“The night Cyril Ramaphosa became a wartime president” is how a leading columnist for South Africa’s News24 website described the South African leader’s decision to impose a nationwide lockdown to defeat coronavirus.
The three-week lockdown, which started just after midnight, is unprecedented.
It is the first time since South Africa became a democracy in 1994 that a president had stripped away the most basic freedoms of citizens – to walk, to shop, to socialise and to congregate for prayer without hindrance.
“The law is that you stay at home. The exception is for survival: food [and] health, with security forces making sure that the law is enforced,” government minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said.
The government has even banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, as well as jogging or walking dogs, during the lockdown – warning that offenders risked being prosecuted, and either fined or jailed.
This goes further than anything that the apartheid regime threw at the country’s population during its almost five decade-long oppressive rule.
But the hard-won freedoms that South Africans attained after defeating apartheid have been lost a mere 25 years later as they – like many other nations in the world – cede their rights to governments to fight what UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called an “invisible enemy”.
Governments elsewhere in the region have not imposed such stringent measures.
Fearing that Zimbabweans will flee to its territory for treatment, South Africa’s government has decided to complete the construction of a fence along the main border of the two nations within the next few weeks.
“At the border post now, you’ve got health inspectors and you’ve got environmental professionals and they are doing the testing and screening at the border. But if somebody just walks over the border, there are no such facilities,” South Africa’s Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille said.
The curbing of illegal migration has been a long-standing objective of Mr Ramaphosa’s government.
It has now used the special powers it took for itself after declaring the virus a national disaster to build the 1.8m (6ft) high fence quickly.
Mr Ramaphosa clearly believes – like many other world leaders – that draconian measures are needed to defeat the virus.
“Without decisive action, the number of people infected will rapidly increase from a few hundred to tens of thousands, and within a few weeks, to hundreds of thousands,” he warned, when announcing the lockdown.
“This is extremely dangerous for a population like ours, with a large number of people with suppressed immunity because of HIV and TB, and high levels of poverty and malnutrition,” he added.