When Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, was criticised for the manner in which he became very rich (by breaking up companies and firing workers), for paying less than 15% in taxes (while the average rate in the US for a low to medium income earner is around 30%), and for sheltering from paying taxes by keeping money in the Cayman Islands and in a Swiss Bank account, he repeatedly said that such criticism was aimed at dividing America.
Lemme tell ya something. America is a great nation, because we’re a united nation and those who are trying to divide the nation as you’re trying to do here and as the president is doing are hurting this country, seriously. The right course for America is not to divide America, and try and divide us between one and another, it’s for us to come together as a nation. And if you’ve got a better model, if you think China is better, or Russia is better, or Cuba’s better, or North Korea’s better, I’m glad to hear all about it. But you know what? America’s right, and you’re wrong!
This argument is often used by the rich, who complain that the so called 99% of the US population (who are not stinking rich) may be stoking “class warfare”. It serves as a handy mechanism for stopping anyone from questioning the inequality, the unearned privileges bestowed on the rich, and the obscene unfairness of the US economic and social system and helps to protect the status quo.
I was therefore surprised when Cape Town mayor, Patricia de Lille (who used to have more progressive principles before she joined the Democratic Alliance), used this same kind of language to attack people who were planning to highlight unfairness and economic inequality in Cape Town by “occupying” the Rondebosch common (a piece of untidy, windswept grass and bushes in the middle of the leafy middle-class suburbs of Cape Town).
Last week, in a speech delivered by the mayor in the city council chambers, De Lille called the leader of the protest (a guy with the wonderful name of Mario Wanza) and his supporters “agents of destruction” and then continued:
There are those who would sooner see this city destroyed, driven in two by violence and aggression, than be a part of a shared destiny. I tell this council now, those agents of division will not win. I think here in particular of Mario Wanza, a would-be but failed public servant, who claims to speak on behalf of the people of the Cape Flats. … [I would not allow] these agents of destruction to use their misguided, naive and brutal misunderstandings of the politics of race to divide this city. … I tell the people of Cape Town this: They will not succeed because we will not let them.
Given these fighting words (with De Lille seemingly channelling her inner PW Botha), it was perhaps not surprising that the police refused to give permission for the gathering and declared the gathering “illegal”. The police did so on what appears to be spurious grounds, arguing that organisers arrived “between 15 and 30 minutes late” for their meeting with police officials and that organisers insisted on having all nine elected representatives present in the meeting as opposed to four.
These reasons are, to say the least, completely spurious, suggesting that the police had a mandate to stop this gathering at any cost. In fact this kind of reasoning has a rather authoritarian ring to it and seems to be based on the assumption that taking part in a protest is not a right, but a privilege that can be bestowed and can also be taken away by a police officer if an organiser of a gathering does not behave “properly”. This used to be the legal situation in apartheid South Africa, but as we now live in a constitutional democracy it is no longer the case. Somebody should tell the police (and mayor De Lille)
The Regulation of Gatherings Act makes it very clear that the responsible police officer has a duty to negotiate with organisers of a gathering and to do so in a way that would help the organisers to conduct a peaceful protest march or gathering. Where a police officer fails to do everything in his or her power to ensure that a peaceful and orderly gathering can take place, that police officer is breaking the law and is also infringing on the constitutionally guaranteed rights of citizens.
Reading the various provisions of the Gatherings Act, it is impossible to see how the police could validly have declared this gathering illegal and how they could reasonably have believed that they had the right to do so. The relevant police officers either have difficulty with basic English comprehension or they deliberately decided to flout the provisions of the Regulation of Gatherings Act in order to get this gathering declared illegal (which happened to comply with the wishes of mayor De Lille).
