• South Africa entered an unprecedented national lockdown on 27 March, to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.
  • The country became home to one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world, with bans on alcohol and cigarette sales.
  • 178 days later, the country enters Alert Level 1, with most restrictions eased.
  • Here's some of the highlights - and unexpected developments - that will be remembered from SA's lockdown.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider South Africa.

South Africa entered an unprecedented national lockdown on 27 March 2020, to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. At its peak, the country saw in excess of 12,000 new Covid-19 infections a day.

Now, 178 days later, the country enters Alert Level 1, after one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world, with bans on alcohol and cigarette sales for months at a stretch.

The illicit cigarette and alcohol trade boomed, as did the prices of pineapples – used by many South Africans to brew their own alcohol.

The initial hard lockdown came as a bit of culture shock to most South Africans. Some regulations left us scratching our heads, while others downright pushed us over the edge.

Business Insider South Africa takes you through six hard months of lockdown in Mzansi- and how some things helped us make it to Level 1.

In the run-up to the start of lockdown...

South Africans descended on grocery stores to stockpile food and hygiene products before D-Day on Friday 27 March, and stocks dwindled fast. 

Woolworths Da Luz in Sea Point.
Woolworths Da Luz in Sea Point. Photo Cathy Upton.

Many retailers appealed to shoppers to shop with care – and consideration for others.

Pick n Pay roped in local artists to appeal to consumers not to panic buy.

Watch the clip here:

See also: Don't be that guy, don't let your friends panic buy - Pick n Pay launches lockdown song

Empty airports, vacant streets, and harbours – what SA looked like from space, days into the initial 21-day hard lockdown ….

From OR Tambo International airport to Cape Town, satellite images show what the country looked like during those first 21 days.

OR Tambo lockdown
O.R Tambo before and after lockdown in South Africa. Source PlanetLabs.

Read more: SA’s lockdown from space: satellite photos show near-abandoned highways and airports

A face mask got the better of President Cyril Ramaphosa as he addressed the nation almost one month into the lockdown…

Ramaphosa addressed the nation in late April to announce a five-level “risk-adjusted strategy” where the country would slowly ease lockdown restrictions starting on 1 May. But putting his mask on turned out to be quite problematic.

We baked a lot of banana bread and started brewing our own booze, once our alcohol stocks ran out as the country’s alcohol ban continued.

Pineapple prices skyrocketed as South Africans – desperate for booze during lockdown – turn their hand to amateur brewing.

See also: Pineapple prices explode as South Africans rush to brew their own beer

pineapple beer

But home brewing also came with plenty of warnings, with numerous videos of exploding pots and bottles doing the rounds. 

See also: Want to make beer from pineapples? If you get it wrong, you may get ill – or maimed

Booze and butts – the thorn in SA’s side

South Africa was the only country in the world to ban both alcohol and tobacco sales  for months. After two hard months, smokers were ready to light up again – legally – after the president announced that cigarettes would be sold once again.

But this was short-lived and the decision was reversed in a briefing by Cogta minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

An unfortunate reference to “when people zol” ….

lead to a clap-back that left Mzansi laughing to a rather catchy tune….

Smugglers set up an extensive network  for moving illicit tobacco products around the country, experts said, and that is how illegal cigarettes kept appearing in spaza shops and corner cafes, even after more than 100 days of sales being banned.

See also: Illegal cigarettes are 'more profitable than heroin'. Here’s how they’re getting into SA

On 1 June, alcohol sales resumed, subject to strict regulations. And many could not contain their joy:

But it was short-lived. Without warning – or any time to replenish stock - the alcohol ban was reinstated, with immediate effect on Sunday, 12 July.

Both bans were lifted on 18 August.

WFH – working remotely became the new normal...

work from home

Companies were forced to move corporate operations from offices to makeshift workplaces in living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms across South Africa when lockdown came into effect. During the initial hard lockdown, only essential workers were allowed to go to work.

Zoom calls and Teams meetings - often interrupted by the occasional child or pet - quickly became the new normal. 

