Protests documented amid COVID-19 restrictions

In late March 2020, the country was put under lockdown in efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. Videos were circulated on social media showing security forces using disproportionate force while enforcing the lockdown restrictions. Within the first three days of the lockdown, it was reported that the police had killed at least three people while enforcing the COVID-19 restrictions.

In mid-June 2020, it was reported that a number of civil society organisations were jointly monitoring human rights abuses by members of security forces during the lockdown. The organisations, working under the Anti-repression working group of the COVID-19 People’s Coalition, engaged hundreds of monitors across the country to provide reports on how lockdown rules were being implemented. The group also created the Security Forces Violence Tracker, where members of the public can submit complaints about security force violations.

The Military Ombudsman office also received complaints from members of the public against the conduct of members of the South African National Defence Force, while leaders urged for investigations.

Peaceful Assembly

Several COVID-19 related protests reported

As the economic effects of the lockdown began to be felt by citizens, several protests were reported in cities across the country.

In mid-April about 1,000 residents of Tafelsig East in Cape Town protested in the streets against the failure by their local government to provide them with food parcels, after the area councillor provided food parcels to poor residents from neighbouring Tafelsig West the day before. Protesters burned tyres and hurled stones. Three people were arrested for public violence.

Civil society actors called on the government to increase the scope of beneficiaries eligible for COVID-19 related social protection measures in a bid to cushion the poor from the economic shocks brought about by the pandemic.

Separately, as scientist across the world raced against time to develop a vaccine against the pandemic, concerns within the continent were raised over Africa’s first human trials, and testing of drugs on people who may not fully understand the risks. In reflecting these concerns, on 1st July 2020, dozens of protesters gathered at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to express concern over clinical trials for a potential COVID-19 vaccine. The protesters cautioned against what they feared was the using of Africans as guinea pigs for the tests. The protests came after the country’s first clinical trial consisting of 2,000 volunteers was rolled out a week before through a partnership between the University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford University.

In other developments related to the pandemic, on 10th July 2020, protesters took to the streets in Belhar, Cape Town, under the ‘School stay-away’ movement to demand the closure of all schools by the government in light of COVID-19. This followed an announcement by the basic education minister Angie Motshekga of a plan to begin a phased reopening of schools, which the protesters said was rushed and ill advised. On the day of the protest, the Department of Basic Education released a statement warning against disruption of schools. The protesters however vowed to demonstrate every Friday until the department reverses its decision, demanding that schools only be reopened after the COVID-19 peak. The action was organised by former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader and One South Africa Movement (OSA) founder Mmusi Maimane.

Service delivery protests continue to be reported

On 9th July, residents of Monwabisi Park informal settlement in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, protested in the streets to demand better toilet services. The residents blocked Baden Powell Drive with rubble and burning tyres, as videos circulating on social media showed a burning municipal building which was said to have been set on fire during the protests. Three people were arrested for public violence as the protest was dispersed by security agents. According to reports, hundreds of families have been sharing only three water taps in Madiba Square, Khayelitsha, even while calls were being made for people to wash their hands regularly amid the pandemic.

Zimbabweans in South Africa denounce rights violations and declining economy back home

On 7th August 2020, at least one hundred Zimbabwean nationals in living in South Africa gathered outside the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria to protest economic hardship that has hit their country and denounce an ongoing crackdown of dissent and rights. Police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the protesters. Earlier that week, Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that he would deal with dissenters after his government restrained anti-government protests which were sparked by the country’s declining economy.

#PutSouthAfricaFirst protest held

On 23rd September 2020, a group of about 50 protesters in support of the #PutSouthAfricaFirst movement marched to the Nigerian and Zimbabwean embassies in Pretoria to denounce the alleged involvement of foreigners in the country’s high crime rate, and also to demand that the country’s resources be prioritised for South African citizens. In particular, they expressed concern over increasing cases of human trafficking and drug use in the city.

While receiving the protesters’ memorandum however, Ambassador Kabiru Bala of the Nigerian High Commission said Nigeria was not going to accept that all its citizens are criminals and cautioned against profiling of Nigerians. Separately, police minister Bheki Cele cautioned against increased allegations about human trafficking, arguing there was no notable statistical increase in the reporting.