The legislation being used by the government to crack down on dissent at the North West platinum mines includes the Regulation of Gatherings Act 205 of 1993, legislation that was passed – according to constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos – by the outgoing apartheid government.

It was passed to “normalise” political activity in preparation for the first democratic election. In Constitutionally Speaking, De Vos’s blog, he reports this act affirmed that citizens had a right to take part in demonstrations and protest marches but provided for an elaborate procedure, requiring negotiations between the authorities and the organisers of a march or a demonstration, to ensure that they were conducted in an orderly fashion.

Coupled with the right to protest is a liability for damage caused by riots resulting from a gathering.

It included any loss suffered “as a result of any injury to or the death of any person, or any damage to or destruction of any property”. In terms of this legislation the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union was sued in 2006 after damages resulted from a union march through Cape Town.

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe cited the Dangerous Weapons Act 71 of 1968, passed in the era of prime minister BJ Vorster, for use in quelling mine disturbances.

On Friday Radebe was unable to explain what constituted dangerous weapons or how many people constituted an illegal gathering. However, he said the police were well versed in the law.

The Dangerous Weapons Act prohibits and restricts possession, manufacture, sale or supply of “certain objects”. These include dangerous weapons, firearms or replicas of firearms. A gathering is defined as “any assembly, concourse or procession of any number of persons” that turned violent.

Paul Hoffman of the Institute of Accountability in Southern Africa said he was surprised the government was not harking back to the Riotous Assemblies Act 17 of 1956. This legislation, which “is part of our law to this day”, was designed so that no agitator had any room to manoeuvre. The legislation would probably prove more efficient in addressing the problem of declaring “an entire gathering illegal”.

These three laws had not been tested for constitutionality, he said. – Donwald Pressly