An SA National Defence Force patrol stops and frisks a man in the Johannesburg CBD, on April 1 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown. Picture: AFP/MARCO LONGARI
An SA National Defence Force patrol stops and frisks a man in the Johannesburg CBD, on April 1 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown. Picture: AFP/MARCO LONGARI

President Cyril Ramaphosa has defended the conduct of the 18,000 police and SA National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel enforcing the government’s Covid-19 shutdown regulations — and maintains that he has “no specific knowledge” of law enforcement officials behaving unconstitutionally.

While stressing that he does not take the allegations of police and defence force “abuse of power” — made in an urgent court application in the Pretoria high court by the Fair and Equitable Society (FES) NGO — “lightly”, the president said its application “simply alleges abuse without any specificities”. He described the FES’s case as “misconceived”. 

As of Friday afternoon, eight people had reportedly died as a consequence of law enforcement actions during the shutdown, in contrast to the seven people who have died as a result of Covid-19 itself. These incidents are under investigation by police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid).

The FES wants the court to order that members of the police and defence force violated the constitutional rights of South Africans, the SA Police Service Act, and Government Gazette in using violence, excessive force, torture and assault in enforcing the regulations.

Using videos sourced largely from social media, as well as news reports, the FES maintains there is clear evidence that police and defence force members have acted unconstitutionally in their enforcement of the state’s shutdown regulations.

It wants law enforcement to be interdicted from engaging in such conduct in the future and has asked the Pretoria high court to rule that “the state of disaster as declared by the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs under Government Gazette has not and does not suspend constitutional rights of all South Africans”.

“I have no reason to believe that they have acted unlawfully, and in the event that there may be incidents of unlawful conduct on their part, such conduct must be reported to the relevant authorities,” the president said in papers filed at the Pretoria high court on Friday afternoon.

Condemnation, if true

Ramaphosa has also stressed that he believes the state’s shutdown was the decisive action needed to “save lives before the coronavirus reaches proportions that would have a significant strain on our medical system and add to the social maladies our country already faces”.

“I am convinced that this extraordinary intervention will later prove to be the one intervention we adopted that averted an unprecedented calamity for our nation,” he states. “I knew it would have a considerable impact on people’s livelihoods, on the life of our society and our economy. However, the human cost of delaying the intervention was too ghastly to contemplate.” 

In his court papers, Ramaphosa says that “should there be any complaint about the conduct of our security personnel, such complaints must, indeed, be lodged with the relevant authorities tasked with the investigation of such matters”. 

He said, like the ministers of police Bheki Cele and defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, he condemns “any act of abuse that may have been committed by any of security personnel” deployed to enforce the shutdown regulations.

Ramaphosa also said that if the incidents of violence alleged by the FES “have indeed occurred, they deserve condemnation” and should be reported to Ipid. “However, [the FES] must assist us with more than just reference to unidentified culprits circulating on various media platforms.” 

Ramaphosa says all his cabinet ministers — including Cele and Mapisa-Nqakula — “have acted impeccably and spared no effort in defence of our citizens against Covid-19 since the first infection was recorded. Where mistakes have been made in these uncharted waters, they have acted swiftly to remedy the situation and issue clear directives”. 

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