Sending the army to patrol all communities in its own country, in peacetime, is a massive step for any democratic government to take. (Usually only the police keep law and order.) Yet we have done that in South Africa, due to the looming, huge, COVID-19 pandemic.

Our leaders, and all of us as individuals, as families, as communities, as a whole country, are in a situation that is unprecedented. That means that we have never had to deal with anything like this before.

The pandemic will be a life and death situation for many people. That is why, on 15th March, President Ramaphosa invoked a law called the Disaster Management Act. This means government can do some things, quickly, that it cannot do in normal times. For example, it stopped us travelling and stopped gatherings of more than 50 people. Normally, we all have the right to Freedom of Movement and Residence, and to Freedom of Association, meaning we can mix with who we like.

But government soon saw this wasn’t enough; it learned from other countries dealing with the pandemic. People were moving in their communities and carrying the virus with them, from person to person. So the National Coronavirus Command Council agreed we must all be put under lockdown for three weeks, from midnight, 26th March.

The President told us: ” … the South African National Defence Force [will] be deployed to support the South African Police Service in ensuring that the measures we are announcing are implemented.” In other words, to make us obey the lockdown.

When he spoke to the army the day before he also said: “… you will be looking after them. It is with that I send you to protect our people against the coronavirus. This is not a moment for skop ‘n donner, skit and donner. … When they see you with your guns, they will be fearful. But we want them to know that you are there to be supportive of them. This is the most important moment for the country.” You can read about it here.

So there is one law for all of us: we can only leave our properties if we do essential work, or are going to buy food or medicines. We are not allowed to buy alcohol, because it makes some people behave recklessly. The government’s scientific and medical experts hope all this will stop the virus from spreading so fast that it overwhelms our health system.

But we are ordinary humans, and in this unprecedented situation it is easy to be confused, or disbelieving, or rebellious. And soldiers are trained to give orders, fight and kill – not to be nice! They feel powerful in their camo, armed with deadly weapons. And yes, they should feel strong, and in charge.

On the other side, we, the citizens, do not feel strong. We may be scared, and often, confused about what ‘lockdown’ means. Is it the same in a tiny crowded shack with no services, and a big home in the suburbs? You can be sure the soldiers are ordinary people, like us, under their uniforms. Do they know exactly what lockdown means? No. We are all learning the details as we go along.

As soon as lockdown started, disturbing reports and photos and video clips appeared in the news and on social media. For example, soldiers found some men drinking in a tavern – strictly illegal now! But instead of just shutting down the tavern, and warning or even arresting the people, the soldiers shamed them too, by making them frog-hop down the street.

IOL News reported that the Democratic Alliance has laid a complaint for things like this: “In one video, a man is seen being forced to do squats and push-ups with soldiers watching on. … Other videos have shown soldiers use force in apprehending people who were in their yards and told to go into their homes.” People are complaining too that it is only poor township people who are being made to do these things.

These reports are terrible. Giving humiliating ‘punishments’ as if the soldiers are prefects or PE teachers in a school? It is not illegal to be in your yard. Punishment is only for a court to decide. No-one is allowed to go against our Rights to Human Dignity, and Right to Freedom and Security without going to court – even if we seem to be in the wrong. It’s simple: two wrongs don’t make a right.

Worse, pictures have appeared of soldiers terrorising people in very long shopping and SASSA grant queues. They were forcing them to put space between themselves by aiming their guns and threatening them. Patience and restraint is needed from our soldiers as we all learn to do this thing of ‘physical distancing’.

And worst of all, some soldiers and police have used excessive force and even shot people who were not obeying them. One unarmed man has been shot dead in Vosloorus – his Right to Life needlessly taken. Even if, as the police claim, the man resisted arrest, that does not give them the right to shoot him, let alone kill him!

Trained officers and soldiers, armed with guns, must surely be able to control a situation like this calmly and professionally. There should be no loss of life. Read more here

So, even in these strange times, let’s keep in mind we still have rights, as explained in Chapter 2 of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. We do not want the army to get carried away with its power.

The President has acknowledged that there have been problems. On March 30, he said: “We have made it clear that the task of our security personnel is to support, reassure and comfort our people, and to ensure peace and order is maintained. … They know that they must act within the law at all times and that they must not cause harm to any of our people.

Stories of the use of excessive force are not, however, the only stories about soldiers and the police during lockdown. There was one picture of a soldier helping an older woman with her shopping, and hopefully there have been other instances of the compassionate behaviour that the president called for.

Some citizens have also been breaking the law, and in some cases taking advantage of the lockdown, and have been aggressive towards those who are trying to ensure that we stay safe. This can be difficult for the army and police too – it is not an easy job!

We need to all do our part to keep the peace and to obey the lockdown. As South Africans we have a right to safety and security. The soldiers and police should be helping us to stay safe and secure and not abusing that right in any way, whether it is through humiliating, beating or shooting people. But it is all of our responsibility to try to keep each other safe by sticking to the rules of ‘social distancing’ so that we don’t spread the virus to each other. Help the soldiers help us. Stop the spread and stay at home.

Be aware of your rights and use the details below if you need them.

Places to report human rights violations under lockdown:
• Complaints about the police go to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate:

• Complaints about the army go to the military ombudsman (the person who deals with complaints fairly), General (Retired) Vusi Masondo

• Contact your Ward Councillor or religious leader or a local NPO to help you make any complaints.
Here are some numbers that you can call to report violations by the police and crime.
Reporting crime
SAPS: 08600 10111

Reporting police
IPID has made several hotlines available to report any abuse by police officers during the lockdown.
Eastern Cape: 082 592 9888
Free State: 063 225 6081
Gauteng: 076 455 5718
Limpopo: 078 871 4811
KwaZulu-Natal: 079 895 2741
Mpumalanga: 072 881 4196
Northern Cape: 064 624 8203
North West: 078 163 6874
General: 079 433 2663