JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – “Go home – I could arrest you for that.”
The blunt message came from the policeman armed with a gun and a night stick. It can have left no doubt in the mind of its recipient – a citizen deemed to be breaching South Africa’s tough new anti-Covid rules.
The country’s security forces stepped up checks in Johannesburg streets on Tuesday evening, under orders to implement what the authorities called a “zero-tolerance approach” to violators.
The restrictions wind back the clock to the early months of the coronavirus pandemic in South Africa.
Announced on Monday by President Cyril Ramaphosa, they include a new ban on alcohol sales, the cause of accidents and violence that strain hospital resources.
The wearing of masks in public space has become mandatory, and potentially punishable by jail.
Bars and restaurants are being ordered to close from 8pm, which is followed an hour later by a 9pm-6am curfew.
Ramaphosa – like other leaders grappling with the pandemic’s second wave – pointed the finger at social events and the holiday period for sapping vigilance.
“We have let down our guard, and unfortunately we are now paying the price,” he said.
Coronavirus has claimed more than 27,500 lives in South Africa, the highest on the continent. The country also became the first to notch up more than a million recorded cases, in a population of 59 million.
As the curfew began on Tuesday, several dozen police cars fanned out across rundown districts in Johannesburg, a city of five million people, to get the message across.
As the patrols passed by, shadows flitted away into the darkness. A young girl and a boy were captured in the car headlights, but by the time the police got out of their vehicle, they had already disappeared.
Further up the street, a dozen police cars formed a roadblock, stopping any traffic and checking the driver.
“From 9 o’clock, there is no movement,” a policeman told the driver of a minibus taxi.
“Wear your mask, chief,” he ordered the driver before getting on board to carry out a search for booze.
GRUBBY MASK WITH SEQUINS
The driver was then given a body search, questioned rapidly in Zulu and joined others who were being detained in the police wagon.
“Those ones are going to spend the night at the police station. Some will be free by tomorrow morning, others will go to court,” the policeman said.
In the midst of all this, a homeless person passed by, laden with plastic bottles and cans, with a rosary around his neck.
“You know what time? You know the new regulations?” a policewoman called out. “What if I give you a fine – you don’t have money to pay.”
Slowly, the man reached into his trouser pocket and drew out a grubby facemask incongruously decorated with sequins.
He donned the mask, made a gesture with his hand, picked up his bag and moved on, a receding figure in the flashing police lights.