||Patrick Bond, Eye on Civil Society (The Mercury) 23 January 2008
Officials have abused many people's right to protest, most recently the
right of the Qadi to demonstrate at the Dusi canoe marathon
IN Durban, your constitutional rights are often limited if there's a
chance you'll create a nuisance. It's a complaint we've heard many times
before when it comes to ordinary citizens' freedom of expression.
Creating a nuisance is the ambition these days of O'Brien Gcabashe,
spokesman for an organisation called the Qadi Families Evicted From
Inanda Dam, after 22 years of frustration working through the system and
meeting officials as important as (a quite sympathetic) water minister
In 1987, apartheid-era officials displaced Gcabashe's family and
hundreds of others - along with the Mphephetheni and Ngcolosi
communities - in order to build the bulk water supply that we drink from
in Durban. Compensation for the Qadi land (R5.6 million) was paid to a
corrupt chief, leaving the displaced people with nothing.
Last Saturday morning, Dusi marathon canoes slipped quietly over the old
Qadi neighbourhood, after municipal manager Michael Sutcliffe denied
Gcabashe's simple request to stand on the water's banks with fellow
victims, to pray to their ancestors, and in the process to publicise the
land grab in front of athletes, the media and the society.
In a letter to Gcabashe last Wednesday, the city said: Credible
information under oath has been brought to the attention of the
responsible officer that there is a threat that the gathering in
question will result in serious disruption of vehicular traffic, injury
to participants in the gathering and/or other persons, and extensive
damage to property and that the SA Police Service and Durban Metro
Police Service will not be able to contain the threat.
Gcabashe's response was: It is ridiculous in every respect, and we
challenge Sutcliffe and the police to prove these claims. When we met
the police to discuss our aims on January 12, we said we wanted to
demonstrate our anger, but there was absolutely no intention to disrupt
Gcabashe's responsibilities under the 1993 Regulation of Gatherings Act
are to alert the local police seven working days in advance of a
protest, and then attend a meeting with them (within 24 hours of the
alert) to work out logistics, if requested.
But once Sutcliffe invoked the Act to prevent the Inanda Dam protest, no
matter how unreasonably, Gcabashe had another option: taking 14 other
people to the site of the protest, because the Act does not prohibit
such a small number from expressing their views.
The police believe otherwise. When I met their special events liaison
team on Friday, officers were quite hostile to the idea that groups of
15 or fewer could demonstrate in public.
In fact, no one need report to police any small-scale protest, according
to the Gatherings Act, and you may have more groups of 15 nearby joining
the demonstration, if they are 100m apart.
So Gcabashe gathered 14 people and headed to the park entrance.
On Saturday at 7.30am, a group of us were 1km from Inanda dam, on the
Hillcrest road, when roughly 50 police officers in 15 vehicles stopped
us, he said. The police did not listen to us, and simply denied us our
right to travel further, to demonstrate near the road, to show our
signs, or to sing and dance.
Threats of arrest followed and, indeed, the police officer on the scene
also told me that it didn't matter whether there were 15 or just two,
the Qadi demonstrators would be locked up.
After being detained at the side of the road, said Gcabashe, only at
10am were we allowed to proceed to the Inanda dam, after the canoeists
Freedom of Expression Institute director Jane Duncan said: When our
attorney phoned on Saturday to clarify why the gathering had been
prohibited, she was told by the police that they did not have
information on oath: a direct contradiction of what the prohibition
said. She was then given a litany of excuses. This is an abuse of power.
Supt Winnie Xama, of the police's special events unit, explained to me
that Gcabashe and his community aimed to occupy public land that was
leased to the Dusi marathon, a bizarre notion. She also declared the
power to judge what day a protest could occur. Any other time he's
welcome to come and do the prayer, but not on the day that he wants. I
know he wants publicity, she said.
Well, of course the Qadi people and others displaced want publicity.
That's the whole point behind raising their voice, when the state plays
How many others need publicity to correct historic and contemporary
wrong-doing? The shack-dwellers of Kennedy Road and other Abahlali
baseMjondolo communities do, but were denied their right to march to
City Hall in February 2006, though Sutcliffe's ban was overturned by a
judge after the march was due to start.
Informal traders were arrested in their hundreds and subjected to police
brutality in June 2007. Last year, too, a variety of activists were
denied the right to protest in the centre of town after the police
Between June and October, the DA and IFP protested against street name
changes (27 000 citizens' applications to reconsider the new names were
dismissed with no reasons given), the ANC attacked the National
Prosecuting Authority, and trade unionists protested against municipal
On two occasions, eThekwini threatened to prohibit all downtown marches
to ensure no disruption to business and trading takes place.
A Mercury report in October said: Heavily armed riot police, snipers on
rooftops and police helicopters combined to prevent former Remant Alton
bus drivers and Durban Solid Waste workers from marching.
Durban's Zimbabwean refugee community had tried to hold four anti-Mugabe
protests last year, said Shepherd Zvavanhu, a local Movement for
Democratic Change organiser, but to no avail. They always turned us
down, for no good reason, he said.
Denial of rights is not limited to the central business district. South
Durban Community Environmental Alliance members were harassed twice last
year after they notified the police about demonstrations against Engen
for regular explosions and against Transnet for its pipeline proposal.
Last April, the day before a march against Engen, the alliance had the
high court interdict the municipality to reverse its ban, so the protest
went ahead with no problems.
Typical police practice is to wait until the day before the protest,
before ruling on its legality and then issuing a permit which, in any
case, is not required by law.
For example, my colleague Prof Dennis Brutus reckoned a few dozen local
critics of Washington's foreign policy would turn out to throw shoes at
the fence near the US Consulate on Monday, George W Bush's last day in
office. This was in honour of Iraqi journalist Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, who
flung two shoes at Bush last month.
But police permission was granted only at 8.20am the day of the protest,
so we postponed and Brutus suggested a proper event on March 5.
See you then, City Manager, along with others who want to express
dissent in a creative and non-violent manner about genuine grievances:
too-expensive water and electricity, with often nonexistent sanitation;
ubiquitous shack fires and growing housing backlogs; missing Blue Flags;
sewage-marinated fish and enterococci-clad surfers at a dying Vetch's
beach; fatally privatised buses; police corruption; no-fishing zones in
the harbour; City Hall nudges and winks at industrial pollution and a
top-secret evacuation plan for South Durban; irrational rate increases;
pseudo-radical street renaming; ruling-party hackery; and myriad other
crimes against good governance.
Likewise, promised Gcabashe: We will certainly be back at our ancestral
home, on the banks of the Inanda dam. We intend to fight for our
democratic rights of protest. And for the land that was stolen from us
by an apartheid government.
Gcabashe aims to overturn a double indignity: losing ancestral land to
apartheid within living memory, and then losing his right to protest
against that crime by a post-apartheid government that he voted for.