On the fourth day of South Africa’s 21-day national lockdown on Monday, police in Hillbrow continued to use force to keep people off the streets. AmaBhungane and the Mail & Guardian witnessed police firing rubber bullets and beating civilians with sjamboks. Police said they were following orders from “the top”.
At midday on Monday, a white Toyota hatchback — whose registration the M&G and amaBhungane noted — was cruising through the quieter-than-usual streets of Hillbrow, a densely populated suburb near Johannesburg’s city centre.
Inside was a plainclothes policeman wearing jeans, a red jacket and surgical gloves, and three colleagues in South African Police Service (SAPS) uniforms.
The vehicle would drive a few blocks and come to a halt, and the plainclothes cop with a sjambok would leap out and chase civilians apparently breaking strict lock-down rules. If he caught them, he would beat them with the whip — sometimes administering as many as eight blows.
“We are sjambokking people … People cannot be disciplined without it,” said the uniformed driver of the vehicle. “We don’t want to see three people together without carrying anything. What are they doing? Then you ask, ‘Where are you going?’, [and] they don’t answer.”
He claimed that this kind of force was permitted during the national lockdown, and that they were following orders from “the top”.
The scene played itself out over and over again, and occasionally a uniformed colleague would join in. Residents in Hillbrow’s crowded apartment buildings watched this police brutality unfold from their balconies, and would jeer whenever the policemen got out of their vehicle.
Many residents we spoke to felt they were on the receiving end of an excessive and unfair response by the state to the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“If the cops find you standing, keeping on talking, doing anything, they give you the sjambok,” said one man, standing in a queue outside a supermarket. He did not want to be identified. “It’s not okay — the people are not doing anything wrong. The people are coming to get what they need. I don’t think it’s okay for the police to kick everyone, it’s not good.”
Neither SAPS nor the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) had responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.
In a separate incident, we witnessed a uniformed SAPS member fire rubber bullets to disperse groups of people on Kotze Street. Residents confirmed that SAPS had been regularly using rubber bullets since the beginning of the lockdown, and we found several spent rubber bullet cartridges on the ground near a nondescript residential building.
Occupants of the building complained about police heavy-handedness. The police “come with sjambok, and rubber bullets. They are closing the small shops; you can’t buy cigarettes or airtime. There’s too much queue at the Shoprite,” said one.
Under the lockdown, people must remain in their homes and are permitted to leave for very limited reasons only, such as to buy food or perform work deemed to be essential.
‘High-rise informal settlements’
But Hillbrow is a low-income neighbourhood and one of the most densely populated in the country. It has suffered decades of neglect and overcrowding, and many of its crumbling buildings are what urban planner Tanya Zack refers to as “effectively high-rise informal settlements”. Apartments are often “informally subdivided, with people living in portions of rooms that are subdivided with curtains”.
Though much quieter than a usual Monday and with far fewer cars on the roads, there was still a steady flow of people through the streets. Apartments were packed with people who would normally be at work at this time of day, many of whom were hanging out on the balcony.
Long queues snaked out of supermarkets, with most people observing social distancing, while municipal maintenance crews were deep cleaning and sanitising the Hillbrow taxi rank.
“It is impossibly difficult to practice social distancing in circumstances where many people may share a single room and where every room is occupied. And where some buildings have limited access to water and electricity. These are situations in which people’s only access to space and fresh air may be outdoors,” said Zack.
She added: “In a high-rise building, not being able to leave your unit may mean not getting fresh air at all. Denying access to any public space at all may have the unintended consequence of confining residents of Hillbrow to unbearable and extremely unsafe conditions. Homelessness in Hillbrow is rife, and many do not even have an apartment, or a portion of an apartment, to go to.”
Three homeless people we spoke to said they were rounded up by police and taken to a designated shelter at the beginning of the national lockdown last week. They said they left the shelter because of poor conditions. Independently, each said that sanitation at the shelter was poor and that food was limited to just three slices of bread a day.
“They took us there. There’s no food, no water,” said Seipati, 24. She said she believed that the shelters were dangerous, and that people had died there — a claim we could not independently verify.
Seipati’s biggest concern was food: she usually begs at a set of traffic lights in Braamfontein, but could not get there because of the lockdown. “They [the police] are shooting us with rubber bullets. When we see them we have to run.”
Lucky, a 39-year-old homeless man who begs outside Pieter Roos Park, said that he was earning barely any income because of the massively reduced traffic. “I don’t get food or whatever. Everyone is suffering.”
Lucky said that on Saturday a policeman arrested him and took him to a shelter in Jeppestown, but that he escaped because of the poor conditions. “All the people who were there are back now,” he said.
The story was reported by Micah Reddy from amaBhungane and Simon Allison from the Mail & Guardian.