Saturday, October 24, 2020

Botswana’s protest-march laws more regressive than apartheid South Africa’s

Michael Dingake’s recollection of his political activism in apartheid South Africa is that it was not a legal requirement to obtain a police permit to stage a public protest. That oddly contrasts with Botswana, Africa’s oldest democracy, where protesters are legally required to obtain a police permit.

The first attempt by the movement behind the #IShallNotForget hashtag to stage a public protest failed because the organisers could not obtain a permit. The movement was prompted by revelations that a Botswana Democratic Party councillor in Sebina had sexual relations with a minor (a student) whom he impregnated. In apartheid South Africa, the organisers would have had to do no more than what Dingake and his African National Congress (ANC) comrades did: announce the protest march at a public rally, distribute leaflets and relay such plans to the news media. Dingake, who was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma for his political activism, says that Special Branch officers always attended their rallies and so would know about any of their planned protest marches. They would duly show up at the marches because it was their duty to do so.

The explanation from the Botswana Police Service is that the application for the permit was submitted at short notice and that it couldn’t mobilise an adequate number of officers to escort the protesters. That may well be so but the drama around the issue, whose high point was the arrest of two women, would fuel suspicion that the police are sabotaging this campaign to protect parties involved in the Sebina saga – a veritable #YouShallDefinitelyForget counter campaign that has not been officialised on the twitterverse. While no incidents of violence were reported, it would be risky to assume that none can occur during protests. The police would be useful in policing the public protests to protect both property and the protesters themselves.

The obverse obliterates the need for the police. Dingake says that in the ANC protest marches that he participated in, the organisers made their own security arrangements.

“At every protest march or demo we had marshals to ensure order and protestors or demos would be under control,” he recalls.

Following his release, Dingake was deported back to Botswana. He joined the Botswana National Front becoming the first Gaborone Central MP in 1994 and four years later, led a breakaway group that formed the Botswana Congress Party.

It is yet unclear whether the #IShallNotForget marchers have this level of organisation but by all accounts, the protest was peaceful for at least as long as it lasted.  Dingake’s problem with regulating peaceful protests is that such official action interferes with constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties.

“The constitution gives citizens freedom of speech, association and assembly; denying such freedoms is unconstitutional,” he says.

At press time (Friday) the march was scheduled for the next day and from the forces arrayed against possible resistance, it looks like nothing stands in the way. When the two women protesters (media practitioner Pamela Dube-Kelepang and Botswana Congress Party Women’s League President Daisy Bathusi) were arrested, the Leader of the Opposition and Umbrella for Democratic Change president, Duma Boko, interceded on their behalf and managed to secure their release. (The women were deprived of their civil liberties for a period of time but the police are adamant that they were not arrested). Boko’s interpretation of the Public Order Act is that the role of the police goes no farther than processing a permit and that they are not empowered to decline an application to protest publicly.

The second irony is that in democratic post-apartheid South Africa, the Rustenburg Municipality has introduced public protest laws similar to Botswana’s.

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