South African president Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day lockdown on 23 March 2020. All South Africans were instructed to stay at home, except for “essential personnel” or “under strictly controlled circumstances, such as to seek medical care, buy food, medicine and other supplies or collect a social grant”.
The lockdown is intended to fight the spread of Covid-19, and is meant to last from 27 March to 16 April.
On the first day of the lockdown, state broadcaster SABC reported from central Cape Town, the country’s second-largest city on the southwestern coast.
In the broadcast, reporter Mariska Botha said: “We are at a point where the [police] and the army, supported by the City of Cape Town Metro Police, are stopping vehicles to check if everybody has the necessary documentation to be able to move around the city.” .
City councillor JP Smith told the SABC that South Africans risked arrest for leaving the house without “demonstrable proof or evidence” that they were grocery shopping or attending to a medical emergency.
What counts as “demonstrable proof” or “necessary documentation”? And is this proof required by law?
Widely shared form not from South Africa, but Cyprus
Before the lockdown began, South African social media users started sharing a “declaration of citizen’s movement” form, supposedly required by anyone leaving their home.
It is a real legal document but it doesn’t apply in South Africa. It is intended for residents of the Republic of Cyprus, an island country in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The island has enforced its own lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19, to last until 13 April.
The Cypriot government has published two “confirmation of movement” forms.
The first form is for use by Cypriots performing essential services. South Africa has an equivalent form. It is in annexure C of the Disaster Management Act, which describes South Africa’s lockdown regulations.
The second form from Cyprus, intended for private citizens, has been incorrectly shared in South Africa. People in South Africa do not need to sign or carry a form when outside their homes.
Official regulations vague
Africa Check asked Neil Kirby, head of healthcare and life sciences law at Werksmans Attorneys in Johannesburg if the lockdown regulations require citizens to carry proof that they are leaving the house for a valid reason.
The answer is complicated and South Africa’s official regulations are vague.
“No reference is made to proof or how to prove that one has had to leave one’s residence,” he told us over email. “There is no standard in the regulations as to what could be considered proof in this scenario”.
Rather, the act’s wording seems to allow officials to judge for themselves, on a case-by-case basis, whether a person has left their home legally.
The vagueness of these regulations has confused more than just social media users. Officials appear to be interpreting the regulations differently too.
When Africa Check reached out to Cape Town councillor JP Smith, he said: “At the back of the regulations there’s this form that you must fill in, in order to move about”. But the form he sent to us was the Cypriot form. He said it was forwarded to him by other officials.
We contacted Cape Town police stations to ask how they were interpreting the regulations.
In the inner-city suburb of Woodstock, Sgt Booi told us that only people performing an essential service needed a specific form.
At Cape Town Central police station, Const Mphithi said that while no official documentation was needed, police were still asking citizens to show some evidence of where they were travelling to. He gave examples of a bank card for purchasing essential goods or an SMS to confirm a medical appointment.
Mphithi told Africa Check that a person could be arrested for breaking lockdown regulations if they did not have sufficient evidence. But unless police felt that an offender was “somehow disrespectful”, Mphithi said that police would likely fine themR1,500, rather than arrest them.
(Note: Africa Check asked the police stations for the officers’ first names but were declined.)
‘This is based on trust’
South African Police Services spokesperson Vish Naidoo told Africa Check: “This is based on trust, but if the police find that a person has lied, then such person will be charged.”
To avoid confrontations with law enforcement officers, he advised South Africans to stay home as much as possible and pay attention to communications from government officials.
Neil Kirby of Werksmans Attorneys advised South Africans to follow communications from the Department of Co-Operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, responsible for putting in place the regulations. At the moment “matters will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis”.
To sum up: South Africans don’t need to carry a form unless employed to provide an essential service. But a police officer needs to be satisfied with the reason given for leaving the house. This leaves room for interpretation, and South Africans are advised to stay at home unless strictly necessary.
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