Tens of thousands of soldiers have been put on standby in South Africa amid rising tensions as one of the strictest lockdowns in the world nears its fifth week.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the president and commander-in-chief, has mobilised the 73,000 men and women of South Africa’s armed forces, though it is unclear how many of them may eventually be deployed.
Around 3,000 soldiers are already on the streets in support of police and medical personnel.
South Africa has recorded 3,465 cases of coronavirus, the continent’s second highest number after Egypt, and 58 fatalities.
On Wednesday night Ramaphosa announced a social and economic relief package worth $26bn, and on Thursday he will set out how the lockdown will be lifted.
Restrictions are likely to be removed very gradually, officials suggest, though it is widely recognised that the lockdown has caused immense hardship to tens of millions and is requiring increasing levels of coercion to sustain in its present form.
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Experts said the aim of deploying soldiers would be a “show of force to get people off the streets”.
Gareth Newham, of the Institute of Security Studies, Pretoria, said: “We are already starting to see a rise in burglary, looting, vandalism, and that is only going to get worse because of the level of desperation, the increased level of hunger, and the police are overstretched already.
“The ability to draw on large numbers [of troops] would have a psychological effect but given the military are not trained for public order there is clearly a high risk of soldiers shooting and killing people.”
Though the lockdown has been largely well respected, there have been sporadic incidents of violence in recent days, with crowds targeting trucks carrying food parcels or delivering food to supermarkets. Hundreds of armed police thwarted an attempt to loot a shopping mall near Cape Town on Wednesday.
Earlier in the week hundreds of people in the Mitchell Plains township fought running battles with the police, hurling rocks and setting up street barricades with burning tyres, over undelivered food parcels.
South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and has a tradition of street protests against authorities’ failures to provide basic services.
“It’s a very, very dangerous situation,” said Scott Drimie, of the thinktank Southern Africa Food Lab. “When you add hunger to that, now there’s deprivation … and then you add the enforcement with the army and police, that needs to be handled very carefully.”
The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies said that if people could not get food, “there is every likelihood of violent conflict, including widespread looting.”
The latest government figures show 118,000 people have been charged with breaking the lockdown restrictions.
The defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, confirmed the decision to mobilise the army on Wednesday. “If you look at the numbers and the rate at which the infection has gone up, you will realise that at some point we may actually need the kind of human deployment which has never been seen before,” she told local radio.
Some serious crimes have fallen dramatically during the lockdown, according to figures released on Wednesday. Murders are down by 72% in the last month compared with the same period last year, assaults have fallen by 85% and violent robbery by 70%.
The police minister, Bheki Cele, said more than 190 roadblocks had been put in place daily countrywide and more than 680 vehicle checkpoints. “Raids have been conducted which have seen illegal liquor outlets shut down and non-essential services such as mines, factories and other companies busted,” Cele said on Wednesday.
Figures also show a sharp fall in recorded gender-based violence, though experts and activists said this was probably due to the difficulties women faced in reaching police or others to report attacks.
Tina Thiart, a trustee of 1,000 Women One Voice, an NGO that works through grassroots initiatives to tackle violence against women and children, said women were locked up with abusers and reports to the NGO of gender-based violence had “really spiked”.
“The stats we get from everywhere … we believe it is much higher. It comes in waves but this time it feels a lot worse. There’s a real problem in the camps that have been set up for homeless. We are getting calls from affluent households too,” Thiart said.
Experts said a rise in reports of abuse of children also suggested an increase in gender-based violence.
Last week Ramaphosa said he had ordered that family protection police units be reinforced because “women and girls are being terrorised inside their own homes, forcing them to make desperate calls for help.”
South Africa’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 have been widely praised. The country has drawn on long experience of fighting infectious diseases to launch an ambitious screening and testing campaign involving tens of thousands of medical personnel seeking out hotspots of infection.
However, with winter approaching there are fears of a rapid rise in cases if the lockdown is lifted too soon.