South Africa in lockdown as Coronavirus cases spike

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 23-27 March

By Xolisa Phillip

Posted on Tuesday, 24 March 2020 12:01
Shoppers queue to stock up on groceries at a Pick n Pay store
Shoppers queue to stock up on groceries ahead of a 21 day lockdown to contain COVID-19, in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

President Cyril Ramaphosa has taken the drastic decision to shut down South Africa for 21 days, effective on Thursday when the clock strikes midnight, in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Ramaphosa struck the right note with both critics and detractors alike when he made the announcement late Monday night during a televised address to South Africans.

Pandemic now a reality

“While this measure will have a considerable impact on people’s livelihoods, on the life of our society and on our economy, the human cost of delaying this action would be far greater,” the South African president told the nation.

Three weeks ago, South Africa had reported zero COVID-19 cases.

That changed two weeks ago, when a group of 10 citizens returning from a holiday in Italy reported that some among them had tested positive for the virus.

A week later, the country had 61 documented cases of COVID-19.

By the time Ramaphosa made his address Monday night, the figure had reached 402 confirmed cases, the highest in the region and on the continent.

READ MORE: Africa faces a coronavirus catastrophe

State of disaster

Last Sunday, Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster allowing the government to publish regulations to curb the hours of liquor establishments and prohibit gatherings of more than 100 people.

Nationwide, schools closed their doors but are set to reopen in the middle of April.

Tertiary institutions put contingency plans in place, including digital classrooms, to salvage the academic year.

Furthermore, some universities ordered students to vacate residences and scrapped graduation ceremonies.

The state of disaster also meant in-bound flights from high-risk countries would no longer be permitted to disembark in South Africa.

In addition, the country revoked visas to nationals from identified high-risk states, mostly in Europe and Asia, where the pandemic has ravaged thousands.

South Africa closed 35 of its 53 land ports of entry, and bolstered screening measures at its major airports.

Curve keeps on climbing

Despite the state of disaster, the country’s COVID-19 curve has been on an upward trajectory.

In a further sign of how hard hit South Africa has been, a flight from the country last week was turned back from Kotoka International in Accra, Ghana.

The highest number of confirmed  COVID-19 cases in terms of geographic spread:

  • Gauteng (207)
  • Western Cape (100)
  • KwaZulu-Natal (60).

Complete lockdown

Since the weekend, rumours have been circulating about a national lockdown.

Initially, talk of a complete shut down was shot down as fake news.

However, in his address Monday night, President Ramaphosa confirmed what many had suspected would be the latest state of play in the country.

Earlier in the day, military vehicles and personnel were spotted in northern Johannesburg in the first sign that the escalation in confirmed COVID-19 cases might lead to drastic action.

However, the restrictions on movement do not apply to everyone as Ramaphose explained:

  • Health workers, emergency personnel, police, traffic officers, military medical personnel, soldiers and others necessary for South Africa’s response to the pandemic are exempted from the lockdown.
  • Workers in the production, distribution and supply of food and basic goods, essential banking services, the maintenance of power, water and telecommunications services, laboratory services, and the provision of medical and hygiene products are also exempted.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: “It would be suicidal for Africa not to learn the lessons from Europe.”

Soft landing for small businesses

To cushion the economic blow from the lockdown, the government has established a Solidarity Fund, to which it has contributed R150m in seed capital.

The Oppenheimer and Rupert families – the richest in South Africa – have each pledged R1bn to assist small businesses and their employees, Ramaphosa revealed last night.

Other measures include support packages to distressed firms, a special compensation mechanism for employees who are at risk of being downsized and fast-tracking tax repayments from the South African Revenue Service.

The President’s announcement has been welcomed, with many commending him for acting swiftly and decisively.

“The next few days are crucial,” stated Ramaphosa.

READ MORE: East Africa’s battle with Coronavirus

Southern Africa overview

Outside South Africa’s borders, the virus is making its way into the regional countries.


Coronavirus now poses a risk to Botswana’s hunting season, according to reports from AFP.

The country, which is heavily dependent on tourism, has also imposed travel bans on high-risk countries and imposed restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people.

Its president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, is reportedly in self-isolation following travel to Namibia.

Botswana has no confirmed cases.


Last week, Namibia documented three confirmed cases of COVID-19 and declared the pandemic an emergency.

It has adopted measures similar to those introduced in South Africa in terms of closing ports of entry and imposing travel restrictions on high-risk states.


In Zimbabwe, the first COVID-19-related death was reported.

Last week, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced travel restrictions and emergency measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.


On Sunday night, Mozambique reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

In response, the country has suspended a cross-border train service.


There are currently three confirmed coronavirus cases in Zambia.

The government has placed restrictions on public gatherings.

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