What is the role of civil disobedience in South Africa?

Social Justice Coalition activists chain themselves to railings outside Mayor Patricia de Lille’s office demanding action on janitorial services. Photo by Tariro Washinyira.

Sibusiso Tshabalala

18 September 2013

On 18 September 2013, twenty-one Social Justice Coalition activists will appear in the Cape Town Magistrate court for contravening provisions of the Regulation of Gatherings Act.

After protracted struggles on sanitation issues with the City of Cape Town (City), members of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) chained themselves to railings at the Cape Town Civic Centre on 11 September. They were arrested, detained at the Cape Town central police station, and released several hours later.

In the flurry of protests South Africa finds itself in, some may be too quick to dismiss protest action. But the SJC’s protest action is different. The 21 activists undertook an act of civil disobedience; a conscientious non-violent breach of law with the knowledge that they may be arrested or punished.

Civil disobedience has often been used to amend or challenge unjust laws. The SJC’s protest action adds another dimension: civil disobedience for the purposes of influencing and challenging an inadequate policy.

Civil disobedience, although closely related, differs from popular protest. Civil disobedience is not only an act of protest, but a form of deliberate resistance.

The City is convinced that the SJC’s actions constitute a ‘cheap publicity stunt’. Ernest Sonnenberg (Mayoral Committee Member for Utility Services at the City) holds that instead of chaining themselves to railings, the SJC should have taken the chance to meet the Mayor.

As the SJC notes, the issue at hand is that the content of an operational policy for sanitation that was developed by the City was not developed from the process the SJC and the City agreed to more than a year ago.

The SJC’s Deputy General Secretary, Dustin Kramer, commented on the City’s proposed janitorial service plan: “[The City’s plan] appears to have been produced without any community consultation. There are no implementation plans with timelines, budgets and objectives. These were firm commitments made by the Mayor and City officials a year ago.”

According to the City, the Mayor is willing to meet with the SJC on 8 and 17 October 2013. But the Social Justice Coalition maintains that this is too late for a matter that has dragged on for so long.

For the SJC, the ability of the City to deal efficiently with sanitation and involve community members in the process is lacking. And so, the disjuncture here is the interminable bureaucracy that overshadows government in South Africa.

Written in 1849, Henry David Thoreau’s seminal essay on Civil Disobedience is relevant even today. Thoreau wrote: “As for adopting the ways of the State, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone.”

Thoreau is right. The inability to develop a functional system for sanitation, one which community members contribute to and can own, could have already claimed many lives. Part of the SJC’s campaign was to highlight that the risks associated with poor sanitation extend beyond the health risks, to the lives of community members, women in particular, who are placed in danger each time they have to walk at night to access a toilet.

The SJC has worked closely with communities for the past three years to solve the sanitation crisis through public consultations with the community, submissions to the City, and interactive campaigns to lobby for improved and dignified sanitation systems.

Their decision to chain themselves to rails was far from a ‘cheap publicity stunt’ but civil disobedience at its best. Why were their efforts met with such disdain? Could it be that our government authorities only pay lip service to the idea of active citizenship?

Recent events in Cape Town, and elsewhere in the country suggest that the (constitutional) right to assemble and protest is being affronted. As public demonstrations have always been a central part of South Africa’s political life, those who sit in the halls of power have become uncomfortable with the raging sounds of discontent from the poor.

This intolerance conceals itself behind the instruments that ought to help the poor and marginalized. The poor are told to access the justice system through the courts or to participate in stale public processes that do not truly echo their sentiments. A check-box democracy: where public participation in developing a sanitation system is reduced to a “nice to have” instead of a requisite.

The SJC’s civil disobedience saga illustrates the conundrum South Africa faces at large. The celebrated instruments in our democracy – public participation and consultation — are either underused or dysfunctional. Conscientious citizens and organizations are growing increasingly frustrated at not only the efficiency at which government can act, but also, the ways in which government engages with its key constituents, the citizens.

Civil disobedience offers the bridge for this conundrum. Although not the panacea, civil disobedience enables conscientious citizens to not only voice their concerns, but to do so in a way that encourages expedient action and consultation on government’s part.

In light of the SJC protest action Paul Boughey (Chief of Staff for the Executive Mayor of the City) commented about the City’s position on civil disobedience as a tool to agitate for policy change and reform.

Boughey’s response was: “The City respects the right of any organization to protest within the parameters of the law. The SJC deliberately embarked on an illegal demonstration, purely for the purpose of generating publicity. This is quite frankly bizarre as they have numerous interaction over the last two years with the City. Further, the Mayor has offered them two dates for a meeting in October. The ball is firmly in their court.”

Boughey’s response draws attention to the contested idea of an ‘illegal demonstration’. Prominent academic and activist, Jane Duncan, has written at length about the diminishing right to protest in South Africa. Duncan asserts that part of the challenge is that mainstream media reports only on the ‘protests that go bad’ - those that end up looting, violence and damage of property; protest becomes a euphemism for crime. One need look no further than the ways in which the SJC protest action was reported by some sections of the South African media.

On the other hand, Duncan points out that the interpretation of the Regulation of Gatherings Act, originally proposed by the 1990 Goldstone Commission has been fraught with confusion.

Duncan bemoans the paternalistic ways in which authorities dispense the ‘right to protest’ through permissions. The Act does not explicitly state the requirement of permission processes for a gathering or protest to happen. The Act merely requires the convener of the protest to notify local authorities about the intention to protest. The considerations here include: traffic flow in the particular area, time, public safety and the safety of protesters.

The Act only allows for the prohibition of protests in very particular circumstances. But government authorities have fashioned themselves as dispensers of ‘permissions’ to the right to protest. And so we’re caught in a field where civil disobedience has to battle with the two-headed evils of bureaucracy. The one head is the type of bureaucracy that has slowed down the development of a peoples’ centred public participation system to enable organizations like the SJC and authorities like the City to cooperate meaningfully. But such organisations must contend with a bureaucracy that discourages active citizenship and civil disobedience. This bureaucracy is in the business of dispensing rights to citizens as opposed to protecting and promoting them.

The SJC’s battle with the City will not be settled in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court. Not only because law is an inadequate tool to contest power relations, but also because the action on 11 September last week was not only an act of moral conscience but a quest for justice.

Explaining their decision to chain themselves to railings, Dustin Kramer says: “It was not merely a protest, but an act acknowledging the severity of the sanitation crisis and the dire need for immediate intervention.”

After the assault on their right to protest, are the SJC and many other organizations must be wondering fervently about the place of civil disobedience has in South Africa.