The right to protest and express yourself freely is an important element of our democracy, which every South African has enjoyed since 1994. This right is enshrined in the Constitution. It comes with the responsibility that the protest action must be conducted in an orderly and peaceful manner, and within the confines of the law. More importantly, those who protest must ensure that they do not infringe on other peoples’ rights when they embark on protest action.
It is against this background that government has repeatedly expressed its concern over recent spates of violence, destruction of private and public property and looting that took place in Gauteng, Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and Western Cape. This was disturbingly evident during recent protests. The actions of those protesters were purely criminal, infringed on other people’s rights and were without a doubt an incorrect way to express their dissatisfaction, grievances and views.
The events of the past few weeks indeed have the potential to undermine our hard won democracy. We have a duty as citizens to behave in a manner that puts our national development first and act with a common sense of purpose to build our country. Speaking at the official launch of the Saldanha Bay Industrial Development Zone (IDZ) recently, President Jacob Zuma stressed the importance of protesters abiding by the rules and protesting peacefully. This is an important feature of any democratic society and should be upheld.
“While the Constitution of our country permits protests and enshrines freedom of expression, it also states that this should be done peacefully. Violence, looting and the destruction of property in the scale we saw in for example Bekkersdal last week or in Cape Town have no place in a democracy like ours, which provides the space for people to state their views openly and freely. We urge all South Africans to utilise their hard won rights to express themselves in a responsible manner,” he said.
Vandalising, looting, stealing and disrespect for the law will not resolve issues; on the contrary it will have a significant negative impact on the country’s development by hampering all efforts to create a better life for all. What we need is constructive engagement in which all the affected parties interact freely. Government has put in place various mechanisms for the public to regularly talk to their leaders about issues that affect them so they can be addressed in an orderly and peaceful fashion.
President Zuma has been at the forefront encouraging citizens to use existing channels for negotiations and conflict resolution, and to avoid resorting to violence, intimidation and looting. He also emphasised that he expects public officials to respond to people’s needs and provide services impartially, fairly and without bias. Equally, citizens who are unhappy about actions of public officials should approach senior government officials or Chapter 9 institutions to elevate their concerns.
Government fails to understand how the destruction of public property, looting and destroying small businesses will help the cause of those who want to exercise their democratic right to protest. The destruction of public property deprives communities of much-needed services and creates the additional burden of resources being diverted to restore and repair the damages, including critical infrastructure. The cost of the destruction and the long-term damage to the economy runs to millions of rands.
Many small businesses have been severely affected by the recent protests around the country. The premises have been looted and destroyed. What is of equal concern is the emotional trauma the victims and their families have suffered and still have to deal with. In addition, this criminal behaviour has ruined their livelihoods and the financial stability of their families, as well as those in their employ. These entrepreneurs are vital to our economy; they play an important role in our communities and create numerous jobs.
The actions of unruly protesters have led to the closure of some small businesses, which in turn has had an impact on the assistance they could receive from government. An example of such assistance is that government is offering and including plans by the Department of Trade and Industry to assist township and rural businesses to improve their production and become better suppliers to formal businesses.
Addressing the National Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMME) Summit in White River, Mpumalanga this year, the Director-General of the Department of Trade and Industry, Lionel October said: “We are planning a R1.2 billion package of support measures, primarily aimed at assisting small township businesses and co-operatives to upscale and be more capable of becoming real suppliers to bigger business.”
We have also noted reports of people being denied the opportunity to exercise their rights to go to work and children to attend school. This goes against the founding principles and cornerstone of our democracy, which is built on freedom of movement and to respect the views and ideas of others even if we disagree with them. Communities should resist all attempts to deprive our children of their right to education by for example disrupting examinations.
Government will not allow criminal elements to destroy structures and amenities where vital services are rendered. We should strive to build communities where we respect and help each other, rather than fear one another Peaceful means of addressing issues has been proven to provide the best outcome in any dispute.
Government maintains that life in South Africa is better than it was prior to 1994. The challenges we still face, can never justify the destroying of the gains made in the past 19 years of our democracy. The law enforcement agencies therefore have a duty to equally protect those who choose not to embark in violent and destructive protests. They have a duty to maintain law and order in the country.
Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)