South Africa

South Africa: The power of protest and the right not to remain silent

By Ranjeni Munusamy 13 September 2013

On the 36th anniversary of the murder in police custody of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, political organisations, activists and the Marikana community marched to the Union Buildings to demand that the state pay the legal fees of survivors of the Marikana massacre. Elsewhere, the Treatment Action Campaign was marching to demand a better health system in South Africa. Activism is alive and well in South Africa, and sometimes, though not always, it moves mountains. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In informal discussions with members of Cabinet at breakfast meeting with the media last week, it became very clear that they were digging in their heels on the issue of state funding for the Marikana massacre survivors’ legal representation. One Cabinet minister told Daily Maverick that some lawyers were using the Marikana Commission of Inquiry as a platform to show off and pursue a political agenda against the ANC government. Why then would the state finance them? he asked.

Advocate Dali Mpofu, who has been representing the wounded and arrested mineworkers, has explored legal channels up to the Constitutional Court to secure state funding for him and his team. After failing in his bids to do so, he has had to withdraw from the commission. The commission chairman Judge Ian Farlam has ruled that it would not be prejudicial to the surviving miners for the inquiry to proceed without them.

Citizens4Marikana, a campaign group working in solidarity with the Marikana community to secure legal representation for the miners, says the taxpayer pays around R500,000 per day to finance the commission. They, like Mpofu, have argued that it was unfair that the state carried the bill for the government departments involved, including the police, but was refusing to pay for the legal fees for the victims and their families seeking truth and justice from the commission’s work.

What they have not taken into account is that while the law does not provide for legal aid for commissions of inquiry, there is an alternative agenda and also a certain amount of malice underlying government’s approach to the issue. The state was the perpetrator of the massacre, and they justify the use of force by citing the violence during the wildcat strike in the days preceding.

The state knows exactly what happened on 16 August 2012 and does not need the torturous process of the commission to determine the facts. The establishment of the commission of inquiry was to quell the public outrage and show that government was taking the matter seriously. However, the state’s interest is for the commission to show there was justification for the police firing live ammunition at the striking miners.

But Mpofu and the other legal teams representing the deceased and human rights organisations have been taking the commission down another path, which some perceive to be demonisation of the ANC government. There is also some level of irritation with Mpofu as a political personality, having previously represented Julius Malema in his ANC disciplinary case, and now the Marikana group, which is openly hostile to the ANC.

On Thursday, Citizens4Marikana led a march to the Union Buildings to protest against the state’s refusal to pay the legal fees for the Marikana miners. They were joined by a number of opposition political parties, including the Democratic Alliance (DA), the Congress of the People (Cope), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The coincidence of the march on the 36th anniversary of the murder of anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko while in state custody was not incidental. The message of the march was that the state is the aggressor which uses the police to commit injustices against those who challenge it.

The coalition of activists, religious leaders and political organisations campaigning for justice for the people of Marikana might or might not have staying power, as they are possibly too diverse a grouping to last in current form. It is almost unfathomable to see the DA’s Mmusi Maimane, EFF’s Julius Malema and the IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi hold hands – literally – on any other issue. Marikana, however, is now destined to become a major campaign issue in the 2014 election. Every single party that participated in the protest was signalling their intention to incorporate the Marikana injustices into their arsenals to campaign against the ANC. The undertone will be “this could have been you” – either murdered or tormented by the state or deprived of justice.

With Marikana now turning into a campaign stick, with all the ANC’s political foes using it to beat the ANC government, it may be even less likely that people in the executive would suddenly discover their humanity and make funding available to the miners. But in other instances such coalitions have worked.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was at the forefront of the crusade to turn around the Mbeki government’s approach to HIV/Aids and secure antiretroviral treatment for those afflicted with the disease. Its high-profiles campaigns and marches, all of which with powerful messaging, drew widespread support from political and civil society organisations, and even from the ANC’s alliance partners. Even though the Mbeki administration had at one stage dug in its heels, refusing treatment, the TAC demonstrated how the power of protest could swing things around. The state eventually bowed to pressure.

Rights group Section27 was similarly the force that pushed government to act on the non-delivery of textbooks at schools in Limpopo. The group not only exposed the atrocities of children not having basic learning materials, but even embarked on litigation to force government to get the books delivered.

The TAC is on the march again, this time demanding a better public health system. The TAC and Section27 have for some time been raising the issue of the stock-out crisis at public health facilities. On Wednesday they released a report showing how the health system has collapsed in the Eastern Cape, with corruption being one of the main contributing factors. It is a shame of epic proportions on the democratic state, “presided over by a parasitic elite”, as Daily Maverick columnist Jay Naidoo put it.

The TAC’s campaign to raise awareness of the deterioration of quality health care services has the potential to fire up. They are skilled campaigners and community activists, and public health is an area where there are mass levels of public discontent that have not been channelled so far. South Africa may have a responsive health minister but the system is collapsing under him. He has little control over what happens at provincial facilities and community clinics where the failure is happening. When the weak and the voiceless are betrayed by the system, it seems that civil organisations like the TAC and Section27 are the only safeguards against a catastrophe.

Protest action is a gamble in South Africa. Sometimes it works, as the protracted protests in Khutsong against the incorporation of the Merafong Municipality into the North West and the coalition against e-tolling has shown. Sometimes the murder and mayhem is in aid of nothing, as with the 2008 xenophobia phenomenon.

President Jacob Zuma inspired hope on Thursday that occasionally government is receptive to shouts of protest (although Daily Maverick’s Pierre de Vos believes there’s nothing to celebrate). The president announced that he would not be signing the Protection of State Information Bill into law as it stands. The announcement came as a shock as the ANC has tried by all means to ram the Bill through Parliament, ignoring objections from opposition parties, civil society and media organisations about the unconstitutionality of aspects of the legislation – and was welcomed by opposition parties.

“I have given consideration to the Bill in its entirety and the various opinions and commentaries regarding the constitutionality and tagging of the Bill. After consideration of the Bill and having applied my mind thereto, I am of the view that the Bill as it stands does not pass constitutional muster,” Zuma told the Press Gallery Association in Parliament.

He said some sections of the Bill “lack meaning and coherence, consequently are irrational and accordingly are unconstitutional”.

It is not known what provoked this evaluation – whether it was as a result of legal advice that the legislation would trip up at the Constitutional Court, whether it was an expedient pre-election move or whether, as De Vos suggests, it is a move aimed at preserving the president’s power. It is even more curious after the comments Zuma made to journalism students earlier this week: “When I am in South Africa, every morning you feel like you must leave this country because the reporting concentrates on the opposite of the positive.”

If the referral back to Parliament does result in improvements in the Bill beyond those cited by De Vos, it is an encouraging sign for activism and vigilance. South Africa’s democracy was built on a society that rebelled against injustice and violations of human rights by the Apartheid government. In the last decade, South Africa has become a restless nation with community and service delivery protests the only outlet for frustration and disillusionment with unemployment, poverty and corruption.

The only thing worse than a government that does not listen to its people is a people that does not speak up and accepts whatever is done to it. South Africa shows every day that it is a vigilant society, with a vibrant media and civil society. As long as it stays that way, our democracy is safeguarded, even though it might be far from perfect. DM

Photo: Marchers gather on the lawns below the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Thursday, 12 September 2013 in an attempt to get state funding for legal counsel at the inquiry investigating last year’ strike-related violence at Marikana. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


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