ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

South Africa / Sokona Sy

South Africa is reported to be the African country most affected by Covid-19. The increasing number of patients necessitated the declaration of a National State Disaster.

Following the presidential decision, certain restrictions were placed on civil and political rights in order to contain the spread of the virus in a country where the immunity of many is suppressed because of HIV or TB.

Unnecessary police brutality has been reported since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown, and contentious limitations have been placed on freedom of expression.

On the other hand, progressive measures have been taken by the government in order to bridge the social divide and protect the most vulnerable. Though no substantive measures have been taken to protect undocumented migrants so far.



With a population of approximately 57.7 million, South Africa is the second largest economy in the African continent. It has a GDP per capita estimated at 6,374 USD. However, South Africa is also one of the most economically unequal countries in the world with a score of 0.62 in the Gini index. Moreover, the high burden of HIV and TB infections coupled with the high rate of unemployment (i.e. 28.7% of the labour force) among the young severely impede economic and social progress.

Considered a democratic state since the abolition of the Apartheid regime and the adoption of the 1996 constitution, South Africa opted for a parliamentary system where the National Assembly elects the President. In this three-tier system of government, the constitution grants provinces legislative and executive power, and responsibility for certain services such as healthcare.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has required national coordination, especially since available health resources are insufficient. South Africa only has 2.3 hospital beds, 1.3 nurses and 0.8 doctors per 1.000 inhabitants and spends 3.5% of its GDP or $586 USD per capita on health.  South Africa  has approximately 3000 ICU beds while no official data could be found on the exact number of ventilators available (see also here or here).


Civil and political rights 

With 3953  confirmed cases as of 24 April 2020, South Africa is formally speaking the African country most impacted by Covid-19. In order to contain the spread of the virus, President Cyril Ramaphosa decided on 15 March to take ‘urgent and drastic measures’ such as travel bans from high risks countries, the prohibition of gatherings of more than 100 peopleclosing of schools and the suspension of prison visits.

Alongside these measures, the President declared a state of disaster under the Disaster Management Act (DMA), which unlike the State of Emergency Act allows the government to limit freedom of assembly.

In his address to the nation, President Ramaphosa explained that the measures were needed due to the “large number of people with suppressed immunity because of HIV and TB, and high levels of poverty and malnutrition”.

President Ramaphosa announced on 23 March the closure of borders, the prohibition of travel within the country, the closure of places of worship and all non-essentials shops. Furthermore, a  three week nationwide lockdown was announced, supported by  the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Human rights organisations have raised concerns over a range of issues including over 2000 arrests, the use of rubber bullets by the SANDF and police, and the murder of a South African citizen by the security forces for not complying with restrictions.

Those found violating the restrictions face either a fine, imprisonment not exceeding six months or both. Although UN experts reminded states that “any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory”, numerous cases of security forces and police brutality have been recorded (see also here and here). In fact, human rights organisations (see here) have raised concerns over a range of issues including over 2000 arrests, the use of rubber bullets by the SANDF and police, and the murder of a South African citizen by the security forces for not complying with restrictions.

Videos circulating on social media depict soldiers “whipping, slapping, kicking and humiliating people”. Initially, the Defence Minister condemned the behaviour of his subordinates, but then found justification for some abuses in a televised interview.

In a letter addressed to Parliament, the President authorised the deployment of more than 73,000 soldiers until 26 June.

More recently, the President authorised in a letter addressed to parliament, the deployment of more than 73,000 soldiers (see also here) until 26 June, which might escalate the human rights situation in some areas if the use of violence is perpetuated.

It is also important to note that under the DMA, “any person who publishes any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about COVID-19 ” commits an offense and faces a fine, imprisonment or both. This is a dangerous precedent and could potentially be used against journalists or individuals who disclose information embarrassing to the government. To this end, the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed their concern over possible “abuse and limitations in vital information and facts”. The OHCHR urged governments to “promote and protect access to and free flow of information during the pandemic”.

According to the DMA regulations, the national State of Disaster should last no more than three months but may be terminated earlier by the Minister of Health. Thus, the parliament plays no role in the extension or suspension of the National State of Disaster. Indeed, the regulations relating to Covid-19 prevent the parliament from meeting since all public gatherings are prohibited.

The Constitutional Court might declare certain regulations put in place unlawful, following an appeal submitted by the family of a victim of police brutality (see also here).
Economic and social rights

As seen above, exceptional situations require exceptional measures. However, in the South African context these measures could be more detrimental than the virus itself for the poorest and most vulnerable.  Since the declaration of the nationwide lockdown, many South Africans, especially those living hand to mouth, are struggling to feed themselves.

Social distancing and handwashing guidelines in overcrowded and informal settlements areas where clean water is a rare commodity are challenging (see also here).

In his 21 April speech, President Ramaphosa presented his government’s economic and social response to the outbreak. Under this emergency plan, progressive measures will be undertaken such as tax relief , ‘emergency procurement wage support’ and funding to small businesses alongside financial support for companies and workers.

Special attention is also paid to ‘vulnerable and affected sectors’, the millions of people working in informal sectors, and unemployed people, through a Social Relief of Distress grant.

The President has emphasized that the Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to create, in an unequal country, a new economy founded upon “fairness, empowerment, justice and equality”.

The President has emphasized that the Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to create, in an unequal country, a new economy founded upon “fairness, empowerment, justice and equality”. Recognizing that the pandemic resulted in hunger and social distress as food distribution failed to meet need, the President initiated “vouchers and cash transfers to ensure that help reaches those who need it faster and more efficiently”. Measures to prevent escalation of prices were also taken.

Moreover, vulnerable families and those acutely affected by the pandemic will receive a six-month Coronavirus grant. Families already receiving a grant will receive an extra R250 per month for the same period.

Funding is also allocated to municipalities and provinces for the provision of clean water, additional sanitation of public infrastructures and transport, food distribution and the care of the homeless.

Despite these much needed policies, the President has failed to address the needs of migrants or undocumented migrants in a country where xenophobic violence (see also here and here) is common. South Africa  plans to build a fence (see also here) along its border with Zimbabwe, in order to reduce illegal migration and the spread of the virus within its territory.

Sokona Sy is currently completing a MRes in Global Health Law and Governance at Queen Mary University of London.