Some companies reopened as restrictions began to lift, but many have continued to allow employees to work from home.

As we now enter Level 1, more and more companies are opening up their offices.

Businesses are required to comply with strict new health and safety regulations to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

See also: New Covid-19 rules: What your workplace needs to look like

However, large corporates are reporting a marked boost in productivity, along with other benefits, that will probably result in many adopting a “blended” model of allowing employees to work from both the office and home in future. 

See also: SA companies are seeing surprising benefits to remote work - and now plan for a 'blended' model

No roast chicken or pies; blankets and duvets, but no curtains – regulations that had us scratching our heads

Woolworths rotisserie chicken

Food regulations, and the banning of food for delivery - South Africa was one of the few countries worldwide to insist on this - was a hot potato from the very beginning. 

But banning the sales of roast chicken, pies and bread baked in store was a step too far for many South Africans.

Many big retailers were rebuked in the initial hard lockdown for their "failure to comply" by keeping hot-food stations open.

See also: Pies and roast chicken banned at Woolworths and other stores - will frozen meals be next?

Flip-flops no, balaclavas maybe

As the country moved to Alert Level 4, and we were finally allowed to buy clothing, there was a collective sigh of relief.

However, only items explicitly listed under disaster regulations were allowed. Any retailer caught going beyond the list faced severe penalties.

South Africans struggled to figure out just what was covered, and what was not – as the official opposition called for trade, industry and competition minister Ebrahim Patel to be fired for the "Alice in Wonderland" list.

You could buy shirts – but only to wear under a jacket/coat or knitwear; crop bottom pants were also allowed – as long as you wore boots and leggings with them.

See also: Here is the entire list of clothing and bedding you can now buy again under new Level 4 rules


Places of worship were allowed to open on June 1, as the country entered Alert Level 3. But the rules were anything but clear. 

While face masks were (and remain) mandatory “for any religious activity”, those preaching or leading worship could remove them to do so - but the distance between persons had to be increased to 2.5 metres.

You could also not sing any hymns – solo performances only, at a distance of course.

And while regulations stated there was to be no touching at all, Ramaphosa suggested religions would decide for themselves what high-risk rituals they had to keep.

See also: The rules for lockdown worship ban live hymns – and touching is entirely out

The reopening – and closing – of SA’s schools

Schools, in accordance with initial hard lockdown regulations, shut their doors on 18 March.

South African Grades 7 and 12 returned to the classroom on 1 June, as the class of 2020 got back to the drawing board after two months at home.

Other learners were meant to follow in due course, as the lower grades were phased in. However, schools were then closed once again, during the infection peak from 27 July for four weeks.

All grades returned to the classroom on 24 August – subject to strict Covid-19 protocol for schools, including mandatory mask-wearing and screening procedures.

lockdown school
A Cape Town pupil waits to be screened, before returning to the classroom after 5 long months. (Supplied)

The #JerusalemaChallenge became an unofficial global anthem during the lockdown

It’s unclear how the Jerusalema became a lockdown hit – but it now has over 110 million views on YouTube.

The song was initially released by DJ and record producer Master KG, and features South African vocalist Nomcebo.

South Africans across the country – and people around the globe – have joined the dance challenge on TikTok and other social media platforms.

A Jerusalema challenge at a Shoprite in Limpopo  was even used as a ruse for a wedding proposal.

Hospital workers took up the challenge.

Here, nurses at Karl Bremer Hospital in Cape Town take to the (hospital) dance floor.

For more videos click here.

Even Sun City celebrated its reopening with staff taking up the #JerusalemaChallenge - with a drone filming the dance.

Level 1 reality

From Monday, there are now fewer restrictions on South Africans.

Only one industry, night clubs, remains entirely banned. The cigarette ban is long gone, booze will be available up to midnight in bars, and concerts are allowed again, even indoors.

But some things remain banned, and can come with jail time - including staying out past midnight, being a spectator at a sporting match and not wearing a mask in a public space.

See also: Level 1 started at midnight – here’s what remains illegal

Compiled by Estrelita Moses

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