/ 26 March 2020

Rules for lockdown: Stay put!

Shoprite Spazas Serve Ekasi
Informal traders, such as hawkers, street vendors and spaza shops are an important link in the chain that connects food producers to consumers. Photo: Supplied (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Franny Rabkin

“The law is: you stay at home,” said Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on Wednesday night — the message repeated over and over as the government announced the regulations that would govern the 21-day lockdown — a first in the history of democratic South Africa as the nation seeks to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

But although much is covered by the regulations, it seems that there is still much to be worked out in the coming days — details and “tweaks”, said the ministers briefing the media on Wednesday night. “There no doubt will be teething problems. It will be monitored … nothing is cast in stone,” said Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula.

The regulations published on Wednesday supplement the earlier regulations under the National Disaster Act, giving the government stronger powers to enforce testing, isolation and quarantine. They also set out the rules for the lockdown period — which is due to start on Thursday at midnight. 

During the lockdown, any gathering is prohibited — unless it is a funeral, and those are limited to 50 people. The 100-people limit no longer applies. Movement between provinces is prohibited. Movement between metropolitan and district areas is prohibited. South Africa’s borders will be open in some places for goods, but entirely shut down for people. 

Most businesses must shut down. Most shops must close. Public transport has, for the most part, been shut down. Public spaces have been closed. There is to be no dog walking or jogging. 

But there are exceptions to the indoors-at-all-costs principle, said Dlamini-Zuma — “for survival” and “for health”. 

There is a different set of rules for people who are “performing essential services” — including healthcare workers, those who work in disaster management, food production, essential civil services and media. 

And then there are the exceptions for the rest of the population. For the rest of the population, you are allowed to leave your house “for essential goods and services”.  So you may go to the shops and buy food and cleaning goods. However, alcohol is prohibited and certain items normally part of some households’ grocery lists — such as cigarettes — are not considered essential goods. Shops are not allowed to sell anything that is not one of the essential goods listed in the regulations.

You can go to the chemist for medication and to the garage for petrol.

The idea — though this is not spelled out in the regulations — is that when people do need to leave their homes they should stay as local as possible, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said. If you can, shop at your local spaza shop or grocery store.

Special provision is being made for homeless shelters and for those that experience violence in their homes during the lockdown. 

The regulations also provide a list of places that are to remain closed to the public: parks, beaches, swimming pools, markets casinos, nightclubs, game reserves, taverns, taxi ranks, bus depots.

There are public transport exceptions for those performing essential services, who may take taxis and Ubers and buses to get to work — but these will be strictly controlled, and will only run at certain times of the day, said Mbalula. 

The prohibitions are also lifted if public transport is being used to obtain essential services — to buy food and to seek medical care. The regulations also provide for strict controls on how many people can be in a bus or taxi: no more than 50% of their licensed capacity. 

The office of the chief justice clarified on Wednesday that the courts would stay open for essential matters — including litigation that arises over the lockdown. In a letter to colleagues on March 24, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said that, under the Constitution, the courts had to be open to pronounce on the validity of the state of emergency.

“Courts therefore have to stay open in case members of the public want to bring one challenge or another in relation to the constitutionality or the validity of the measures being implemented,” said Mogoeng. He said he had delegated to the heads of each court the power to determine what services their courts would provide during the lockdown.

Given how quickly the government had to come up with the rules, it was never going to be able to cater for the specifics of many people’s lives. 

Questions on the detailed implementation of the lockdown are not addressed by the regulations, as they now stand. There are no answers in the regulations to specifics like what paperwork someone — other than those performing essential services — would need to produce for the police or army to show that you are only going to the shops. 

An apparently exhausted group of Cabinet members became increasingly frustrated as journalists asked about jogging, Uber Eats and attending funerals in other provinces, and people being dishonest about why they were leaving their homes.

“Why should we even think that we should lie to the police?” said Dlamini-Zuma. “We shouldn’t lie to the police because the actions you are taking might actually be endangering somebody else.” 

Dlamini-Zuma said she was “pleading that we, all South Africans, in solidarity, for the love of each other … we must take these measures seriously”.