Under-fire civil society organisations unite for Joburg solidarity picket against ‘attacks’ and ‘misinformation’
The Defend Our Democracy Movement held a solidarity picket on Friday morning at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. It followed recent attacks on civil society organisations and journalists over the past few months.
Zaakirah Vadi, Defend Our Democracy’s coordinator, said the picket was necessary to say “hands off civil society”.
“We have had public representatives coming out and saying that civil society has an ulterior agenda, that civil society is being funded by the CIA, and we’ve had organisations like the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) and Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) being attacked on public platforms, saying that they are not acting in the interests of the country,” she said.
Vadi also raised concerns about the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill. Many experts have raised concerns that the bill could lead to intensive state-sanctioned surveillance of organisations, potentially undermining their operations – and democracy itself.
“This will seek to vet civil society, it is very unclear how exactly this will be done, but I think that is another example of the closing of the democratic space,” she said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Democracy Down: Ramaphosa’s proposed State Security vetting of NGOs an onslaught on SA’s future
A number of civil society organisations showed solidarity with the picket, including Seri, Extinction Rebellion, the HSF, the Organisaion Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) and the trade union Solidarity.
Attacks on Seri
Following the Marshalltown fire which claimed the lives of 77 people and left more than 50 injured, officials seemed to suggest that the catastrophe could have been averted had it not been for civil society organisations that often drag the City to court over “illegal evictions”.
We will continue our unapologetic defence of poor people’s right to live in the inner city, for them not to be displaced in whatever plans the City has to repair dilapidated buildings.
Council Speaker Colleen Makhubele appeared to blame civil society organisations such as the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri), which often litigates against the illegal removal of people without alternative accommodation.
Thato Masiangoako, a researcher at Seri, said solidarity between civil society organisations was much needed, especially at this time. “The feedback we got for the fires was that we were responsible for those deaths because we try to prevent people from facing unlawful evictions,” she said.
Misconstruction and scapegoating of migrants
Masiangoako also noted that there seemed to be a concerted effort on the part of political leaders to misconstrue the work that Seri does and shift the blame away from themselves. “What is increasingly concerning is the scapegoating of migrants and the misconception that the only people who live and work in the inner city are migrants, which is not the case,” she said.
“I think it’s a dangerous move towards dehumanising a group of people, which we’ve seen in our history. We know that today it’s race, tomorrow it’s nationality, and the next time it’s sexualities. We must insist on defending all people’s inherent dignity, irrespective of what identifies them.”
Masiangoako expressed gratitude to those who dispelled misinformation about Seri’s work and said they would continue with an unapologetic defence of the people they defend.
“We will continue our unapologetic defence of poor people’s right to live in the inner city, for them not to be displaced in whatever plans the City has to repair dilapidated buildings, and we insist on their rights to live in the inner city and we reject any kind of repetition of apartheid spatial planning,” she said.
Solidarity needed to fight the oppressive system
Malik Dasoo of Extinction Rebellion said there needed to be more instances of civil society coming together. “We need more solidarity and organisations coming together, not really concerned by the way their programmes align or anything like that, but because we are all fighting an oppressive system that is crushing NGOs, civil society groups and democracy at large,” he said.
Dasoo explained that for climate-related issues, traditional forms of campaigning have not yielded success. “It hasn’t worked and that is why we need to escalate our methods of protests, but always nonviolent,” he said.
As civil society organisations and NGOs, we are not in the business of looking for popularity… but we can stand up and give voice to those who… have no voice at all in our society.
That was the message conveyed to those who gathered for a protest at Standard Bank’s headquarters in Johannesburg last week. Activists called for the bank to stop all investments in fossil fuel projects and redirect the funding to renewable energy. “We got 20 people inside their (Standard Bank) building and they sat down, that was their crime, and as a result of that, 14 armed private security personnel were deployed to drag these peaceful protesters out of the building and throw them out,” he said.
One activist was dropped on his head and lost consciousness, while others were kicked, stepped on, choked and punched. A Daily Maverick journalist was also manhandled by security guards.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Climate activists, journalist forcibly ejected from Standard Bank HQ anti-fossil fuel protest
Activists refused to leave the premises until the bank’s Group CEO, Sim Tshabalala, addressed them publicly.
“On the third day, we felt like they were getting too comfortable with us being there, so we moved across the barricades to get closer to the door. At that point private security was deployed again, and again they were excessively violent with us. We did nothing but sit down and lock arms,” Dasoo said, adding that one of the activists was unlawfully arrested and they would be laying counter-charges.
“As a result of this we have gained a huge amount of traction and exposure across the media landscape and Standard Bank is scrambling right now,” he said. “It is a result of escalation protests, because I guarantee you, had we gone there with a memorandum to hand over, we would have waited two weeks for a response and never heard from them again.”
Civil society and NPOs play a key role for marginalised people
Nicole Fritz, executive director of the HSF, emphasised the vital role played by NGOs and civil society organisations.
Since late 2021, the Department of Home Affairs and Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi have faced litigation from HSF challenging the lawfulness of Motsoaledi’s decision to terminate the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP). The ZEP system was introduced in 2009 to regularise the status of Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa for political or economic reasons. It allows permit holders to live, work and study in the country.
In November 2021, Cabinet announced that the ZEPs, which were due to expire in December 2021, would not be extended. Permit holders were given a 12-month grace period until the end of December 2022 to legalise their status in the country by other means. In September 2022, Motsoaledi announced that the grace period would be extended until 30 June 2023.
In June, the Pretoria High Court ruled that Home Affairs’ decision to terminate the ZEP system – which would have profound consequences on the lives of more than 178,000 ZEP holders who have lived and worked in South Africa for well more than a decade – was “unlawful, unconstitutional and invalid”. Permit holders will now have another 12 months to remain in the country, without fear of reprisal or arrest, after the court ordered the department to conduct a proper public participation process as required by law.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Civil society hails court ruling declaring ZEP termination unlawful as ‘a victory’ for SA’s migrant community
Fritz has been heavily attacked on social media because the foundation decided to challenge the government on the ZEP, with individuals attacking her and her family and mobilising other like-minded people to harass and abuse her daily on social media. “That decision that we want reasoned, deliberative government decision-making and fair process has been subjected to an inordinate amount of controversy, distortion and disinformation,” she said.
“As civil society organisations and NGOs, we are not in the business of looking for popularity, oftentimes our causes are going to be deeply unpopular, but we can stand up and give voice to those who are marginalised, vulnerable, who live on the sidelines and have no voice at all in our society, and that is a really important space that needs to be protected.”
Fritz also spoke about how there appears to be an opportunistic move to scapegoat migrants, as a way of deflecting from the failures of a dismal government performance.
“We are also seeing that this is an opportunistic attempt to attack NGOs generally, and the language that is being used is that ‘these NGOs must go because they are enemy agents and have been infiltrated by foreign forces’”, she said. The response to this from the unsuspecting public had been provocative, and fuelled polarisation and division, which needed to be strongly resisted.
“We do need more of this (solidarity), and it’s not necessarily because we as civil society or NGOs are going to be necessarily aligned on all issues. But the challenges facing this country are enormous. There has to be a space for the deliberative, considered, reasoned, discussion, and robust debates,” she said. DM