfect world we could conduct a perfect quarantine and reduce the natural fatal impact, or even rate of spread significantly.

However, as outlined, conditions in the average township are very far from perfect. An entire socio-economic culture relies on migrant labourers and their ability to mobilise fairly dynamically.

This grinding halt to the cogwheel is not an easy position to define. There is a lot of scope for misunderstanding. A fine balance if you like between practical circumstances and an ideal, quarantine.

In a way, the last and worst or, most desperate, tack is to engage security forces, least of all the national defence force, inside a civilian sphere. Is this not rather the sphere of trained sociologists and social workers?

Without the infrastructure, carrying capacity nor finances to stockpile foodstuffs and drinking water, mobility is actually essential inside a fluid township village environment. Getting between hungry people and the food chain is not the wisest place for an armed force, really. Unless they have alternative training and instruction?

Of all available public services, are the army the optimal or even wisest of choices. The role they choose to play and the nature of the solutions they have to offer will determine the difference between a comfortable and calm transition and a disastrous waste of time and energy.

Inside the crows’ nest of my own isolation, I will observe with interest.

The way Cele has conducted himself smacks of marshall law

Or just lack of comprehension of what the actual problem is.

He seems to think its alcohol, cigarettes and dogs.

End of comments.

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