Q&A: Defending the Right to Protest in South Africa

The right to speak out against injustice without fear of reprisal is under threat in South Africa. Right2Protest is a relatively new organization, founded to defend and advance the rights of peaceful protesters there. Recently, Stanley Malematja, Right2Protest’s attorney, spoke to the Open Society Foundations’ Human Rights Initiative’s Sharan Srinivas about his work.

What does Right2Protest do?

We try to ensure people are able to exercise a basic right: the right to express themselves peacefully. This right lies at the heart of democracy. Governments, and the business interests they frequently act to protect, often see protesting in different terms. They see protesting, and protesters, as a threat.

By contrast, how does Right2Protest see protesting?

We want the state to understand that people are taking to the streets to protest the infringement of their right to a healthy environment; or their right to clean water, for example. A protest should not be seen as a wildfire; people should be able to protest unarmed and peacefully. The right to protest is enshrined in the South African constitution; anyone should be able to exercise it. I hope that our work helps to place protest in the public imagination as a right, and not a threat.

And how do you hope to do that?

We provide legal assistance to protesters across South Africa. This includes providing legal advice to community groups on how to go about organizing a peaceful protest. We also file bail applications for people who are arrested while protesting. When our cases go to trial, we refer the matters to our member civil society organizations. Right2Protest also organizes workshops on how to better equip South Africans to organize and participate in protests peacefully and legally.

What drove you to take on the job as Right2Protest’s attorney?

I was driven to take on this role because Right2Protest is uniquely positioned to address the needs of indigent South Africans. It was formed as a coalition of 11 civil society organizations and social movements. Right2Protest listened to the grievances of protesters and responded to their trauma. I saw how Right2Protest is advancing the right to protest in South Africa and wanted to be a part of that.

Can you share a typical example of Right2Protest advancing that right?

Peaceful protesters often are arrested on frivolous charges. For example, one afternoon, recently, I received a phone call on the Right2Protest project’s 24/7 hotline. The call was from Soweto Township. The police detained five people for protesting against an electricity company that disconnected a community’s power supply without prior notice. My job was to get the protesters out of jail and get the prosecutors to drop the bogus charges lodged against them.

Another example: I had to rush to the North West province recently in response to a call on our hotline. I had to consult with leaders of a remote and isolated community, who were protesting against a mining company in their area that had closed a public road without providing an alternative route. Many of those protesting were mineworkers; yet, the company’s response was to obtain a High Court interdict order against the protest and dismiss some of its employees who were protesting.

Is it common for businesses or corporations to try to use interdictions that way?

Companies often seek these sorts of interdictions, or what some know as injunctions, to stifle the right to protest. They frequently put protesters in a position where they have to find (and pay for) a lawyer quickly in order to defend their basic rights. Given the distances involved—we are in Johannesburg and represent clients in the most remote parts of South Africa—this can be a huge challenge.

What are some of the most difficult challenges that you and Right2Protest face in your work?

Our greatest challenge is a lack of capacity, meeting the demands of those who reach out to us. Some police officers and government officials also have a bad attitude against protesters. We can overcome these challenges through practical measures, but it is not always easy. For example, I advise my clients that it is best not to protest after Wednesdays. Monday is the best day to protest because we have enough working days to bail people out if they are arrested, and they do not have to deal with the trauma of spending their weekend in a holding cell. I also tell clients to inform me before the protest so I can prepare for emergencies.

What are the goals for Right2Protest’s work in the next five years?

Right2Protest is gaining momentum. We are endeavoring to work with trade unions on how they can picket and protest in the face of new regulations on labor protests. In the next five years, Right2Protest must work to change the state’s attitude that protests are always violent. When we do workshops and we then hear that protests occurred without violence or arrests, I know that we are succeeding.

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