Professor Jane Duncan was at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) Centre in Braamfontein recently to launch her new book: Protest Nation: The Right to Protest in South Africa.
Protest Nation looks at the right to protest, Duncan said, as well as how the right is enabled and how it can be abused.
The book comes at a time when the country is grappling with university protests, and a couple of months after the local government elections. The university protests have been marked by intimidation and property destruction, while the elections saw the South African Broadcasting Corporation censoring protest actions it saw as “destructive and regressive” – a decision which was overturned by regulatory board the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.
One of Duncan’s aims is to rectify inaccurate protest data floating around in the public domain. She said she often finds fault with data sourced from the media and stressed that interested parties should source credible data from municipal and police records instead.
Current censorship and the crackdown on protests that authorities deemed “unlawful” began in 2011 during the local government elections, Duncan said, when an “embarrassed” government resorted to censoring and delegitimising protests.
Municipalities responded by introducing a “wave of prohibitions” when service delivery protests intensified, according to Duncan. This saw the Regulation of Gatherings Act – the law which sets out protest guidelines – being “used as a censorship and political tool”.
Duncan believes the scrutiny on protestors has intensified in the period between the 2011 elections and the university protests last year and this year, with protestors reportedly being harassed, profiled and arrested.
While evidence points to the fact that that protests are increasing in South Africa, Duncan says the media tends to sensationalise the violent protests, while “ignoring peaceful protests”.
“The violence is overstated in media reports which makes people believe that violence has become endemic to protesting,” she said. “They’ve created a moral panic.”
The side effects of exaggerating protest violence is that municipalities and authorities use it as an excuse to increase censorship, and to apply stricter conditions to protest permits. This creates the illusion in the public’s eye that protests are decreasing, when in fact municipalities are choosing not to approve them.
Duncan also spoke about the consequences of the deadly Marikana protests, saying that their aftermath ushered in a number of economic and political shifts that South Africa could ill afford, notably the “fracturing of Cosatu, the expulsion of Numsa and the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters”.
But a protest as tragic as Marikana would not repeat itself, Duncan said.
Interestingly, the book launch was initially scheduled for the University of Johannesburg, but had to be postponed to a later date and transferred to the SAHRC because it had not met the university’s risk assessment test.
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Lungile Sojini (@success_mail) tweeted live from the event: