The issue of protest and police management of protest has come into sharp focus in recent weeks. On 9 March, SERI’s Nomzamo Zondo participated in a consultation with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly & Association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule. The next day, the South African Police Services (SAPS) responded to peaceful student protests with excessive use of force resulting in multiple injuries and one person killed. When police violently dispersed students on Wednesday 10 March by firing rubber bullets, they killed Mthokozisi Ntumba as he was leaving a clinic in Braamfontein.
The consultation was organised by the Global Network of Movement Lawyers (GNML) as part of an initiative to gather insights and best practices from lawyers who provide legal support to those engaged in mass protests and organising. It is envisaged that the consultation will contribute to a toolkit and report intended to educate lawyers on how best to protect the rights to assembly and association of those engaged in protest and organising.
In her inputs, Zondo discussed some of the major barriers to protest as experienced by SERI’s client groups which included unlawful and arbitrary prohibitions of protests, unlawful dispersals of peaceful protests, the use of excessive force when dispersing protests and the misuse of the criminal justice system as means of deterring protest action. Zondo argued that police tend to perceive protests as unlawful unless they have consented to them and that this perception is often shared by other actors in the criminal justice system who increasingly conflate the disruption caused by protests with actual violence. She argued that the criminalisation of protest is a key issue and that lawyers have an important role to play in supporting movements and communities in need of criminal representation and litigation for policy and law reform.
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