Covid-19-related criminalisation in South Africa

Author: Emma Charlene Lubaale

ISSN: 1996-2118
Affiliations: LLB (Makerere) LLM (Pretoria) LLD (Pretoria), Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Rhodes University
Source: South African Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 33 Issue 3, p. 685 – 707


Covid-19, a virus first identified in China, has since December 2019 wreaked its fair share of havoc across the globe. It has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, with no continent spared. In March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the virus a global pandemic and proceeded to call on states to take urgent measures to contain its spread. Governments across continents heeded the call by rolling out measures ranging from lockdowns to regulations giving effect to the measures adopted. On 15 March 2020, South Africa declared a state of national disaster and days later, a national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This lockdown was followed by regulations, all geared towards containing the further spread of this virus. Criminal law came into play in dealing with the violators of the Covid-19 Regulations and while these measures were well-intentioned, multiple issues have hardly been examined from a criminal law perspective. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the limitation of criminalisation as a response to health issues. The article does this by engaging with previous failed attempts to rely on criminalisation to address public health issues; underscoring the effect that some of the regulations have on the criminal law principle of legality and bringing to the fore the unintended consequence of criminalising poverty in a society that is already unequal. In engaging with these three themes, the analysis provides a context through which Covid-19-related criminalisation should be viewed and affords reasons why the criminalisation approach is counterproductive and should not be considered in dealing with future pandemics. The conclusions drawn are instructive to other countries in light of the fact that criminalisation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic was not unique to South Africa.