South African soldiers patrol a hostel in the densely populated Alexandra township east of Johannesburg, enforcing a strict lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus © AP

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Police violence has marred the first days of South Africa’s pandemic lockdown as officers unleashed water cannon and rubber bullets against the country’s poorest people, who have struggled to maintain social distancing in crowded slums and townships.

A 21-day lockdown ordered by President Cyril Ramaphosa began on Friday, aiming to limit South African coronavirus cases that have surged to more than 1,100 out of more than 4,000 in Africa.

Mounting signs of police heavy-handedness in South Africa have underlined the difficulty of maintaining lockdowns in countries with large numbers living in crowded or impoverished conditions.

South Africa’s lockdown has been launched with tighter strictures than other countries, including bans on any sales of alcohol and cigarettes and exercise outside the home.

Mr Ramaphosa ordered defence forces to treat civilians respectfully as he deployed them last week to assist police during the lockdown. “Our people will be looking to you to give them reassurance, not as a force of might but as a force of kindness. They must know that you will be looking after them,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

But abuses have since been documented including footage of a balaclava-clad soldier who was seen kicking and beating civilians caught outside in the lockdown. “You’re saying the president talks shit, f*** off,” he said as the punches landed.

Police have launched water cannon and fired rubber bullets to disperse people queueing outside food shops, a permitted activity under South Africa’s lockdown but where social distancing has been difficult. 

Whereas South Africa’s middle class was mostly able to stockpile supplies days before the lockdown, queues have been lengthy in poorer townships and inner-city areas where workers were only recently paid.

In the Johannesburg suburb of Melville, police and private security contractors forced their way into the home of 26 year-old lawyer Elisha Kunene, who had watched with his brother from their door as officers threatened to burn the possessions of homeless people nearby. The lockdown provides for the government to house the homeless in temporary shelters.

“They searched the whole house, pulled everything out of our pockets, they berated us” and threatened violent assault, Mr Kunene said. “It was very definitely a trespass and illegal search.”

A South African police spokesperson said officers “have the powers to enforce the crowd management principles in places where people [are] loitering as individuals or gathered in numbers during this lockdown period.”

“The regulations are not there to punish people but to protect our people against the deadly Covid-19 virus,” he added.

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Mr Ramaphosa’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Bheki Cele, the police minister, has welcomed the crackdown but denied allegations of abuses. “Wait until you see more force,” he said.

The ferocity is “not at all helpful” for measures led by Zweli Mkhize, the health minister, to trace and test for the virus and place the infected in quarantine, said Ziyanda Stuurman, an academic who has studied South African policing.

“When people see police officers and the military being violent, it really erodes Dr Mkhize’s message for people to come forward,” Ms Stuurman said.

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