Lockdown: Violence, hunger and indifference

15th June 2020 By: Raymond Suttner

Lockdown: Violence, hunger and indifference

Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Madelene Cronje/New Frame

As we mark the anniversary of the June 16 1976 uprising, many young people are experiencing hunger and there is widespread violence emanating from security forces. While it is understandable that many problems of the “state of disaster” could not be anticipated, there is an element of indifference that is cause for disquiet.

Before Covid-19 and the onset of the state of disaster, it will be recalled that there was a low level of trust towards government. Although it had been a very important gain to see the departure of Jacob Zuma, the hopes that many cherished for a Cyril Ramaphosa ANC and state presidency did not appear to have materialised. The conditions of the poor remained substantially unaddressed and many of those who bore some responsibility through acts of corruption during the Zuma years remained unaccountable or in many cases in high office.

It will also be recalled that insofar as Ramaphosa undertook a clean-up, there was some ambiguity within the ANC leadership, mainly on the side of those who had been associated with Zuma and who feared prosecution. But it may have been that some or many who were supposedly in the Ramaphosa camp also feared facing prosecution and were ready to change sides in the event of police and prosecution turning in their direction. In fact, the (Deputy Chief Justice Raymond) Zondo Commission investigating State Capture fingered some leading ANC figures, including Vincent Smith who resigned as an MP and Gwede Mantashe, currently a minister and an ANC and SACP leader.

The opposition to Ramaphosa saw an apparent or emerging alliance between the EFF, some of whose leaders also face potential corruption charges (see Pauli van Wyk https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-06-07-the-other-side-of-the-vbs-puzzle-matodzis-whatsapps-reveal-purpose-and-payments-to-malema-and-shivambus-slush-funds/) and those in the ANC who were tainted by corruption. The face of the clean-up was Pravin Gordhan, Minister of State Enterprises, who came under fierce attack from the EFF and others. These virulent attacks included anti-Indian racism and Gordhan hardly received support from the ANC leadership, including Ramaphosa.

The onset of the lockdown saw a high level of unity behind the leadership for its decisive action in addressing the dangers of Covid-19. There was a willingness on the part of large sections of society to make sacrifices in order to secure the country from being overwhelmed by the virus and a willingness to try to limit social contact. Thereby it was hoped to contain the spread of the virus in order to give the health services time to prepare for an anticipated surge in infections.

The problem with the lockdown for the people of South Africa does not lie primarily in disputes between scientists, and scientists and government. over ways of testing and the capacity to test and the need to focus other than on testing. For members of society, it lay in the unequal impact of lockdown regulations on the South African population. They have lived through the post-apartheid period in conditions replicating many of the spatial and social and economic inequalities of apartheid.

It may well have been that the lives of some people improved after apartheid, even if those improvements were not always sustained. But for the overwhelming majority who continued to experience conditions akin to that of apartheid, this has meant continued inequality and that the lockdown has come to mean a very different experience to those living in Sandton, the Cape Town City Bowl, Parktown, Observatory in Johannesburg (where I live) as opposed to those living in areas like Diepsloot, Khayelitsha, Alexandra township and Masiphumelele, among other places..

What may not have been known to many of us about the conditions of existence of the majority of South Africans was revealed in many respects in the media coverage of the enforcement of the lockdown by the SAPS, SANDF and metro police, sometimes operating with the assistance of private security.

Those who lived in fragile shacks often did not have access to water and sanitation and other facilities required to secure their hygiene and the safety of themselves and those with whom they came into contact.

They were also not able to maintain a “social distance” between themselves and others because of their cramped accommodation forcing close physical contact between those in the same home or forcing some out of their shacks and into the alleys and streets, where they were not allowed to be under lockdown, unless performing or obtaining an essential service. The condition of lockdown did not take adequate account of the difference between the living conditions of the relatively affluent and those who continued to live in squalor.

Many of those living in these abject conditions or living as homeless people under bridges or in derelict buildings were also deprived of means of earning for their subsistence, insofar as they had been working in the informal sector. That work was no longer permitted, as was a lot of other work, for example in the restaurant and other sectors, which were not able to operate at all for the early period of lockdown and in some cases have been allowed to reopen under Levels 4 or 3 but on a basis that does not accommodate the work of the less-paid workers, like waiters and others. Many may not return to their jobs, even if these are fully reopened. Not being a sought-after job many of these workers, who are desperate, derive from neighbouring states. The Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, not among those usually known for xenophobic statements, indicated however that such restaurants when they reopened should prioritise employing South African citizens. (https://www.news24.com/citypress/business/building-a-new-economy-20200512).

