Mercury: Civic Freedom

Some good points. But will the demand for action against those who break the law ever be extended to people like Sutcliffe, Plato etc who send out the evictors to break the law with impunity>

Civic Freedom

August 31, 2009 Edition 1

THERE is something a little ominous about the rumblings from the cabinet about clamping down on protests.

Chief government spokesman Themba Maseko said after last week’s cabinet meeting that there would be a clampdown on “all the types of protests that we’ve seen over the past few months, which are bordering on hooliganism”.

Maseko said the police would show a “stronger hand”.

He did not elaborate, saying only that the police would make operational decisions, the details of which had not yet been worked out.

Of course action must be taken against those who break the law, such as the protesting soldiers in Pretoria whose behaviour last week seems to have been excessive and totally unacceptable. The police must, as Maseko said, be “mandated to ensure strict compliance with the laws of the land”.

However, his message is worrying for two reasons. First, it is troubling to imagine that the police might be instructed to deal with violent protest with more severity than they showed last week, when the protesting soldiers were met by stun grenades and rubber bullets, which left several soldiers injured.

Second, it is troubling that the cabinet has not addressed with any seriousness the grievances of all of those who have been involved in the series of protests to which Maseko referred. Protesters who break ranks and engage in violent behaviour or looting must be dealt with, and firmly, through the law. But just as it is wrong of them to distract attention from the demands of the majority of demonstrators, so it is wrong of the authorities to allow their attention to be distracted.

Many of those who have recently come out on strike for higher wages or who have taken to the streets to protest about their situation will have voted for President Jacob Zuma.

As the recession fuels further protest action, it would be unjust, and dangerous, for the government to focus only on the violence and to underplay the hardship and disappointment that underlie the protests.

The right to protest, and to speak out forcefully, is an important social safety valve. It would be senseless and dangerous to close it to any degree.