This article by FRANNY RABKIN originally appeared in Business Day on 17 March 2010. To view the original click here.
THE Presidency yesterday backed down on a ban on marches to the Union Buildings after an urgent court application challenged the restriction imposed quietly in November last year.
Lobby group Equal Education went to court yesterday after it was refused permission last month to gather in the gardens in front of the Union Buildings and hand over a petition demanding more libraries in schools.
Yesterday the Presidency denied there was a ban and later told Equal Education it had no objection to its march.
But a letter written on behalf of the Presidency’s director-general , Vusi Mavimbela, in November last year to the Tshwane Metropolitan Police, directed that “all marches to the Union Buildings and the Presidency be suspended until further notice”. Equal Education’s urgent court application challenged Mavimbela’s “policy directive” as unlawful and unconstitutional and said it struck at the heart of SA’s democracy.
Following the Presidency’s U- turn yesterday, the status of the directive remains unclear.
Equal Education had planned three demonstrations next week in Cape Town, Polokwane and Pretoria, as part of its campaign for libraries in schools. The participants were expected to be predominantly schoolchildren.
But its request to the Tshwane police to march to the Union Buildings was met with a blanket refusal, it said in court papers.
Mavimbela’s office also refused permission for the organisation to hand over a petition to the Presidency, it said.
The Presidency said yesterday that there was no ban, but it was “seeking to improve the management of marches” after a demonstration at the Union Buildings in August last year by South African National Defence Force soldiers ended in a violent confrontation with the police.
However, it encouraged march organisers to “channel whatever issues they may have to the relevant departments”.
“We would encourage people only to march to the Union Buildings as a last resort.”
But Equal Education said the refusal to allow its march was an infringement of its constitutional right to demonstrate, picket and present petitions.
Spokeswoman Yoliswa Dwane said the Constitution and the Regulation of Gatherings Act saw demonstrating “as an important form of expression that must be protected and will be ongoing in any vibrant democracy”.
It was also not within Mavimbela’s power to tell the police what to do.
Under the act, the director- general has discretion only over the “restricted” section of the Union Buildings, but not the public gardens.
It also argued that the police could refuse a march only if there was “credible information” that there was a threat of serious disruption of traffic, injuries, or extensive damage to property and that the police were unable to contain the threat.
Even in the area over which Mavimbela had discretion, he must still apply his mind to each request. A blanket prohibition was unlawful, Equal Education said.
In exercising authority he does not have, Mavimbela “strikes at the heart of our constitutional order and the principle that government officers may not exercise any power or perform any function that is not conferred upon them by law”, Dwane said.
Dwane said this was also a violation of the rule of law — which was a founding value in the constitution.
Equal Education’s court application is in two parts. The first, urgent part is to ensure its own march goes ahead next Friday. While the organisation must still get permission from the Tshwane Metro Police, the Presidency’s saying it would not oppose the march would probably remove any obstacles to it going ahead.
The organisation also wants Mavimbela’s directive to be set aside. Dwane said the directive also breached the right to just administrative action and the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act.