Access to Justice
The Right to Protest is entrenched in our Constitution, because its drafters recognised that, due to historic inequalities, certain voices require the amplification which a group can bring. Unfortunately, this right, more than many, is subject to many social limitations, most notably the suppression of protest by police or private security in the defence of that which the protest seeks to expose.
Protesters in South Africa are exposed to stun grenades, pepper spray, rubber bullets, physical assault and, even, live ammunition. More than this, protests are often unfairly depicted in the mainstream media, which focuses on the manner in which protest is conducted more than it does upon the reason for the protest itself. The prevailing narrative is that of violent protesters being met with lawful force, rather than examining the reasons why protests devolve into violence, and whether the force which meets it is either reasonable or necessary.
More violence then follows when protesters are criminally charged, and subjected to the adversarial criminal justice system. Violence is not limited to acts of destruction of property or injury of person. Violence is at its most pernicious when it inflicts psychological harm, and this is the violence which most protests seek to expose. The violence of poverty, the violence of racism, the violence of rape culture, the violence of exclusion. When we accept that the violence experienced by protesters in their daily lives is the reason for the protest, we can begin to appreciate why violence follows suppression of protest. That does not excuse it, but it contextualises it. Access to Justice believes that restorative justice is both a more effective means of dealing with crimes which are the direct result of our unequal society than the criminalisation of those who speak out against it.
If we want to uphold the right to protest, and limit the violent repercussions of those protests, we cannot suppress the voices of the protesters. Instead, we need to amplify these voices in a space which is protective of protester and public. We need to create a space where true engagement can take place. Until such time as we have a more equitable society, however, this means that we have to provide resources to protesters, to assist them in occupying that space, and then we need to provide resources to assist them in using that space.
These resources include:
- logistical assistance in the form of transport money, airtime, data, photocopying charges;
- support in the form of legal assistance, medical support, trauma counselling;
- interventions in the form of mediators who will facilitate meaningful exchange with the target of the protests;
- honest reporting in the mainstream media, through press releases, interviews and opinion pieces which accurately reflect the agenda of the protesters.
Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is, rather, the system which allows conflict to be unpacked, examined and resolved, not just for a moment, but for generations to come.