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Why is it that when white people march in Cape Town, police chill?


Marianne Merten has written on Parliament since 2016 for Daily Maverick. The intersection of governance, policy and politics unfolds at many levels, from tiny nuggets of information hidden in the voluminous stacks of papers tabled at the national legislature to the odd temper tantrum by a politician. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling, even after 26 years as a hack, there are few dull days in the parliamentary corridors.

Under the 1993 Gatherings Act - yes, one of the many apartheid laws still on democratic South Africa’s statute books - police are part of the permission granting process for marches and have a duty to protect marchers and monitor the situation, stepping in if there is an imminent threat to life. The SAPS must facilitate the right to peaceful protest. So where were they in Cape Town on Friday?

Normally marchers, whose numbers must be stated up front, are accompanied by marshals, who are clearly identifiable as such. There’s a route with a timeframe to walk that route. Usually, police accompany marchers – often in vans, but also on foot – as traffic police ensure the roads are kept clear for the marchers.

Not so on Friday when an estimated 30,000 marchers, not exclusively, but overwhelmingly white, gathered in central Cape Town. Yes, there was a Nyala armoured police vehicle spotted. Yes, there was a group of metro police at the Town Hall. Yes, a couple of policemen were spotted walking near the marchers.

But the protesters’ route appears to have changed at some stage in the vicinity of the Town Hall as the civil society march and DA protest merged into one. This deviation was allowed to go ahead. Not so at the recent Reclaim the City protests near the Western Cape legislature when the provincial executive was deciding on the sale of Sea Point land to a private developer. Then police told protesters they could only stand “in the designated areas” and would be arrested if they moved from there.

Different strokes for different folks?

On Friday there were no clearly identifiable marshals in sight, except with the group carrying the poster of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a veteran of peaceful protests in democratic South Africa. Many, including the biker clubs, made their way to Parliament without any apparent organisation: many white marchers, often draped in the South African flag, simply meandered through central Cape Town.

Again, different strokes for different folks?

Don’t get me wrong. The festiveness, lightness and smiles at the Cape Town march, with yoga mats, Rasta flags and many a selfie opportunity, was a delight.

But the visuals of Cape Town’s march talks directly to some of the deeply racialised power dynamics still affecting state institutions like the police, never mind society. It was first raised during the #FeesMustFall protests when white students stood before their black colleagues to shield them from the SAPS.

There appears to be an institutional culture in the SAPS that makes it easier to hard-line police, and even resort to brutality, black South Africans and their organisations. It is within the police’s discretion to assess a march’s risk level higher; apparently Friday’s march in Cape Town was assessed as the least risk. The higher the perceived risk, the greater the likelihood of SAPS in body armour with riot shields alongside armoured vehicles, even water cannons, rubber bullets and barbed wire. Is there an anticipation of violence, or of things going wrong, when black South Africans exercise their democratic right to protest?

That cannot be. There is one law that must be applied equally to all. Every time.

And for those white Capetonians, who came out on Friday and had a lekker day, with a photo as keepsake: it’s about social justice.

The call for social solidarity has been made, repeatedly and from a range of personalities, in these heady tense times caused by a Cabinet reshuffle steeped in political machinations in a country described as one of the most unequal in the world.

You carried the South African flag on Friday, not a flag representing narrow self-interest. Next time there’s a protest for affordable housing near employment opportunities, or one against the lack of decent sanitation in the city’s shacklands that are the home to the majority of residents in the city – Don’t forget to come out. DM


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