The South African Police Service (SAPS) has shifted its lockdown policing strategy from enforcement to communication, with officers less focused on arresting citizens who contravene lockdown regulations, says police minister Bheki Cele.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Cele said that there had been a ‘rethink’, particularly since the lockdown was eased to adjusted alert level one at the end of September.
The police minister has faced criticism for his stringent enforcement of lockdown regulations, with over 400,000 people arrested for breaking South Africa’s Covid-19 rules up to April 2021.
“With going back to level 1, you go back to dealing with other things rather than the protocols. We do still remind people about protocols, though we are now back to focusing on core policing and crime issues,” he said.
“You go around asking people where their masks are, and they all take their masks out of their pockets, without fail. The regulation says that I should remind you, and if you don’t have it, I should arrest you.”
However, Cele said that social distancing has proved to be a bigger problem, with several political parties holding mass rallies leading to the local government elections on 1 November.
Other areas of concern include overcrowded shebeens, gatherings in churches and several protests, he said.
“The political gatherings will forever be monitored, even when there is no Covid-19, but the police, must stay a little bit far. Otherwise, we will be accused of being a police state that is shutting down or interfering with the political activity,” he said.
New lockdown rules incoming?
Experts have warned that the upcoming elections might become a Covid-19 superspreader event and lead to the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections across the country in December.
The government’s Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) has now recommended that the lockdown restrictions be tweaked to accommodate the elections, including stricter policing of gatherings in the run-up to 1 November.
The group has also suggested a ban on alcohol sales on election day, which has been declared a public holiday. It has also recommended that the evening curfew and restrictions on gatherings be eased on election day itself to reduce the friction around voting.
“Mass gatherings, whether planned or spontaneous, with respect to some election activities, have the potential to increase the risk of transmission. It is envisaged that for the scheduled election date, the rollout of the vaccine programme will not have reached sufficient people to have achieved the targeted coverage, even in higher-risk populations,” the committee said.
“A number of interventions are needed to ensure safe municipal elections, respecting the public’s right to engage in the democratic process as well as their right to be protected against preventable harm.”