One would have hoped that De Lille would have condemned this apparent abuse of power by the Police. After all, she is a leader of the DA, a political party who has often (rightly) expressed outrage when ANC-aligned government officials flout the law. The DA is also a party who has presented itself as a champion of the Rule of Law – even challenging the unlawful appointment of Menzi Simelane as National Director of Public Prosecutions in court. But alas, when the fears and short term interests of upper-middle class DA voters clash with respect for the law and adherence to democratic principles, one should not expect principle to hold sway. The mayor thus made statements which endorsed the dubious notion that this gathering was an “illegal” one.
The Regulation of Gatherings Act makes it clear that every person has the right to assemble with other persons and to express his or her views on any matter freely in public and to enjoy the protection of the State while doing so. As such, this Act gives expression to the right of everyone (guaranteed in section 17 of the Bill of Rights), peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.
This right is an important one for any democracy as it helps to even out the political playing field. Given the fact that access to money and a proximity to the powerful often give certain people or pressure groups disproportionate influence over the politicians and the political process, this right to protest can be viewed as a right that is of particular importance for the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed. How else will people living in poor and marginalised communities have their voices heard and their concerns listened to?
My guess is that the rather reactionary tone of De Lille’s statement and the heavy-handed and probably illegal actions of the police stem from the fear that a protest on the Rondebosch common would indeed provide a voice to the voiceless and would challenge the cosy elite pact between the politicians and the rich (the very rich whose donations keep the major political parties afloat).
Because the right to protest is fundamental to the proper functioning of a democracy, the Gatherings Act assumes that gatherings and protests will almost always be allowed and that technicalities will not be used to ban protests that would make the powers that be uncomfortable. Thus section 3(5)(c) of the Act even requires the relevant police officers to try and identify organisers of protests and gatherings and then engaging with those organisers – even if no notice was given of the protest or gathering by its organisers. Furthermore, section 4(1) places a legal duty on the responsible officer to engage with organisers of a gathering or protest to try and reach agreement about how the gathering or protest would be conducted.
Section 4(4)(b) of the Act also allows the responsible officer to impose certain conditions on the gathering or protest if there are reasonable grounds to do so in order to minimise traffic disruptions, to ensure continued access for others to their places of work and property, to prevent injury to any person and to prevent the destruction of property. When an officer imposes such conditions he or she is required by law to give written reasons for this.
Section 5 of the Act makes it clear that a gathering or protest may only be prohibited in extreme cases. This section states that:
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 Police and the traffic officers in question will not be able to contain this threat, he shall forthwith meet or, if time does not allow it, consult with the convener and the authorized member, if possible, and any other person with whom, he believes, he should meet or consult, including the representatives of any police community consultative forum in order to consider the prohibition of the gathering.
Only after such a meeting would a responsible officer be able to prohibit a gathering, if he or she is convinced “on reasonable grounds” that no amendment to the conditions of the gathering would prevent serious disruptions or extensive damage to property.
Now, people who are familiar with Cape Town would know that no person could reasonably claim that a gathering on the Rondebosch common would seriously disrupt traffic or that it would pose a serious risk to people or that extensive damage to property would ensue. There are no buildings on the common and nobody lives or works on the common, so how the police could have decided that the gathering posed a serious risk to the safety of people or to damage of property is beyond me. In fact, I would go as far as saying that the police acted illegally (perhaps spurred on by the incendiary comments of the mayor?) by banning the gathering. The subsequent heavy handed actions against those who chose to gather on the common and the arrest of all those who took part was therefore in all likelihood illegal.
A liberal administration would never have made the kind of statements that De Lille made and would never have suggested that the protestors should be stopped. A liberal administration would have championed the right of protesters to gather and convey their message (even in a suburb where rich DA voters predominate) and would have done everything in its power to ensure that a peaceful protest with the least amount of disruption took place. But then again, the DA administration in Cape Town can probably only be said to be liberal in name.
PS: The headline is an ironic quotation of a headline which appeared in Die Son newspaper a few years ago when it reported on the fact that “singer” Patricia Lewis “acted” in a soft porn movie.