HBS: Representatives  of the South African government are increasingly reverting to negative characterizations of non-governmental  organisations (NGOs). Do words matter?

Sali: Words  do matter. The negative characterisation of social  movements by political leaders is aimed at mobilising communities against them. Social movements in South Africa are often referred to as part of the  “third forces”  and  “regime change agents” that seek to destabilise  and  overthrow the  democratic government. For example, the minister of state security responsible for the  country’s intelligence sector, David  Mahlobo, has  labelled NGOs as “enemies of the  state” and “counter–revolutionary”. Such allegations are absurd and baseless.

Social  movements and  NGOs in South Africa are  advocating for the respect and  implementation of the provisions of the Bill of Rights enshrined in our  Constitution. The Social Justice Coalition [SJC] in Khayelitsha, Cape Town is advocating for access to basic services such as toilets. How is that campaign for access to services an agenda to overthrow the state?

A handout photograph made available by the South African Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) showing Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) supporters marching to handover a memorandum amongst them is the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and the UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, to the AIDS 2016 Conference in Durban, South Africa, 18 July 2016. South Africa is hosting the AIDS 2016 Conference scheduled for Durban, from 18-22 July 2016. EPA/Siyasanga Mbambani / GCIS /

A handout photograph made available by the South African Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) showing Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) supporters marching to handover a memorandum amongst them is the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and the UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, to the AIDS 2016 Conference in Durban, South Africa, 18 July 2016. South Africa is hosting the AIDS 2016 Conference scheduled for Durban, from 18-22 July 2016. EPA/Siyasanga Mbambani / GCIS /

Political leaders are  hiding their failures behind inflammatory words and  rhetoric. This has, to a certain extent, impacted on the attitudes of community members against social movements. I remember in October 2015, we were advocating for a fair re-allocation of police resources in black  communities. I received a text message from  an ANC [African National Congress] ward  councillor in Khayelitsha that read, “SJC is a truly counter-revolutionary organisation. It needs to be nipped out of our society.”

What other developments do you observe that threaten  to close down the space for civic engagement?

A major threat to civil society is the harassment of activists and  social movements by state security agencies.

Many  different examples can  be  cited  here:  the  surveillance of activists by state intelligence services, as documented in Right2Know’s report, Big Brother Exposed; the disappearance and subsequent arrest of Vusi Mahlangu, an #OutsourcingMustFall activist in Umtata, East- ern  Cape  in March 2016; or the  detention without trial of some SJC members while collecting evidence for the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry that investigated the  breakdown of relations between the South African Police Services  and  the community of Khayelitsha.

Economic Freedom Fighters supporters parade a mock casket with African National Congress symbols during the EFF official local election manifesto launch at Soweto's Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg on April 30, 2016. AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN

Economic Freedom Fighters supporters parade a mock casket with African National Congress symbols during the EFF official local election manifesto launch at Soweto’s Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg on April 30, 2016. AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN

The attempted murder of Andile Lili, the leader of Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement in Cape Town, or the killing of EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] supporters in hostels in Tembisa, Johannesburg during the  local  government elections campaigns in 2016, exposes the  high  level of intolerance and  willingness to use violence against political opponents in our country.

In May 2016, the Durban High Court found guilty two ANC councillors for the murder of a branch chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo. Thuli Ndlovu was silenced by machine guns  and  bullets because she fought and  advocated for the  restoration of dignity of black  people residing in informal settlements. Thuli is one of many Abahlali baseMjondolo members who lost their lives because of their activism. Unlike in Thuli’s case, in most cases  of violence against activists there are no arrests or convictions made.

The February 2015 anti-TAC [Treatment Action Campaign] protest by the ANC Youth League in Free State is also worrying. The ANC Youth League  called  for the  deregistration of an organisation that is doing nothing but advocating for better healthcare services for black people in that province.

Picture taken 21 December 2005 shows shacks on one of Durban's hills. From the slums of Durban, a new movement is giving voice to millions of South Africans living in shacks and increasingly feeling forgotten by the post-apartheid government. Abahlali Base Mjondolo, the Zulu name for shack dwellers, is the largest group to emerge from South Africa's "informal settlements", the sprawling slums of wood, corrugated steel and cardboard shacks that have mushroomed near cities. Photo: ANP/AFP GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

Picture taken 21 December 2005 shows shacks on one of Durban’s hills. From the slums of Durban, a new movement is giving voice to millions of South Africans living in shacks and increasingly feeling forgotten by the post-apartheid government. Abahlali Base Mjondolo, the Zulu name for shack dwellers, is the largest group to emerge from South Africa’s “informal settlements”, the sprawling slums of wood, corrugated steel and cardboard shacks that have mushroomed near cities. Photo: ANP/AFP GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

Lastly, there is the current stance by the public broadcaster, SABC, to broadcast more happy sunshine news and to not broadcast violence and  “sad”  news.  This is a direct attack on civil society and  active  citizenry. The SABC attempts to delegitimise the campaigns of grassroots organisations and  other movements that dare to question the government. The SABC’s action also closes space for critical engagement and deprives South Africans of a right to fair and  unbiased information.

