S. Africans fear safety divide as coronavirus panic takes hold in cities

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 March 2020 17:04 GMT

A man walks past a poster covering the side of a building ahead of a 21 day lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cape Town, South Africa, March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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A rise in COVID-19 scams, supermarket robberies and domestic violence during lockdowns could hit townships particularly hard

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, March 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As South Africa prepares to go into a 21-day national lockdown to stem the coronavirus outbreak, poorer residents fear being exposed to worsening violence and scams as security companies jack up patrols in wealthier neighbourhoods.

A spike in coronavirus scams like fake door-to-door tests to break into people's homes could leave residents in townships particularly vulnerable to crime and violence, rights activists warned.

"All South Africans are vulnerable to crime, but those with resources will be able to protect themselves in this uncertain time more than those in townships," said Thami Nkosi of the local Right2Know group, which fights for freedom of expression.

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South Africa is considered one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank, and the impact of years of apartheid spatial planning that set to physically divide the country's different races lingers on today.

Inequality in cities could be further exacerbated by a rise in coronavirus scams, supermarket robberies and domestic violence during lockdowns, with the central bank warning that criminals are visiting homes to collect "contaminated" money.

"We issued a warning (for door-to-door coronavirus scams) over social media that went viral, with others around the country sharing similar stories," said Ozanne Mac Adam, a coordinator for private security company TRSS Reaction.

South Africa has reported the most coronavirus cases in sub-Saharan Africa - nearly 1,000 - and public health experts are worried that the virus could overwhelm the health system if infection rates rise steeply.

"Communities are alarmed and nervous about the virus, but also about criminals taking advantage of the situation," Mac Adam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

"Our clients in residential estates and shopping centres have asked for more patrols and security presence."

Barbed wire, electric fences and panic buttons are a part of everyday life in a country with more than 20,000 murders a year - the world's fifth highest murder rate in 2019, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Some fear that the country's lockdown, due to start from midnight, could put women and girls at greater danger of domestic violence.

"We have extremely high crime rates in Alex," said Ramatamo Sehoai, a journalist living in the Alexandra township of about 750,000 people.

"A lockdown in a township, where maybe 10 people share one shack, will increase violence against women and others," he said in a phone interview.

Police minister Bheki Cele told reporters on Wednesday that the South African National Defence Force would be increasing foot patrols, roadbloacks and vehicle checkpoints.

Noting the fear of escalating violence against women, he said there are plans to "beef up" family violence and child protection units.

For Sehoai, the lockdown will limit movement and income for informal workers in townships, but the heightened police and military presence is "as close to private security as we can get".

"Perhaps the military will help us fight the virus and crime too," he said. "I just hope that when we leave our shacks to get food, we aren't seen as loiterers or criminals."

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(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg, editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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