30 August 2016

How information enables protest: SAHA attends Right to Protest Workshop

The right to information does not exist in a vacuum. Information, on its own, is unable to address the concerns of society unless it is combined with action. Information enables us to access other rights which is why SAHA was glad to participate in discussions at the State of Protest workshop held by the Legal Resources Centre when we attended the Public Interest Law Gathering hosted at Wits University on 29 August.

SAHA was present for the launch of the LRC’s website dedicated to providing resources necessary to enable the right to protest. SAHA has been working with the LRC on submitting PAIA requests for various records such as the make and model of the weapons used by the South African Police Service that will add flesh to the resources section of the website and was impressed to see the way in which the records are being used.

In a seperate panel, speakers on the state of protest in South Africa sought to bring to bear their experiences on the ground, the regulatory framework and inequality in the protest space to a room filled with members of partner organisations, NGO’s and members of the press. The presentation was intended to check the pulse of protest in South Africa through anecdotal evidence and a discussion of the available data collated by members. 

Professor Jane Duncan, a senior academic working out of the Journalism Department of the University of Johannesburg and who has worked with SAHA in the past, highlighted the inherent tension between municipalities both granting permission to protesters to march as well as being the source of frustration behind the protest in the first place. As the Regulation of Gatherings Act empowers municipalities to grant permission for protesters, there is the possibility for abuse as municipalities refuse requests for protest which would draw attention to the failures of the municipality. As Professor Duncan illustrated through her own examples, this situation can result in outlandish abuses of power as municipalities silence dissent to keep their failures private.

Ms Shaeera Kalla, the former president of the Wits SRC in 2015 and a leader in the #FeesMustFall movement, was quick to point out the maligned representation of protest in the media. The media, she argued, is biased in their representation as it is “only when protests turn violent that the media pay attention.” This failure to concern itself with the reasons behind the protest and not the site of protest is a failure of the media to provide balanced reporting on the state of protest in South Africa.

Ultimately, the panel provided real insight into the state of protest as a generation eager to use their right to protest within a state compromised with its failures to provide services to the people and highlighted the need for SAHA's work in submitting requests to municipalities across the country for records related to the Regulation of Gathering Act. 

In the end the workshop was an example of the fact that access to information is a unique right in that it can be used as a tool to make the exercise of other rights easy such as the right to assemble, demonstrate, picket and petition.