The Black Lawyers’ Association recently held an event aimed at evaluating the terminology used when referring to protests and exploring issues of transformation and what the law has to say. Megan Whittington reports on what transpired at the event, touching on some of the important aspects that were raised.
South Africa is often referred to as one of the protest capitals of the world. With our government routinely referring to protests as “illegal”, it may come as a surprise to some that there is no such thing as an illegal protest. Tladi Marumo a Rhodes University law lecturer, emphasised a need to transform the language surrounding protests at an event hosted by the Black Lawyers’ Association last Thursday in the Moot Room.
Joining Marumo as a guest speaker at “Does The Law Protect All Forms of Protest?” was local Magistrate Nomnikelo Jebese. The event challenged the characterisation of certain protests as illegal, prompted by the transformation movements that have been occurring not only at Rhodes University, but at various tertiary institutions nationwide.
Marumo began by addressing the strong presence of protest in South Africa, particularly around matters of service delivery. He stated that this is directly related to citizens “engaging with an increasingly unresponsive government” in a country where a large disparity in wealth exists.
The speakers went on to address the habitual dubbing of protests as illegal, stating that this concept is incorrect. “A protest is protected as long as it is conducted within the legal framework,” said Jabese. “If you involve violence and criminal activities then that protest is not protected.” Marumo explained that the use of language was problematic, as a protest cannot, in the eyes of the law, be defined as illegal. “There is a big difference between an illegal protest and a legally protected protest,” he said.
Jabese referred the audience, predominantly consisting of law students, to section 36 of the Constitution, which contains the limitation of rights. “Yes, you have rights, but these are not absolute,” she said. The right to freedom of assembly will become limited when violence and crime become involved in the protest. Magistrate Jabese emphasised the importance of taking responsibility when protesting and recognising that we don’t need to turn to violence to send out a strong message. Referring to the 1956 Women’s March, she said: “That was a peaceful March. And that was a successful protest. We still talk about it today.”