At least two issues arose, which made the high levels of poverty and inequality part of the daily visuals of South Africa and often much of the world. In the first place, the security forces were deployed to enforce compliance with the lockdown. Although many of these police and soldiers may themselves have derived from situations of great poverty, as is the case with many of the ANC leadership, they did not approach their tasks with compassion and sensitivity. That some residents found in the streets were forced to be there in order to get out of cramped accommodation or to give privacy to some of their fellow inhabitants, did not carry any weight in the enforcement of the regulations.  

Security forces did not try to listen to why people were not complying but deployed violence - shooting rubber bullets or live ammunition, sometimes sjambokking people at a whim. One video in the Johannesburg inner city depicts a police car driving around with a tall white man dressed in plain clothes getting out periodically to whip people.

In some cases, those who were not complying with regulations were photographed by onlookers as the SANDF or SAPS forced them to perform strenuous or humiliating physical exercises. In many cases, security forces stopped onlookers from taking photographs or deleted these and the Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has said that inhabitants of these areas should not watch security forces enforcing the lockdown.

The high level of abuse by the police and SANDF has led to a number of deaths, at least 12, but probably more. These are not cases of deaths resulting from self-defence on the part of security forces or acts of bravery that forced them to resort to force in self-defence or to defend the vulnerable. The deaths appear to derive from police action against alleged breach of the regulations on the part of township dwellers or plain abuse by security forces.

What is more alarming is that the security ministers display indifference and arrogance and are reluctant to hold their officers to account and are not themselves being held to account.

The enforcement of the lockdown regulations appears to have led to the arrest of over 230,000 people, often for minor infringements.

The president initially made no reference to the acts of violence and abuse by SAPS and SANDF and has only made oblique and guarded references more recently.

The regulations prohibited the demolition and eviction of those who were deemed to be illegally occupying land - in line with court decisions that had been ignored in many cases prior to the lockdown. Instead of abiding by the renewed declaration of this prohibition, forced evictions occurred, at least in eThekwini (in a sense, using the lockdown for settling of scores by the metro against the shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo and its supporters, who had long occupied land in parts of Durban), parts of the Western Cape and Gauteng. In many of these cases police were accompanied by private security, who allegedly destroyed homes and stole possessions. In some cases, private security is alleged to have (illegally) fired on the shack dwellers and acts of sexual abuse were allegedly committed, but police refused to open cases.

The claim was made by the authorities that many of these shacks were unoccupied or newly occupied, a claim that had been made on occasions prior to the lockdown and was vehemently denied by those evicted during the lockdown, as was the case before. They were rendered homeless and sometimes had their vital documents or possessions confiscated, and were often left without shelter in very cold weather.


It was foreseen that the closing of much of the economy would create a critical condition for many businesses but especially for those employees who were dependent on their earnings in order to survive. Hunger set in and government efforts to address this were totally inadequate and often mired in bureaucracy that made it hard for people to qualify for food. In some cases, those who were not South African citizens were excluded -running against the Bill of Rights emphasis on rights to basic needs, apart from a few exceptions being available to “everyone”. Sometimes bureaucracy prevented hunger relief from being provided by others, for example, charitable and other organisations.

The closing of schools for some months, continuing to be the case now for all but a few grades who have been allowed to return, has also deprived many, many children who depended on that as their only meal of the day.

There is now a danger of widespread starvation and making many people more vulnerable to contracting the virus and other illnesses.

It is also said that many people on medication for HIV, TB, diabetes and other chronic illnesses have not been coming to clinics to receive their medication. This is partly related to their fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus at clinics, but also to difficulties in securing transport or negotiating their way past security forces. Again, the problem that has arisen through government decisions, has not been addressed by the authorities.

Undoubtedly the South African government had to take drastic steps in order to try to keep the coronavirus at bay, sufficiently to enable health services to prepare for the surge of infections that is now starting to be evident. Obviously, given the emergency character of the decisions taken then, some of the fall-out could not be adequately factored into the lockdown decision. What is concerning however is that there does not seem to be a sufficient sense of urgency to address starvation and other dire situations that have emerged, or to address them adequately.

What has become clear in the state of disaster is that the declaration created an irresolvable tension, one where a lockdown was forced on a population many of whom found it very difficult or impossible to comply. There was little resort to community consultation to try to ensure that compliance was made possible. Instead, repression was deployed in order to address what resulted from continuing conditions of inequality.


“The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible." - Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was the first white member of the clergy to march with Rev Martin Luther King Jr.

That there are abuses and that there is a crisis of violence and hunger, among a range of dire consequences of the lockdown, is serious. What is blameworthy, however, is that there is a level of arrogance on the part of security authorities and callousness on the part of government towards the most vulnerable. This is a state led by the ANC, once revered and loved by people in the cities and small villages. It earned this support because its cadres had given up their opportunities for personal advancement and what security was possible under apartheid, to secure the freedom and wellbeing of all. Regrettably, the passion that drove many leaders then has turned cold.

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.  He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.