Research suggests increasingly militarised protest regulation in South Africa

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In a seminar hosted by the Faculty of Humanities yesterday (Tuesday 7 May) the Chair of the Media and Information Society at Rhodes University, Professor Jane Duncan, highlighted indicators that the regulation of protests under the President Jacob Zuma’s administration is becoming increasingly militarised.

She based her presentation on research conducted for a chapter in her latest book, tentatively titled “The Rise of the Securocrats”. The book aims to scrutinise claims from Paul Holden and others that security services in South Africa have been politicised by “securocrats and fat cats” to advantage Mr Zuma and his affiliates.

Using a bottom up approach, Prof Duncan’s evaluation aims to examine the state of the right to protest from the perspective of those who are actually attempting to exercise it. She highlighted particularly the apparent failure by many municipalities to facilitate gatherings as envisioned by the Regulation of Gatherings Act (RGA) and the levels of violence involved in policing protests which do occur.

Focusing on the regulation of protests in the Rustenburg Municipality, a site of significant unrest, she unpacked how the RGA has been manipulated to create an extremely high bar which protests must meet in order to be approved.

She showed how requirements of a Public Gatherings Checklist operational in that district render the right to protest subject to the permission of those protesters are marching against.

 The result of impossibly high standards for legal protests is that many gatherings are not approved and are subsequently criminalised. Increased conflict between protesters and police is often a consequence of this.

She argued that the apparently increasing levels of brutality towards protesters are caused by the South African approach in public order policing. In an attempt to reskill public order policing units, the South African Police Service (SAPS) has shifted from the Belgian to the French model, becoming increasingly more centralised, close-range, and paramilitary.

“If these spirals of conflict become a national norm it may mean that, unless the repressive practices of municipalities and police are stopped, there may be more protester deaths at the hands of police,” said Prof Duncan.

She further said there are signs that the criminal justice system is being manipulated to prejudice protesters who find it increasingly difficult to exercise the right to protest through legal channels.

Activists are often arrested and detained on extremely weak charges. She noted evidence suggesting that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) have been selective in prosecuting cases, arguably to shield the current administration.

Acknowledging that the repression of protest is not a new phenomenon, Prof Duncan none-the-less said that repression seems to have increased under Zuma’s government.

“There is a lot more going on which is structural in nature and related to the fact that there is a growing class struggle in the country,” she said.

Prof Duncan argued that the increasing militarisation of protest regulation in South Africa is reflective of a more international trend which she thinks is influenced by the global recession as well as the War on Terror.

“Globally there seems to be growing evidence of a more military response to protest,” she added.

Photo and story by Kyla Hazell