“The night Cyril Ramaphosa became a wartime president” is how a leading columnist for South Africa’s News24 website described the South African leader’s decision to impose a nationwide lockdown to defeat coronavirus.
The three-week lockdown, which started just after midnight, is unprecedented.
It is the first time since South Africa became a democracy in 1994 that a president had stripped away the most basic freedoms of citizens – to walk, to shop, to socialise and to congregate for prayer without hindrance.
“The law is that you stay at home. The exception is for survival: food [and] health, with security forces making sure that the law is enforced,” government minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said.
The government has even banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, as well as jogging or walking dogs, during the lockdown – warning that offenders risked being prosecuted, and either fined or jailed.
Some of these restrictions were not even imposed by the apartheid regime during its almost five decade-long oppressive rule.
But some of the hard-won freedoms that South Africans attained after defeating apartheid have been temporarily lost a mere 25 years later as they – like many other nations in the world – cede their rights to governments to fight what UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called an “invisible enemy”.
Governments elsewhere in the region have not imposed such stringent measures.
‘Viruses know no boundary’
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has declared a national disaster, promising to marshal the government’s limited resources to fight the virus.
But two weeks ago, the country’s Defence Minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, thought her nation’s borders were impenetrable, claiming that the virus was the enemy of powerful Western states – not a poor African nation under US sanctions for its human rights record.