Arrest in the time of Covid-19 a terrifying experience

Image: 123RF/ scanrail

Daily Dispatch business correspondent Ted Keenan was arrested after returning to SA from Botswana. Here he tells his story.  

Being arrested is not a pleasant experience, especially if it involves accusations of flouting the rules of the Disaster Management Act.

More frightening is that the police officer involved refused to accept a police-issued travel document, and threatened me with various options — one being 21 days in quarantine in a police station-linked centre, without dedicated Covid-19  facilities.

Captain Hilton Barry, office commanding at Rouxville police station in the Free State, effected the arrest.

I asked, in a written question after the event, why Barry had not issued a travel document (in the light of the existing document being inadequate).  Instead he chose to send me and a travelling partner to a charge office full of people, many coughing and none masked.

At the time of going to press Barry had not responded.

But I should take a few steps back.

On Saturday, March 20, I travelled with a party of six to Botswana to visit the country’s wildlife areas. I passed through the exit point at Groblersbrug and into Botswana at Martin’s Drift.

The group and I were screened for, and found free of Covid-19 symptoms, and issued a 30-day travel permit.

SA was already focusing on travel from high-risk areas, but for Botswana it was business as usual, with no reported Covid-19 cases.

After visiting several remote areas the final destination was the Makgadikgadi Pans.

There was no digital communication and the group was unaware of SA’s status change from disaster to lockdown, or Botswana’s imminent similar actions (a few days later).

The group travelled out of the pans on Thursday April 2, intending to spend two days on the road back to Groblersbrug. That changed when I got a cellphone message regarding the lockdown.

The group raced back to the border, was cleared through Botswana immigration and entered SA at 3.45pm.

We were screened by health officials for symptoms, cleared and headed for immigration, which had locked down at 3pm.

There was confusion between the departments of health and immigration (on whether the party should pass through the no man’s area to the South African side).

After contacting Limpopo's home affairs manager, Albert Matsaung, he arranged for health officials to issue us with affidavits. After a six-hour delay, these were signed by police at Groblersbrug stating we should proceed through the border, get rechecked at a Covid-19 station at the Modimolle hospital, and then return home to self-quarantine.

We reported to the hospital, were cleared, and went our separate ways.

I travelled through Limpopo and Gauteng and entered the Free State.

SAP officers at numerous roadblocks accepted the document. I learnt on Friday April 3 that others in the group were similarly allowed to proceed, some stopping in Gauteng, and one travelling through the Free State to KwaZulu-Natal.

Arriving at the Rouxville-Aliwal North border between the Free State and Eastern Cape, I encountered Barry at the Free State checkpoint. He said the officers in Limpopo, Gauteng and Free State had misinterpreted the SAP document, but would not say why.

He gave the following options: return to Gauteng; find private accommodation in the Free State that would allow self-quarantine; be quarantined at a police facility in or near Rouxville — which he said would be very uncomfortable — or be arrested.

I tried to negotiate but it was pointless; he said he had instructions from a police advocate in Bloemfontein to take the actions he deemed necessary.

He would not divulge the advocate’s name or give any details. As every other avenue was blocked, arrest was the only option, otherwise I could have remained indefinitely at the roadblock.

Escorted to Rouxville, I was subjected to the arrest routine, including finger printing.

The “Warning to Appear in Court” document cites the Disaster Management Act, specifically a “failure to confine yourself”.

When I returned to the border, Barry was no longer there. Another officer said that as I had already been arrested I should proceed over the bridge into the Eastern Cape.

Here the officials checked and approved the same document, and I completed the journey to East London.

In the time of Covid-19 I accept that Barry, despite his subtle threats, was doing what he perceived to be his duty, despite the different interpretation of some aspect of the official document by colleagues from three other provinces.

My being caught in Covid-19 chaos, with rules that change daily, is totally insignificant in the big picture.

Many thousands, trapped outside the country, are facing the same predicament. However, that does not make it any less terrifying, especially Barry’s threat of locking me up in a Rouxville facility where getting the virus might have been  tough to avoid.  

The story is incomplete — I have to appear in Rouxville’s magistrate court on May 19. A stiff fine may be the least I should anticipate.

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