Last week’s Constitutional Court ruling upholding people’s rights to claim compensation for damages caused during a march by the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) in 2006, has important implications for all future protest marches.

Satawu’s riotous march through the centre of Cape Town during May 2006 resulted in extensive damage to property. An estimated 39 protesters were arrested on the day. Most of them were released on bail of R1 000 and the charges were dropped.

However, no one was held financially accountable for the damage.

As mayor at that time, I asked the city’s legal teams to institute damage claims on behalf of citizens who had suffered losses during the march. This was opposed by Cosatu. After six long years, the Concourt last week upheld the judgments of both the Western Cape High Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal that Satawu can at last be held liable for the damage caused during their march.

The significance of this ruling becomes evident if one looks at the large number of marches that have resulted in violence, vandalism and looting in recent years.

For example:

l A protest by Satawu workers in Joburg in February last year where freight workers smashed the windows of 10 trucks and pulled drivers out of their vehicles and forced them to join the march. Petrol bombs were also thrown at a truck during the protest action.

l A National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) strike in July last year, where workers vandalised factory properties and intimidated and assaulted factory workers who were not striking.

l A SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) strike in August last year that resulted in widespread damage to public property including shop and car windows, R92 000 worth of plastic bins in Cape Town and municipal property in Durban.

l Protests near Impala Platinum’s Rustenberg mine in February, where thousands of miners including Numsa members burnt tyres, torched a police office and stoned police cars and private vehicles.

l In March this year, Satawu members protesting against the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) allegedly torched six trains in Joburg.

l The 2006 security guard strike in Cape Town that resulted in damage estimated at R1.5 million to municipal and private property and which served as the focus of the five-year precedent-setting case that led to the Concourt judgment.

We must celebrate and defend our constitutional right to march, protest and demonstrate peacefully. We fought hard to win these rights.

However, this right is not an excuse for lawlessness.

When state property is damaged, ratepayers carry the burden of the municipality’s replacing or repairing infrastructure.

A protest march rampaging through a business community can destroy many livelihoods.

Up to now, trade unions have argued that they cannot be held liable for these damages because this violence is sometimes caused by criminal elements and opportunists taking advantage of the protest action and not by union members.

Satawu argued before the courts that they had deployed 500 marshals and called for a peaceful protest, claiming it had done everything possible to prevent violence.

The courts set the bar higher and held Satawu to account.

This paves the way for eight people, including a street vendor, a flower seller and people whose cars had been vandalised during the protest, to claim damages from Satawu for their vandalised property and lost income.

Even though the amounts involved are not particularly large, it was worth fighting for the principle underpinning the civil claim that must still follow.

We succeeded in upholding the Regulation of Gatherings Act, which deems organisations liable for damage caused during a legal gathering organised by them if the violence was reasonably foreseeable.

While this judgment is groundbreaking, it is important to note that it is only the first leg of the battle.

The claimants now have to prove that the damage caused during the security guard strike in 2006 was “reasonably foreseeable” in order to get the money they have claimed from Satawu.

Perhaps the judgment will also ensure that trade union leaders think twice before making statements that encourage violence.

Just last month, when the DA planned a peaceful march to hand over a petition at Cosatu House in Joburg, Numsa’s Irvin Jim called for “open political warfare”.

Time will tell whether trade union leaders will take note of the judgment and exercise the restraint the constitution requires. The highest court in the land has instructed them to do so.

l Helen Zille is premier of the Western Cape and leader of the DA.