South Africa: authorities must take immediate measures to protect social and economic rights before nationwide lockdown commences

The ICJ today called on the South African government to take  urgent and immediate measures to ensure the full protection human rights, including  economic, social and cultural rights, in the context of the COVID 19 epidemic.

 The call comes as South Africa’s 21-day nationwide lockdown is poised to commence tomorrow, 26 March 2020. As it stands the human rights of the majority of South African residents are under serious threat.

“The ICJ is calling on the South African government to take effective measures ensure that addressing one human rights crisis does need lead to new human rights pressures” said Arnold Tsunga, Director of or the ICJ Africa Programme. 

“We therefore call on the authorities to take three urgent steps: 1) Declare a moratorium on all evictions; 2) Ensure emergency provision of water to all; and 3) publically repudiate xenophobic statements made by Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni and affirm non-citizens rights to work”.

  • Declaration of a moratorium on all evictions:

In the context of COVID-19, evictions are particularly dangerous and life-threatening. Evictions risk the further spread of COVID-19 and make it impossible to stay at home as the World Health Organization has advised.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, has called for a global ban on evictions worldwide, stressing that: “The logical extension of a logical stay at home policy is a global ban on evictions. There must be no evictions of anyone, anywhere, for any reason. Simply put: a global ban on evictions will save lives”. In South Africa, local social movements and human rights organizations have called for a “moratorium” on evictions, as has Abahlali BaseMjondolo a movement of tens of thousands  of “shack dwellers” across the country.

The ICJ calls on President Ramaphosa to declare a moratorium on evictions immediately before the commencement of the nationwide lockdown.  South Africa must do so to meet its international legal obligations to protect the rights to housing and health.

  • Provision of emergency access to water before the lockdown commences:

Many people in South Africa live in informal settlements and rural settings in which access to water, sanitation and basic services are inadequate or inconsistent. The simple instruction of washing one’s hands to prevent the spread of the virus is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many.

The President announced on 23 March that “emergency water supplies” would be provided in “informal settlements and rural areas”.  However, reports from around the country suggest that with lockdown beginning tomorrow many major informal settlements, including Khayelitsha in Cape Town, still do not have sufficient access to such emergency water.

The ICJ calls on President Ramaphosa to ensure that provision is made for all South Africans to have access to basic services, including water, before the commencement of national lockdown. South Africa must do so to meet its international legal obligations to protect the right to water.

  • Protecting the right to work of “everyone” including non-citizens:

On 24 March 2020 speaking on national television, Minister of Small Business and Development in South Africa Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said that only spaza shops “owned by South Africans and managed and run by South Africans” will be allowed to continue operating during nationwide-lockdown, ostensibly to ensure the quality of goods and food.

This statement is discriminatory and in violation of South Africa’s commitments in terms of its own Constitution and international human rights law, to ensure non-discrimination and equal protection of the law. It risks a resurgence of existing xenophobic sentiment at a time of crisis which South Africa can ill afford and threatens the livelihood of foreign nationals.

The ICJ calls on President Ramaphosa to withdraw the statement immediately and reaffirm the internationally recognized right to equality of non-citizens including their right to work.


Tim Fish Hodgson, ICJ Legal Adviser, e: tim.hodgson(a) ; c: +2782871990

Shaazia Ebrahim, ICJ Media Officer, e: shaazia.ebrahim(a) ; c: +27716706719


The global Covid-19 pandemic has led South African president Cyril Ramaphosa to announce a 21-day nationwide lockdown which will be effective on 26 March at midnight. This follows on from South Africa’s declaration of a “national disaster” on 15 March and the publication of disaster regulations governing the disaster response.

Global consensus on best practice to combat COVID-19, as recommended by the World Health Organization, is for people to stay at home, maintain social distance and intensify hygiene measures including through frequent washing of hands. However, South Africa has well-documented and extremely high levels of poverty and inequality. A number of problems in complying with global best practice in response to COVID-19.

The disaster regulations require that measures taken to combat COVID-19 are implemented “as far as possible, without affecting service delivery in relation to the realisation of the rights” including the rights to housing and basic services, healthcare, social security and education.