To what extent does legislation play a role? Are there efforts to introduce restrictive NGO regulation?

In June  2016, Africa  Confidential reported that there is a draft  legislation that is aimed at closing the  space for NGOs in South Africa. The publication alleges  that the  draft  legislation intends to monitor foreign funding of NGOs in South Africa and  also threatens deregistration of the so-called “enemies of the state”. Nothing has been made public as of yet.

But there are also other pieces of legislation that threaten civil society and  the  fundamental values  and  principles of our  Constitution. This includes the  Protection of State  Information Bill, which seeks to muzzle whistle-blowers and, among other issues, is in contravention  of section 16 of the  Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. This so-called Secrecy  Bill has however not  been signed into  law yet and  has  been gathering dust on President Zuma’s desk since  November 2013.

South African president Jacob Zuma reacts as he answers questions from opposition parties in parliament, Cape Town, 06 August 2015. President Zuma faces widespread criticism in parliament with questions being raised over alleged, a national electricity crisis out of control, rising unemployment and an ailing economy topping the list of failures under his tenure. Photo: ANP/EPA/Nic Bothma

South African president Jacob Zuma reacts as he answers questions from opposition parties in parliament, Cape Town, 06 August 2015. President Zuma faces widespread criticism in parliament with questions being raised over alleged, a national electricity crisis out of control, rising unemployment and an ailing economy topping the list of failures under his tenure. Photo: ANP/EPA/Nic Bothma

In October 2015, 94 community healthcare workers in Free State province were  found guilty  in the  Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court for contravening the Regulation of Gatherings Act. The workers held a peaceful night vigil calling for the betterment of healthcare services in public hospitals.

The Regulation of Gatherings Act criminalises activism. Fifteen or more people gathering for a political cause and  human rights issues are deemed criminals if they were not issued a notice by local authorities, and  yet 15 or more people gathering to watch a football match or a public music concert in a shopping centre are not deemed to be criminals. The Regulation of Gatherings Act is intended for a police state and  not for a constitutional democracy.

SJC has its very own experiences with the Regulation of Gatherings Act. Tell us more about them.

In September 2013, 21 SJC activists were arrested for chaining them- selves  outside of the  Cape  Town  Civic Centre. The  activists were peacefully requesting the mayor of Cape Town to improve sanitation facilities in the 204 informal settlements in Cape Town.

The 21 activists were  charged for contravening section 12 (1)(a) of the  Regulation of Gatherings Act. In April 2015, 10 of the  21 activists were found guilty and  were handed a suspended sentence. In the judgment, Magistrate Alta Fredericks found that there is a reasonable prospect that the Regulation of Gatherings Act may be found unconstitutional by the High Court and  convictions may be set aside.

Protestors march to Parliament against the Protection of Information Bill. Photo: Steve Kretzmann/WCN

Protestors march to Parliament against the Protection of Information Bill. Photo: Steve Kretzmann/WCN

The Social Justice Coalition views the Regulation of Gatherings Act as an apartheid piece of legislation that was passed in 1993 to stifle freedom to protest and  to criminalise civil actions. We are therefore challenging the  constitutionality of the  Act. Criminalising the  convening of a gathering merely because no notice was given  in terms of section 12 (1) (a) of the Act limits  the right to freedom of assembly enshrined in section 17 of the  Constitution of the  Republic of South Africa.

Such limitation is not reasonable and justifiable in terms of section 36 (1) of the Constitution – the limitation clause. Therefore, section 12 of the Regulation of Gatherings Act must be declared unconstitutional and  invalid. If the section is declared invalid, the basis  for the conviction of 10 SJC activists will fall away.

Should the Western Cape High Court and subsequently the Constitutional Court indeed declare section 12 invalid and unconstitutional, the decision will have  far reaching impacts. This will bring  to an end the criminalisation of activism in South Africa.