As a nation we like to discuss our rights, and how they all devolve from the Constitution. Perhaps our favourite rights are those to freedom of expression, association and movement. Those are a major part of what make us a free country. However, there are times when control of the state apparatus is too tempting for those who control the levers of state power. And whenever that power is abused, there will be a reaction that would be far worse than what was trying to be avoided. In this case, it’s about Julius Malema, Nkandla, and the right to use public roads. And if those roads are not kept public, our democracy will be very much poorer. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Saturday, while President Jacob Zuma was speaking to a packed, disciplined, and possibly controlled crowd at the Mbombela Stadium, a typically Malema-esque drama was playing out around his home. Malema had decided to go and hand over a house to one of Zuma’s neighbours. It’s good politics. He would get to contrast the “museum to corruption” where our Number One family lives, to the tiny structure that a much poorer family occupies. It would also create a confrontation. And there’s nothing Malema likes more than that. So, off he went, the fearless Economic Economic Freedom Fighter he is.
Predictably, some of the residents of Nkandla took issue with this. As they did when DA leader Helen Zille went to the same place, they blocked the road. They refused entry to the area to Malema. In the DA’s case, Zille and her troupe were stopped some distance from Zuma’s home. Whether Malema is made of sterner stuff, or whether the police behaved differently, it’s hard to know. But he was forced to leave his vehicle, and undertake some physical exercise, perhaps the first since his walk to Pretoria back in 2012.
In the end he got there, did his political deed and left. (Leaving the poor woman he’d given the house to fearing for her life.)
As a normal everyday political confrontation in our favourite republic, it’s not nearly as dramatic as your average art gallery opening.
But if we forget the theatrics for one moment, there is a crucial issue here that needs to be resolved. In both cases, the police were not able to give access to Malema and Zille to the site via road. This was because of the protests by the local residents, some of whom are related to Zuma. As the road is a public road, these people, no matter how angry they may be, had absolutely no right to block it. It is not their road. It is not Zuma’s road (despite the nicknames it will inevitably attract). It is not Zille’s road, and it’s certainly not Malema’s road. It is everyone’s road. And we all have an equal right to use it [Tell that to the next VIP blue light brigade driver you come across – Ed].
If you look through our Bill of Rights, and look at how the rights to freedom of expression and movement are enshrined it, it seems that any thought of blocking a highway or a road would have to be illegal. In other words, moving around can be a political act in itself, and blocking that road without due cause would then be attempting to prevent a political act. In this case, the way residents lay down on the road to prevent Zille from passing through was clearly a way to prevent her from exercising her rights. It could be argued that lying down on a highway is in itself an expression, but surely there are other ways to express yourself, without preventing someone else from performing a political act.
Then there is the role of the police here. Writing as a journalist without special legal knowledge [There’s a comforting thought – Ed] it would seem reasonable that the police have a duty to ensure that the road is kept clear. Under almost any circumstances. Which means that if they did indeed behave differently in the Zuma and Malema incidents, then we have to ask why they did so. And if the police are now playing a political role in South Africa today.
Police officers are allowed to make judgments on the ground about safety. That does make complete sense: they are the people there, someone has to make a decision, and society generally has an interest in reducing the opportunities for violence. However, if Zille backed down to prevent violence, does that mean that Malema is a stronger politician, because he prevailed despite the threat of violence? To reward Malema in this instance would surely not be the best way forward. Of course, the real problem is that there is a lack of trust in our police officers already. On the road to the Mbombela Stadium on Saturday some of the provincial traffic officers had topped off their normal uniforms with a red beret. Would they have allowed Malema through to Mbombela on that day? Or would he have been a victim of “political profiling”?
Another question is that if the police are not fully consistent to the extent of their ability, we have to look at what could happen in the end, hypothetically. In the Nkandla area of KwaZulu/Natal, Helen Zille is not what you would call a draw-card. Malema doesn’t have much support there either. But what would happen if someone who is popular there decided to march, using the public road, to Nkandla? What if Mangosuthu Bhutulezi decided that this would be the right political act for him to pursue? If the police were not trusted in this instance, because of their actions before, we could be all be in serious trouble here. An already difficult situation could be inflamed, because of the lack of officers with the right legitimacy to make the right decisions.
And as we know from KZN’s sad history, that would not end well at all.
The police are not the only people with a duty to perform here. Zuma himself could be expected to set an example of political tolerance. And, to a great extent, he must be applauded for what he said at a New Age Business Briefing broadcast live on the SABC on Monday morning. He talked about political tolerance, and how it was wrong for someone to have tried to stop Malema from expressing himself. He also said it was all part of the process of “engagement”. In short, it was a confident, mature response. Presidential, you might say.
Good. And if this is the new, confident Zuma that we’re going to get this election season, then we should all welcome him.
But we do have to ask why Malema gets this response, and yet there appeared to be presidential silence when Zille went there. Is it because Malema is black and Zille white? Because Malema is actually a threat to Zuma’s constituency and Zille is not? Or is it just because he was on live TV and had to say something? We don’t know. But often in most countries, citizens follow the example of their leader. It’s important for Zuma to show tolerance, to show that this is how South Africans should behave. This could mean he should also have condemned the behaviour of his local community. Maybe that’s too much to ask. Perhaps.
But the one thing the president absolutely has a duty to do, is to order the police to keep the roads open. And to make sure they deal consistently with any issues that might arise on them. DM
Grootes is the author of SA Politics Unspun, the senior political reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He has been on the roads in KZN, but not to Nkandla.
Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema is escorted by police after his car was blocked by supporters of the African National Congress near the homestead of South African President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla January 11, 2014. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
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