The Return of State Repression

By Jane Duncan · 1 Jun 2010

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Picture: IGLHRC
Picture: IGLHRC

The South African Police Service (SAPS) has issued a directive to a number of municipalities not to allow marches for the duration of the 2010 World Cup. How many have received it is unclear. 

This ban came to light when a civil society march for quality public education, scheduled to take place on 10 June to Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, was banned last week. The Anti-privatisation Forum (APF) also planned to march to protest against aspects of the World Cup and general service delivery issues, but their march was banned too.

A snap survey conducted at the end of last week of other municipalities hosting World Cup matches revealed that a blanket ban on gatherings is in operation. According to the Rustenberg municipality, 'gatherings are closed for the World Cup'. The Mbombela municipality was told by the SAPS that they were not going to allow gatherings during the World Cup. The Cape Town City Council claimed that it continues to accept applications for marches, but indicated that it 'may be a problem' during the World Cup period. According to the Nelson Mandela Bay and Ethekwini municipalities, the police will not allow gatherings over the World Cup period.

Why this wholesale suspension of the constitutional right to protest? According to Johannesburg Metro police, the police do not have the capacity to police marches and the World Cup simultaneously. Yet Gauteng SAPS spokesperson Eugene Opperman has denied the existence of a ban, telling the Mail and Guardian newspaper that ‘there’s been a miscommunication. People are saying that there’s a total ban on marches, but this is not the case’. 

Given the weight of the evidence, it can be concluded that the ban does, in fact, exist. How high up the source of the banning directive goes is anybody’s guess.

The argument about a lack of police resources is not a credible reason to justify such a ban. Only under a State of Emergency can derogable rights like the right to assembly, demonstration and picket be suspended, which lend credence to the argument made by the education march's organisers that there is an undeclared State of Emergency in force for the duration of the World Cup. 

The talking heads of the security establishment are divided on whether an actual threat to the security of the World Cup exists. But what they agree on is that - to the extent that there is a threat - it will not be homegrown but imported. This makes the SAPS' determination to usurp municipalities' decision-making about gatherings difficult to understand. In fact, their actions imply that protest action is being seen as a national security threat rather than a traffic management concern mainly.

It should also be noted that there is no provision in the Regulation of Gatherings Act for gatherings to be prohibited because the police do not have the resources to police marches. This omission is for good reason, as it prevents more manipulative administrations from deciding, for self-serving reasons, to starve the relevant police structures of resources, and then ban protests against its own performance on the ground of lack of capacity. 

In any event, if the police are struggling with resource constraints, then the government has only itself to blame. In 2006, an ill-advised restructuring of the SAPS led to a reduction in the number of police involved in crowd management, and led to de-skilling, in spite of the fact that the number protests had nearly doubled from 2005 to 2006.

At the time of the restructuring, the Institute for Security Studies warned that the police should anticipate an escalation of protest action over the World Cup period, and plan accordingly. 

If they have done their homework, the police will be aware that mega-events like the World Cup tend to become lightening rods for a range of hopes, fears and discontents, all seeking expression in the international media. They would also be aware that internationally, the police have been forced to acknowledge that contestations around mega-events are a contemporary reality, and that outright repression of dissent is not an option. 

The Government Communication and Information System has identified the mega-event as a ‘communications opportunity of a lifetime’, as the eyes of the international community will be firmly fixed on South Africa for the duration of the Cup. 

But many who are unhappy with the huge expenditure on the World Cup, and local service delivery issues generally, recognise the same possibilities: as one aspirant protestor put it, “We will have access to an international stage. Don’t think that we won’t use it.” They will want to use the event to focus media attention on the simmering discontent in the country, the extent of which was brought home once again by a quality of life survey released last week by TNS Surveys. 

