Cape Town - Police have drawn sharp criticism over their relaxed treatment of beach protesters who have violated lockdown regulations.
This is compared to their heavy-handed approach in using water cannons to disperse the vulnerable and people with disabilities queueing outside the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) offices in Bellville.
A 42-year-old man was fined at Muizenberg beach on Saturday for failing to comply with a police instruction while a surfer was released on a warning after being arrested on the same day at Bloubergstrand beach.
Another surfer who took to the water at Muizenberg beach on Sunday was fined for a violation of the National Disaster Act.
Police say that after “careful consideration of the situation, the unit members peacefully removed the crowd from the beach, with no incidents reported”.
This was in sharp contrast to police action in Worcester when they were captured assaulting two men with a sjambok for apparently not wearing a mask.
More than 200 people descended on a number of beaches at the weekend including Muizenberg, Bloubergstrand and Camps Bay and enjoyed the sea after organisations including The Woke Nation and #EndLockdownSA circulated flyers challenging the National Disaster Act and asked people to protest in favour of the beaches being reopened under adjusted alert level 3 lockdown regulations.
Video: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)
No physical distancing was observed at the demonstrations, with few wearing masks.
Police Minister Bheki Cele’s spokesperson Lirandzu Themba said on Sunday the minister had noted the protests and was in communication with Western Cape police leadership about developments.
Provincial police spokesperson Novela Potelwa said the fines ranged between R1 000 to R1 500.
“Public Order Police members were deployed to various beaches. The police observed the situation and issued warnings to the groups. Considering the number or variables, police monitored the situation for some time from a distance. After careful consideration of the situation, the unit members peacefully removed the crowd from the beach, with no incidents reported,” said Potelwa.
But this has angered many people, who have questioned why police used water cannons to enforce physical distancing on mostly disabled people outside Sassa offices in Bellville on January 15.
Potelwa said the two situations could not be compared.
“The investigation into what transpired and circumstances leading to the use of a water cannon is being proved internally,” she said.
Public Order Police were called out to the offices to assist with crowd management.
Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu was also at the offices to assess the situation following the lapsing of thousands of temporary disability grants and care dependency grants.
Activist and Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity (AFRE) member Axolile Notywala said: “This has made me and many other people angry because we saw police apply different standards when responding to demonstrations.
“We have protested peacefully for houses and other social issues and when we refused, pepper spray, stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons were used. People have been assaulted and have criminal records for being part of demonstrations. We are not saying force should have been applied but we are saying let there be equal treatment and response.”
Political parties have also voiced their anger, with the EFF calling for the law enforcement officers and police members who were deployed and “failed” to enforce the law on the beaches to be suspended.
The party’s provincial chairperson, Melikhaya Xego, said: “On the part of the law enforcement officers and SAPS, this is a clear dereliction of duty. They failed to uphold the rule of law, thus allowing lawlessness to undermine established Covid-19 regulations.
“Based on the previous experiences, it is clear to us that if the majority of these protesters were black they would have been arrested and shot at with stun grenades and water cannons by the police and law enforcement, but because the majority are white the police did nothing.
“If the police were able to use water cannons to enforce Covid-19 regulations on pensioners and people with special needs in Bellville, why did not they use the same strategy on these law breakers,” said Xego.
ANC Western Cape convener Lerumo Kalako called on provincial police commissioner Yolisa Matakata to order an investigation and charge the organisers of protests.
Kalako said the party considers Saturday’s beach protests as a deliberate move to undermine the national government’s attempt to save the economy and South Africa from being further devastated by Covid-19.
GOOD secretary-general Brett Herron said that with infections reducing and pressure on the healthcare system easing, attention must turn to which of the restrictions can now be eased. However, the conduct of the protesters was unlawful and irresponsible and law enforcement should have intervened.
“We cannot allow people to pick and choose which laws they will abide by and which ones don't apply to them. Any law enforcement agency that stood by and allowed the law to be broken should be held accountable.”
City Law Enforcement spokesperson Wayne Dyason said people had the right to protest.