Thembelihle and the Criminalisation of Dissent

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Friday, 10 October, 2014 - 11:25

In a democratic state, government cannot utilise state apparatus to deny communities their right to protest and also to harass and intimidate them for advocating for socio-economic development 

“We did not just wake up and throw stones, the protest was planned, then police came and started shooting to disperse us,” says Bhayiza Miya, a community activist in Thembelihle, Gauteng. Miya is referring to the community’s 2011 protest, which led to him being arrested five times. During one of these arrests, the 46-year old father was arrested with his five-year old daughter who was kept overnight in a police holding cell with him.

During the protest, Miya was singled out as a community leader and was detained as a ‘preventative measure’ to stop protests- evidencing how community activists are targeted, bullied and criminalised by the state.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) latest research output, An Anatomy of Dissent and Repression: The Criminal Justice System and the 2011 Thembelihle Protest documents the lead up to the protest, including the state’s refusal to engage with the community, the protest itself and how in the aftermath thereof; activists and protesting community members were ensnared in the criminal justice system for participating in a legitimate and effective protest action.

This highlights the intimate relationship between socio-economic rights and civil and political rights. This is due to the manner in which the community utilised their civil and political entitlements to local democratic participation and protest to assert their socio-economic demands, and was reinforced by the state’s clamp down on the civil and political rights of protestors in an attempt to suppress such demands.

According to Michael Clark, legal researcher and advocacy officer at SERI, the report tries to understand the protest in Thembelihle specifically, but also rising dissent South Africa more generally. For SERI this is crucial as the existing narratives in relation to protest action in South Africa are almost always informed by the moment of protest and is rarely informed by a more comprehensive investigation into the events leading up to the protest and that take place in the aftermath.

Clark goes on to note that, “The arrest, detention and failed prosecution of the Thembelihle protestors clearly exposes the way in the state apparatus, and particularly the criminal justice system, is utilised to silence dissent and harass and intimidate communities advocating for socio-economic development.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • We are facing an increasingly unresponsive and remote state which refers specifically to the failure of formal participatory mechanisms to address the concerns of communities. This frequently leads to communities becoming isolated and frustrated, and means that turning to informal and more direct means of engaging, namely protest;
  • When protest occurs, the criminal justice system is not used for the genuine prosecution of criminal activity, but rather to deter and suppress popular dissent; and
  • Most importantly, the report highlights that without civil and political rights, and specifically the right to protest and mobilise collectively, it will be increasingly difficult for poor communities to assert their socio-economic rights.

Through this report, SERI hopes that by exposing the state’s repressive stance in relation to protests and community mobilisation, the state would reconsider how it responds to protests. “This can be done by creating more democracy participatory spaces where communities can raise their grievances and creating an enabling environment where protests are encouraged to take place in a peaceful and safe manner as opposed to the current restrictive approach,” notes Clark.

Through telling the story of this particular community, SERI manages to underscore the fact that communities often have long histories of failed attempts at engaging with different levels of the state. In Thembelihle’s case, there were decades of engagement and struggle which provided little relief to the community.

Koketso Moeti is the national coordinator of Local Government Action, a loose alliance of organisations working to promote democracy, accountability and delivery at local government level.

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