A protest nation

2016-10-16 10:54

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Protest Nation: The Right to Protest in South Africa by Jane Duncan

UKZN Press

256 pages


Why do some protesters engage in collective action outside the prescripts of the Regulation of Gatherings Act, thereby opening themselves up to accusations of staging an “unlawful protest”?

Some protesters simply do not know about the act, and in these cases it is quite disturbing that the protesters are dealt with harshly, as was the case with women protesters in Chaneng in 2013; others assume that by notifying the municipality of their grievances, they have discharged their responsibilities and are free to take to the streets.

Still others gather or protest outside the act because they know they are unlikely to “get permission”, as their actions are too strong a threat to the status quo.

In the case of the Rustenburg municipality, its officials wield the act as a censorship tool to protect political and economic stakes in the area, especially mining interests.

Protests that happen outside the Regulation of Gatherings Act framework are also likely to be related to “service delivery”, suggesting that protesters do not feel that their grievances can be expressed through the act’s prescripts given that it is the very municipality that administers the act that they are protesting against.

Spontaneous protests that occur in reaction to distressing events also usually take place without municipalities being informed.

In the cases of Rustenburg, Mbombela and Johannesburg, it is clear that unreasonable restrictions on the right to protest may make protest action disappear, but they may also escalate and radicalise protest action, as protesters see the authorities through what William Gamson has termed “injustice frames” (or organising ideas that galvanise collective action around the unfairness of a particular action or set of actions, usually by the state) and redouble their efforts to struggle against them.

However, protester knowledge of their rights in terms of the Regulation of Gatherings Act is an important variable:

if protesters show that they can stand toe to toe with municipalities and the police on the contents of the act, and assert their rights in the process, they are less likely to be abused, as has been shown in Mbombela.

Sadly, however, as has been demonstrated in Rustenburg, the police may target women for harassment, arrest and even violence as they are perceived as being “only women” – that is, they are soft targets.

There are inherent risks in protesting outside the framework of the act, in that an increasingly militarised police service (or “force”, to use military parlance) can frame the protest as “unrest-related” and attack it violently to disperse the participants. But the underlying grievances remain.

Municipalities that thwart the right to protest are sowing the wind: they risk creating spirals of conflict that they are unable to contain in the longer term.

However, there are significant variations between municipalities when it comes to how they use or even misuse their bureaucratic powers.

In the case of Makana, there is evidence of particularly onerous bureaucratic obstacles being placed in the way of the municipality’s most vocal critic, the Unemployed People’s Movement.

Yet spaces are not being closed for all municipal critics: conflicts within the elite, and between politicians and bureaucrats, can also open up spaces for critical voices.

These experiences suggest that the bureaucratic layer inside government cannot be understood simply as tools of the political layer, unable to exercise agency.

In Mbombela, the municipality that has seen the most lethal forms of censorship – namely, assassinations of whistle blowers – and that has embraced a highly dubious filtering of protests, there are also signs that the bureaucratic layer will allow strong criticisms of the municipality, as bureaucrats may have no vested political interest in stifling them or may even have a vested interest in having grievances expressed.

In other words, the personal, bureaucratic and even political inclinations of the municipality’s responsible officer do matter.

Another problem highlighted by the municipal data is that journalists and commentators are too quick to assume that protests are about service delivery, whereas collective action is often driven by a greater diversity of grievances.

For instance, in the Blue Crane municipality, from 2009 to 2012, the single biggest reason for protesting was crime, especially the abuse of women and children, although in 2013 protests about service delivery and unpopular councillors became more apparent.

Apart from service delivery, key grievances in other municipalities included industrial and wage disputes (the largest category of protests), crime, corruption, land redistribution, the state of education and health services, and poor representation by public representatives.

Noteworthy, too, are the large number of protests about violence against women, suggesting that the potential exists for a national women’s movement devoted to generalising women’s experiences and linking them to political demands for gender justice.

The municipal data also speaks volumes about political shifts at local level.

Until 2011, the ANC alliance dominated the protest space, especially in the smaller towns, where the number of protests was smaller, and therefore where the ANC alliance share of the protest space was amplified.

A growing diversity of protests becomes apparent from 2011 onwards: the year of the controversial local government elections, which saw the ANC imposing unpopular candidates and branches rebelling.

The data shows that this problem remains a source of considerable grievance, especially in the Eastern Cape.

The shifts since 2011 demonstrate that more residents were attempting to find their voices independently of existing organisations, and outside the formalised channels for handling grievances, suggesting that ward committees are failing to resolve grievances in their areas.

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