Safety divide fears in South Africa during lockdown

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With South Africa into day one of 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 homes could leave township residents vulnerable to crime and violence, rights activists warned.

“All South Africans are vulnerable to crime, 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.

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

Inequality in cities could be further exacerbated by a rise in coronavirus scams, supermarket robberies and domestic violence during the lockdown, with the central bank warning 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 sharing similar stories,” said Ozanne Mac Adam, a co-ordinator for private security company TRSS Reaction.

South Africa reported the most coronavirus cases in sub-Saharan Africa – over a thousand – and public health experts worry the virus could overwhelm the health system if infection rates rise.

“Communities are alarmed and nervous about the virus and about criminals taking advantage of the situation,” Mac Adam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Our clients in residential estates and shopping centres 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 UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Some fear the country’s lockdown 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 Alexandra home to 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.

Police minister Bheki Cele told reporters the SA National Defence Force would increase foot patrols, roadblocks and vehicle checkpoints.

Noting 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 as well,” he said. “I just hope when we leave our shacks to get food, we aren’t seen as loiterers or criminals.”