A closed Durban beach on 16 December 2020. (Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)
  • South Africa's newly updated Alert Level 3 rules have a strict definition of what constitutes a "beach".
  • Unless you are on private property, you can't set foot on sand (or rocks or pebbles) within a hundred metres of the high-tide mark.
  • For river mouths, the "beach" can extend up to a kilometre inland.
  • You can probably swim in the ocean – if you can get there.
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* This article has been updated below

South Africa now has a detailed definition of what constitutes a beach – for the purpose of banning access to them – and there is no leeway for setting foot on sand, but if you can avoid that, you can probably swim (though only once you are 100 metres from the high-tide mark.)

On Tuesday, co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma published rules, back-dated to Monday, implementing the updates to Alert Level 3 announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa. That includes a curfew ending at 05:00 rather than 06:00, and the closure of land border posts for all but a short list of people.

UPDATE | You can probably cross the beach to get to the sea – but you can’t play until you are 100m out

The amendment also inserts definitions for "beach", and "estuary".

Beaches remain closed to most – but not all – public use in hotspots, but there was initial confusion on exactly what that means, with police on occasion relying on municipal by-law definitions – or simply using their judgement on where a beach starts and ends.

Now disaster regulations themselves lay out what is covered by the beach ban.

See also | You can still visit any beach in SA for about R150 – but you can’t swim

The full definition reads:

'beach' means the sandy, pebbly or rocky shore–
(a) between the high-water mark and low-water mark adjacent to–
(i) the sea; or
(ii) an estuary mouth extending 1000 meters [sic] inland from the mouth; and
(b) within 100 metres of the high-water mark, excluding private property, including the sea and estuary themselves adjacent to the beach.

For "estuary", the disaster regulations refer to the National Environmental Management: Integrated Coastal Management Act, which contains this definition:

'estuary' means a body of surface water–
(a) that is part of a water course that is permanently or periodically open to the sea;
(b) in which a rise and fall of the water level as a result of the tides is measurable at spring tides when the water course is open to the sea; or
(c) in respect of which the salinity is measurably higher as a result of the influence of the sea

The combined effect of the definitions is that the ban extends to sand, rocks, and pebbles, but not any man-made surfaces such as piers or walkways. 

Though the ban reaches up to 100 metres beyond the high-water mark, that excludes private property, so privately-owned picnic spots along rivers close to the ocean are not affected. That is in line with other exceptions, such as for botanical gardens, which broadly allow the use of places that have access control and so can be held responsible for limiting the number of people and for enforcing social-distancing rules.

The definition also implies that the use of the ocean itself, for swimming or other use, is allowed. But the fact that the sea is available for use, albeit only from 100 metres out, may mean you can may, in fact, cross the beach.

* This article was updated to reflect new opinion that swimming may only be legal at least 100 metres from the high-tide mark, and that crossing the beach to reach open ocean may be allowed.

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