On 27 March 2020, South Africa went into lockdown then days following the identification of the first case of COVID-19. Its introduction prompted disquiet. In Wuhan, site of the very first lockdown in January 2020, complaints of domestic violence to one police station had reportedly tripled in comparison to the previous year; in some European countries calls to domestic violence helplines had increased while ‘Counting Dead Women’ claimed that the number of women killed in the UK by their intimate partners had doubled during the first three weeks of their lockdown.
Anticipating a similar surge, the South African government began extensively advertising the Department of Social Development’s (DSD) helpline, the Gender-based Violence Command Centre (GBVCC). Shelters were declared an essential service and required to operate during the lockdown, as were the courts, needed to grant protection orders in terms of the Domestic Violence Act. On 2 April the worst appeared to have been confirmed: 87 000 calls related to gender-based violence (GBV) had been made to the police in the first week of the lockdown, according to the Minister of Police. By 23 April, the head of Salvation Army’s shelter in Tshwane, Gauteng was stating that she had received an “astounding” number of calls for accommodation.
The reality was more complicated.
On 5 April, three days after his shocking announcement, the Minister corrected himself: the figure of 87 000, he explained, referred to the total number of calls made to the GBVCC for all of 2019. And in the Western Cape, unlike in Gauteng, shelters stated they had not witnessed a significant increase in the number of women seeking their sanctuary. What, then, had happened during the lockdown? How frequently had violence occurred and what forms had it taken? More, how had these rates of violence translated into the need and use of shelters? And what, in fact, had been women’s experience of help-seeking during the lockdown?
These kinds of questions largely disappeared under the weight of that figure of 87 000 and the idea that domestic violence had escalated to the status of a second pandemic. Bringing them back into focus is the aim of the research project ‘Care and Support in a Time of Epidemic.’
Brief 1 introduces the project as a whole by collating and reviewing the available evidence for violence during the lockdown. Data from three points of service were considered:
• the GBVCC – with information drawn from the media, the DSD, as well as the GBVCC
• health facilities – published reviews of admission records provided some information about the use of health services
• the police – data around reporting to the police were extracted from the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) quarterly crime reports for the financial year 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021, and supplemented with some of Minister Cele’s media briefings.