One trade union official, keen to mobilise protests during the World Cup, related some informal discussions with the police. They argued that South Africa’s image had taken a beating recently, with international images of the xenophobic attacks, violent service delivery and the soldier’s invasion of the Union Buildings grounds beamed out across the world. The police reasoned that the ban was justified to prevent negative messages from even finding their way onto the streets in the first place, leading the unionist to ask wryly, “Does this mean that we should ban democracy?”

The SAPS could well be motivated by the need to remake South Africa's brand in the international media as a land of peace, reconciliation and stability. 

As if this censorship of dissent around the World Cup is not a bad enough reason, a consideration of the facts suggests even deeper reasons for the ban.

The argument about a lack of resources does not explain why social movement marches have been banned, using the World Cup as the excuse, since March this year. The Ethekwini Municipality initially banned a march in March, apparently citing the World Cup as a reason. In fact, Durban activists have been reporting on police threats of bannings as early as the end of 2009. 

Marches have been banned in the troubled Vaal region since March, not on the pretext of the World Cup, but in an attempt to contain rising struggles against poor service delivery. According to the Chief of Traffic and Security, “The MEC for Gauteng Community Safety, has instructed that no permission for marches in Gauteng should be granted until further notice. This instruction is given by the MEC due to the volatile situation in the townships.”

Then in April, a march planned by the Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa in Vanderbijl Park for the 5 May was banned. In spite of the fact that the Vaal is off the beaten track in relation to the World Cup, the banning took place in response to a directive sent on April 29 by the Sebokeng Cluster of SAPS to the station commanders of all police stations in the Cluster, which reads as follows: “By the directive of the Sebokeng Cluster, Major General DS de Lange you are hereby informed that no authorization must be given for marches until the end of the World Cup 2010.”

An ill-understood shift in policing culture seems to be taking place. Activists in several cities complain that they are finding it increasingly difficult to march. Police are slow to respond to applications, and are obstructive in meetings to negotiate conditions. When they impose unreasonable conditions or even ban marches, they are generally reluctant to put their reasons in writing. 

With the local government elections looming, the World Cup must be a blessing in disguise for beleaguered municipalities facing the wrath of angry residents. They can now ban marches with impunity, using the World Cup as an excuse; hence their eager embrace of a directive that usurps their own powers and functions.

Seen in this light, the ban could be seen as an intensification of a recent trend towards suppressing the waves of protest action that have engulfed Jacob Zuma's administration.

If this is a correct reading of the ban, then we have a much more serious problem on our hands than a misguided, but ultimately time-bound bout of censorship. It unsettles the well-worn assertion of many political analysts that Jacob Zuma’s administration is more open and tolerant of dissenting views than the Mbeki administration. 

Many activists in the cities where the ban is in effect say that they have all but given up on notifying municipalities, and are marching anyway. Add the ‘shoot to kill’ approach, the moves towards militarisation of the police, and the beefing up of security capacity for the World Cup into the mix, and we have a problem waiting to happen. 

Do the SAPS understand the implications of their actions? If TNS’ survey is correct, and levels of discontent have reached dangerously high levels, it could take one incident where an over-stressed policeman - ill-trained in crowd management - shoots to kill in an 'illegal' protest, to spark a social explosion. 

Many South Africans who lived through the horrors of apartheid resist using the word 'repression' too lightly, and for understandable reasons. But if one considers the definition of repression by social movement theorist Charles Tilly as “any action by another group that raises the contender’s cost of collective action,” then we are, in fact, seeing the rise of state repression. 

Furthermore, social movement research analysing volatile situations over a period of two centuries, has shown that repression is an ineffective way of containing mass dissent. Ironically, it can fuel an intensification of mass protest, as 'injustice frames' are created around the state, strengthening the resolve of protestors to remove the state. 

Repression can also lead to grievances being driven underground, pursued by leaders who may become as belligerent as their oppressors. In some countries, the end result has been the creation of terrorist groups. So the solution creates the problem. 

Which way South Africa goes is, to an extent, in the hands of the SAPS, and if recent indications are anything to go by, our future is not in safe hands. 

Feel it. It is here -- the return of state repression.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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