The enforcement of "lockdown" by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 27 March brings with it much uncertainty and unchartered territory, in all aspects of life. The full extent of this worldwide pandemic is yet to be seen, understood or experienced. Uncertainty is at the forefront of the thoughts of most people.
For many however, the terrifying fear of hunger, isolation and restrictive living conditions or the addictive need for cigarettes, alcohol or worse, is far-reaching and in some dire instances a ticking time-bomb. This makes for a sad and unfortunate trigger for domestic and gender-based violence.
The Government in directing "lockdown" in an effort to "flatten the curve" of COVID-19 infections in the country unfortunately exposes many to the evils of domestic and gender-based violence.
Many will struggle to make the necessary adjustments imposed to mitigate the spread of the virus. Concerns as to how jobs will be retained, families fed, housing bonds and loans re-paid will be paramount in people's minds; and for many, with a guaranteed loss of income. These Government imposed preventative measures are forcing all to stay indoors, and where applicable in their own homes.
Millions of people in South Africa are confined to single rooms, cramped apartments or worse. The most unfortunate are in shelters in informal settlements, or even on the streets. These circumstances provide not only no form of social distancing but also no personal space of any kind.
Being subjected to such confined spaces is difficult and restrictive to most. Where circumstances are already tenuous or compromised in some form in the living environment, the combination is all the more volatile and dangerous. Tensions are guaranteed to be heightened and stretched, with the thresholds of patience under severe strain. These negative factors could easily increase aggression and volatility between people. At times like this the norms of reason are severely compromised and irrationality and intolerance prevails.
South African Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, recently welcomed the general decrease in serious and violent crimes, however in the first five days of the "lockdown" 2 300 gender-based violence crimes were registered. This number is an alarming 37% higher than the average weekly figures. Sadly, it is safe to assume, this documented figure is significantly less than the true figures of those who suffer in silence or are too afraid to lay complaints; as is always the case in matters such as these.
While both men and women are the victims of gender-based violence and domestic violence, the statistics show that women and children remain the primary targets. Deputy Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and People with Disabilities, Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize has expressed anger and disappointment towards the toxic patriarchal mindset at play, particularly in these volatile pandemic times.
Alcohol is a major contributor to South Africa's high levels of domestic violence. The Government identifies this and has placed a ban on the sale of all alcohol during the "lockdown" period. This respite however, may in fact be a double-edged sword. Circumvention measures like stockpiling ahead of the "lockdown" or resorting to illegal or blackmarket supplies proves alcohol still seems a-plenty. The old adage "where there is a will there is a way" always prevails. Other good intentions to use the opportunity of going "cold turkey" could similary have dire effects as the need for alcohol kicks in and along with it irrational behaviour and paranoia.
So what remedies are avaiable to victims of domestic and gender-based violence?
The Courts are closed, however in terms of the regulations [8(1)(c)] released on 26 March 2020, the Courts remain open to hear applications for interim protection and harassment orders. Victims are urged not to suffer in silence but rather approach the SAPS and these specialised sections of the Courts.
Shelters for victims of gender-based violence also remain open and the usual processes required to gain entry into the shelters have been temporarily suspended. It is now sufficient for victims to be processed into the system during "lockdown" merely with the provision of a social worker's report.
The COVID-19 South African online news and information portal in association with the Department of Health and NHI (sacoronavirus.co.za) has a dedicated Gender-Based Violence Command Centre accessible by telephone or email if needing to lay complaints.
Domestic violence, which of course includes gender-based violence, comes in all shapes and forms. Chapter 1 of the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 defines "domestic violence"
- physical abuse;
- sexual abuse;
- emotional, verbal and psychological abuse;
- economic abuse;
- damage to property;
- entry into the complainant's residence without consent, where the parties do not share the same residence; or
- any other controlling or abusive behaviour towards the complainant,
Where such conduct harms, or may cause imminent harm to the safety, health or wellbeing of the complainant,
It is clear from the Act that the definition of domestic violence stretches far and wide. Victims are urged to speak out. Perpetrators who are not identified are empowered further to to continue their actions with no form of accountability or responsibility.
The process to obtain an interim protection order is simple and "user-friendly". A victim needs no legal background to complete the standard application forms. For those with financial constraints an attorney is not necessarily needed to obtain an interim order from the Court. It would, however, be wise to consult an attorney in assisting in the next step when the victim could be confronted by the perpetrator's version of events. This would follow the return date from the Court.
When "lockdown" as we as South Africans experience it will come to an end is anyone's guess. What is a given is the devastating effects of the pandemic and the extended period of time it is expected to hold over the world. Victims must act rather sooner than later in obtaining interim protection orders during these "lockdown" times. Victims must not wait until the consequences are to grave to be remedied.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.