South Africans will not be cowed by Bheki Cele’s goons
By Michael Donen
“If they do not listen, they must feel!” declared a South African prime minister, responding to police brutality. When he said these words, in June 1976, the police’s victims were student protesters, not women. The minister in question was apartheid monster BJ Vorster, who later became president.
It is fair to say that in every respect, Bheki Cele seems to be modelling himself on Vorster.
While the country watched footage of police pulling riders off their motorcycles, setting off a smoke grenade and throwing stun grenades at women – at a protest against gender-based violence, no less – Cele responded by saying that the public must “behave” or face the wrath of the law, by which, it is clear he meant police violence rather than an impartial judiciary.
Talking to the SAPS in July, he sounded no less authoritarian.
“Whoever stands in the way of the SAPS must feel our wrath,” he declared. This is what dictators sound like, not elected governments. I know. Many of us know. We have heard this before.
Last Saturday, authorities viewed women and children standing in the rain, holding placards and making statements such as “my clothes are not my consent”, along with a drive-by protest against farm murders, as posing so significant a threat to public order that stun grenades were warranted and arrests were made on the charge of public violence.
Public violence is a crime that requires a number of people to commit acts which assume serious dimensions, and which are intended – forcibly – to disturb public peace. It ranks among the most serious crimes.
Public violence is the label that the apartheid regime spuriously attached to public protest against it.
In the time of the Soweto uprisings, Cele’s party, the ANC – and the world – rightly challenged this absurd claim.
The rule of law demands that law must be applied fairly. Western Cape law enforcement, like apartheid security forces before them, acted unfairly on Saturday.
A comparison with the plight of schoolchildren in Ashton during 1986 is worth making.
At that time, a state of emergency had been declared in terms of the Public Safety Act, ostensibly to protect public safety. Currently, a national state of disaster has been declared to protect public health.
Both declarations were purportedly made to protect the public. Both were used by the police to the opposite effect. In protest against apartheid education, the children of Ashton boycotted school classes. They gathered outside their school.
Workers from the nearby factory, armed with knobkerries and sjamboks, and supported by police, were sent to teach them a lesson. Thirty-six children – many of them badly injured – were then arrested and charged with public violence and breaching the emergency regulations. The police were not charged.
People are angry. And rightly so. History teaches us how things can develop. In 1986, the Progressive Lawyers Association (the predecessor of NADEL) sent a small team of lawyers to defend the Ashton students.
They braved a cordon of angry police dogs around a barricaded court, a magistrate who constantly threatened them with imprisonment for
contempt of court for arguing the case, and arrest, for doing so. The community lost patience with the farcical legal system. They fought back against their accusers and burnt their houses down. We exist at a similar inflection point.
It is not the people, but the state, that urgently needs to start behaving themselves. No matter how much Cele may wish it, it is not in the power of government to elect new people.
The South African people will not be cowed by his goons (which is what the police force becomes when they cease to be instruments of the law). It is in the people’s power to force this government out.
Cele might imagine that, like Vorster, his kragdadigheid will earn him a presidency. Were that to happen, he would not inherit it for long.
* Donen SC is a legal practitioner and listed counsel of the International Court.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.