The right to assemble and protest, selectively applied

A Senior Citizens’ March To Protest Inflation. Rev. Jackson Is Shown Speaking, 10/1973

Yesterday the Democratic Alliance was forced to abandon its (misguided) march on ANC headquarters because ANC supporters seemed to view it as an assault on their territory and the police had something other than upholding DA supporters’ rights to protest and assemble guiding their actions. This isn’t the first time this has happened and won’t be the last time. One reason is that it seems the right to protest and march is selectively applied to the self-righteous who don’t tolerate opposition.

Constitutional lawyer, Pierre De Vos, addresses this issue well (as usual) in his article DA vs ANC: The importance of political tolerance. This bit stood out for me:

Despite these complexities, one would have thought that if there was any right that all democrats in South Africa would support unreservedly – whether you are a top-dog or an underdog, whether rich or poor, whether in power or in opposition, whether a Union member or a civil society activist – would be the right to assemble and to protest. This should especially be true in South Africa where mass protests helped to bring the Apartheid government to its knees – despite the best efforts of PW Botha and FW de Klerk to curtail such protests.

The true leaders in our democracy must know this. The question is why the true leaders were so silent this week.

The right to assemble and take part in protests is one of the most democratic of rights. When respected by everyone in society, it is one of the rights most easily exercised – regardless of your political, economic or social status. Moreover, if you fail to respect your opponent’s right to assembly and protest, you are poisoning the political space and giving your opponents the gap to curtail your right to assemble in protest in future.

There are time when I wonder if South Africans are too politically immature for the democracy the Constitution enables and whether we should have some sort of autocratic leadership until we are. Then I realise that an autocrat would end hopes of a democracy and we pretty much have the seeds of an autocratic regime anyway, in the form of our President and his party.

Perhaps what we need is more protests and deliberate and co-ordinated actions to exercise our rights even as we accept it is going to be messy, bloody and will involve brick dodging and ineffective police action for a while longer.


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