WASHINGTON - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has ordered the deployment of 73,000 soldiers to enforce a lockdown in the country’s fight against the coronavirus. The move is unprecedented in the modern history of the country and includes active duty soldiers, reservists and auxiliary troops.
“Your mission is to save lives,” Ramaphosa told soldiers in a speech in late March when the country’s lockdown began. “We are not the only country waging war against an invisible enemy — coronavirus. In you, our people have a defense mechanism.”
Across Africa, security forces are being called upon to seal borders, enforce quarantines and maintain order. The measures are viewed with mixed emotions on a continent where, throughout history, military and police forces have been used to control the civilian population instead of protect them.
There have already been instances of violence. On April 12, soldiers from the South African National Defense Force were accused of beating a man to death in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg. The man was reportedly violating the country’s lockdown by drinking outdoors.
He was the ninth person killed in April by South African security forces, according to the Sunday Independent, a newspaper based in Gauteng province.
John Siko, the director of Burnham Global, a security consultant firm based in Dubai, said most militaries on the African continent are not trained in maintaining “public order.” Infantry training that teaches soldiers to subdue an enemy or retake a position could have tragic consequences when applied to a civilian population.
“How many places are even sending guys into squatter camps or other informal settlements around the continent, potentially with live rounds; it doesn’t take much to set off a real disaster here,” Siko told VOA.
Siko said security forces need more training for missions that may require crowd control or other duties. Some militaries within the continent and with extensive peacekeeping experience create mock villages with paid actors to test the restraint of soldiers before they are deployed.
“There’s a great deal of desire and necessity for public order training to make sure that guys can respond in a human rights-respective manner when this does happen,” he said.
Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, a physician and director of the Prevent Epidemics team at Resolve to Save Lives, a global public health organization with operations in Africa, agrees. He said the military has certain capabilities that can be useful, when deployed in coordination with public health and medical systems.
“Most militaries, when they get involved in disasters, they’re not so well trained on, say infectious disease events,” he said. “It’s important that training is in place, if the military is going to get involved to protect the military, too — that they understand the risks of them getting involved in an infectious disease event. And that’s all based on science.”
Siko said that foreign training often focuses on the military, but assistance is also needed to help the gendarmes and police forces most often called upon to interact with civilians.
“So, I think the next few weeks are going to be quite critical,” Siko said. “Unfortunately, I do think it’s a bit too late for, you know, Western or donor responses to have much impact here. But it has to be strategic longer term. This is something that I think Washington, the [Trump] administration and others need to really be considering moving forward.”
The White House press office says President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Ramaphosa Thursday. The press office did not mention South Africa’s troop deployment, saying only that Trump offered additional assistance to South Africa to support its efforts to battle the pandemic.