By Kotie Geldenhuys
It is early in the morning and the residents of a small town wake up to the smell of smoke and the chanting of protesters. Upon trying to go to work, residents find their roads barricaded, shops looted and a school almost burnt down. Smoke fills the air and flashing blue lights indicate that the police are at hand to keep a close eye on the protesters and, if necessary, to keep them under control with water cannons and tear smoke. Some residents join the protest march, others simply turn around and phone the office to tell them they can’t get to work.
Protest actions have formed part of the South African landscape for many years, and are, in essence, not bad since they give people an opportunity to express their problems and concerns. Mass demonstrations act as a potent weapon in the hands of people who, as individuals, have little power and are seldom listened to by those in power. It is exactly because such protests cause inconvenience and disruption and sometimes limit the rights of others, that they are noticed and may have an impact.
In recent years we’ve seen various forms of protests ranging from labour; pre-election; service delivery; land; #PravinMustStay; #FeesMustFall; #ZumaMustFall to anti-racism protests. The vast majority of these protests were peaceful, but when they turn violent, the problems start. Mulaudzi and Lancaster (2017) argue that protests rarely start out violent, but escalate into being violent as people's frustrations increase when formal ways of registering problems, such as by writing letters, or trying to meet public representatives or State officials, fail.
Public violence is defined as “the unlawful and intentional performance by a number of persons of an act or acts which assumes serious proportions and are intended to disturb public peace and order by violent means, or to infringe the rights of another” (www.saps.gov.za/faqdetail.php?fid=9).
Duncan (2016) argues that disruptive and violent protests have often been conflated. However, there is a distinction between disruptive protests which involve breaching established “order”, including peacefully, while violent protests involve attacks on people or appreciable damage to property.
Recent violent protests in Eldorado Park, Ennerdale and surrounding areas in the south of Johannesburg as well as in Coligny in the North West province have made headlines. It almost seems as if violent public unrest will occupy a permanent spot in our news. But why do we experience so much violence? During an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) seminar about violent protests which was held on 15 June 2016 in Pretoria, Tsholofelo Sesanga from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) argued that violence is regarded by many South Africans as a normal way to deal with conflict. Violence is understood as a language that allows people who feel that they are not being heard, to express themselves and make themselves heard. “If we are violent, we will be better recognised. Through the language called violence communities communicate their grievances to government and other role-players,” she said. In other words, public protests give a voice to the poor, but sadly it often results in considerable loss which makes the poor suffer even more.
The right to protest
Section 17 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 gives people the right to protest, demonstrate or strike in public, how-ever it makes it clear that this right must not infringe on the rights of others. The Regulation of Gatherings Act 205 of 1993 provides the legal framework for this right and states that “every person has the right to assemble with other persons and to express his/her views on any matter freely in public and to enjoy the protection of the State while doing so”. Act 205 of 1993 allows protests to be prohibited if they cause serious disruption. Even then, the Act states that municipalities and the police must consult with protesters before dispersing them.
Act 205 of 1993 requires from organisers to give notice of a gathering to the responsible officer not later than seven days before the date of the gathering. This officer is then required to negotiate in good faith with organisers in order to try and ensure that the intended gathering will not cause unnecessary disruptions to traffic and access to work. The officer can impose reasonable conditions on a gathering to ensure that it remains peaceful and to prevent unnecessary disruption. However, in terms of section 5 of Act 205 of 1993, a gathering can only be prohibited “when credible information on oath is brought to the attention of a responsible officer that there is a threat that a proposed gathering will result in serious disruption of vehicular or pedestrian traffic, injury to participants in the gathering or other persons, or extensive damage to property and that the SAPS and the traffic officers in question will not be able to contain this threat” (De Vos, 2016).