Protest and the law

2009-03-27 00:00

THE line that divides legitimate protest from intimidatory lawlessness is a delicate one. In the past week, South Africans have had good reason to worry about the future of their democratic, constitutional state given the uncontrolled, threatening behaviour of some of its citizens.

In Johannesburg, taxi drivers objecting to the proposed rapid transport system forced passengers off a bus, hijacked two others and shot a driver. Many protesters were armed with potentially offensive weapons. The government’s chief negotiator has pointed out that no taxi employee will be left unemployed, but nevertheless some demonstrators threatened to declare war, a word that has no place in current-day South Africa.

Closer to home, the Howard College campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal has recently been disrupted by protestors who violated the right of fellow students to go about their lawful business in lecture rooms and libraries. A journalist working for this paper was threatened. Legitimate grievances exist, but there is a suspicion that the upheaval is linked to general political mobilisation. Near Greytown last weekend, armed Inkatha Freedom Party members allegedly went on the rampage.

In many circles, there is obviously no understanding that protest is about persuasion, not intimidation; and that the latter is unacceptable and illegal. Crimes are repeatedly committed in the name of protest, yet organisations remain unaccountable and individuals go unpunished. A general election is fewer than four weeks away, but many areas are no-go zones for multi-party politics.

At issue is the matter of who exercises authority in a democratic society based on the rule of law. It is clear that many groups of citizens believe that they are exempt and can behave with impunity to impose their wishes upon the rest of society. They pay lip service to the Constitution and the concept of democracy, which for them are simply a means to an end.

From such seeds, totalitarianism grows. Not only is the quality of South Africa’s democracy at stake, but ultimately its very existence. And like corruption, this is a problem that will not go away until it is dealt with in uncompromising fashion by the judicial system.

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