President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses members of the South African Defence Force ahead of their deployment, in Johannesburg, March 26 2020. Picture: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses members of the South African Defence Force ahead of their deployment, in Johannesburg, March 26 2020. Picture: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO

President Cyril Ramaphosa has called on SA’s security forces to save lives and not violate the rights of people as SA goes into a lockdown at midnight on Thursday.

By Friday the country’s armed forces would have already been deployed across SA to enforce the 21-day lockdown to battle the spread of Covid-19.

Stringent regulations not seen since the apartheid-era state of emergency have been put in place to contain the pandemic, which has infected more than 927 people in SA. These include the closure of liquor shops, bars and taverns, as well as schools, all borders to human traffic, and the withdrawal of public trains and buses.

For 21 days the economy will nearly come to a standstill, while SA citizens will be confined to their homes and their rights will be severely limited and policed. The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) will support the SA Police Service (SAPS) in enforcing these strict regulations nationwide.

Ramaphosa addressed the SANDF and police on Thursday. He told the SAPS in Pretoria that the aim of the lockdown was to save lives.

He said people who wanted to take chances or do “wrong things” during the lockdown must face the wrath of the state, but added that the police should not do anything that would violate the rights of residents, either by mistake or intentionally. “Let us do right by the people of SA and save their lives,” he said.

Later on Thursday evening the president told the SANDF soldiers in Johannesburg that their oath was not only to defend SA against war or insurrection, but also to defend South Africans against a danger such as the coronavirus.

He assured the soldiers that they were not entering hostile territory.

“Our people are not hostile. They are not going to be against you. They are not going to resist you. They are going to abide by the regulations that have been issued. As you go out you are going to find a population that is in full support of the work that you are going to do,” Ramaphosa said.

“And all I have ever heard from our people has been supportive. They respect and support the decision,” Ramaphosa said.

He said the lockdown was not a moment for violence (“skop, skiet en donner”), but for supporting South Africans through this difficult time.

The lockdown will see ordinary people who are not in essential service work confined to their homes. Travelling is restricted to buying food or medicine, visiting a doctor or collecting a social grant.

SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini stressed that the enforcement of the regulations by the armed forces would be one based on trust with SA’s residents and citizens.

He said the SANDF would act in a supporting role to the SAPS, as SA was not in a state of emergency. The lockdown was enforced using the Disaster Management Act.

Dlamini said the SANDF would enforce roadblocks and conduct patrols, while military medical personnel’s first responsibility would be to the troops. They would also support civilian health services if needed.

Neither the SANDF nor the SAPS were willing to say how many  soldiers and officers would be deployed for the lockdown.

Brig Vishnu Naidoo, spokesperson for the SAPS, said the police’s job was to ensure the objectives of the lockdown are met and that everyone stays at home.

He said roadblocks will be used and streets, highways and byways cordoned off. Officers will  conduct vehicle patrols to ensure that people stay off  the streets and away from public places.

He said that the aim of the lockdown was to “drastically reduce the movement of people in an effort to stop the spread of Covid-19”, and that the police force was confident people would comply with the regulations.

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Update: March 26 2020

This story has been updated to include President Cyril Ramaphosa's comments to members of the SANDF.