Police repression in Protea South an indicator of a national trend
5 September 2007
Issued by the Freedom of Expression Institute
The Freedom of Expression Institute's concern about police repression of protests – especially those organized by poor communities against the lack of service delivery – was heightened this week with the highly- publicized housing protest in Protea South which was violently attacked by police.
FXI staff were eyewitnesses to acts of police harassment against Protea South residents Monday morning. Maureen Mnisi, a community leader and Gauteng Chairperson of the Landless People's Movement, was arrested while trying to speak with the media. She and at least five other community members were taken into custody and released, without being charged, after spending the night in jail. FXI staff overheard a police captain admitting that he had "always wanted to arrest" Mnisi.
We were shocked by the police violence. SAPS members fired at random towards the protesters, leaving the pavement covered with the blue casings of rubber bullets. Police also deployed a helicopter and water cannon, and we saw at least two officers using live ammunition. One Protea South resident, Mandisa Msewu, was shot in the mouth by a rubber bullet, and several other residents were attended to by paramedics due to police violence.
Similar acts of protester repression were reported by the Anti- Privatisation Forum in other parts of Gauteng yesterday. Several protesters in Kliptown were reportedly beaten and arrested by private security guards. And in the Vaal, according to the Coalition against Water Privatisation's organizer, Patra Sindane, police opened fire without any warning on protesters who were just beginning to gather and then proceeded to go from house to house in pursuit of the protest's organizers.
Monday's events in Protea South seriously undermined media freedom as well. A Sunday Times journalist, Lirhuwani Mammburu, was harassed by police after photographing Mnisi's arrest. A SAPS member demanded to see his press badge and, even after Mammburu displayed his credential, the officer pushed Mammburu violently in the face, threatening to beat him up.
The deliberate intimidation of journalists is not only a Gauteng problem. Last Friday (31 August), a journalist for the Durban-based Mercury allegedly was kidnapped and assaulted following his research into repression of shack dwellers in Pinetown. A local business leader, believed to be seeking the destruction of the Motala Heights shack settlement, allegedly stole the journalist's film, promised to assault another Mercury journalist, and threatened to kill the journalist if the Mercury published the story.
These distressing events over just the last few days indicate continuing violations of the rights of protesters and the rights of the media to cover such protests. The constitutional right to protest is increasingly under threat, and the Regulation of Gatherings Act (RGA) – which which aims to facilitate such assemblies – is being routinely violated – usually by police who do not understand the provisions of the Act and act contrary to both its spirit and its letter.
These rights infringements this week come just days after the nationwide Freedom of Expression Network (FXN) Day of Action last week which protested against such acts of repression. It is just such violations that have prompted the FXI to assist in setting up the FXN, which seeks to build capacity among movements of the poor to better defend their rights from continuing attempts to silence them. The FXI believes that this on-going situation regarding the harassment of protesters demands the urgent response of Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula. We have sought a meeting with the Minister to apprise him of the situation that protestors face and of the ongoing violations of the Constitution and the RGA.
For more information, contact:
o Virginia Setshedi: (011) 403 8403; Cell: (078) 473 3086
o Na'eem Jeenah: (011) 403 8403; Cell: (084) 574 2674
o Henry Seton: (011) 403 8403; Cell: (076) 977 7618