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Abstracts from some research conducted at HURISA (ISPV).

Marching to a different tune: the Regulation of Gatherings Act and the changing face of free assembly (1994) by Institute for the Study of Public Violence, (1994)


Mass gatherings and demonstrations have assumed a position of great prominence in South Africa’s political landscape. Since the legislative birth of Apartheid thousands of disenfranchised citizens have gathered in numbers to register their objection to governmental actions which have denied them their fundamental human rights. Public gatherings have therefore become historically associated with the deep conflict which has existed between the government and the majority of South Africans. Consequently the government has, in the past, greeted mass demonstrations with antagonism and sought to prohibit those which question either its authority or its policies. Furthermore, the security forces have on countless occasions resorted to armed? and at times deadly force, to prevent gatherings from occurring.

The birth of a new South Africa in which fundamental human rights are constitutionally protected, affords a democratic government the opportunity to develop an altogether new approach to mass gatherings. Instead of viewing protests and demonstrations with suspicion, a new government can embrace them as a necessary and important part of a vibrant democracy. Instead of forcibly dispersing those who gather to articulate their views, local authorities in conjunction with the security forces, can facilitate their movement so as to prevent harm and inconvenience to both protesters and the general public alike.

The birth of a democratic order does however present its own set of difficult dynamics. While mass gatherings aimed at registering some form of complaint against the government will always occur, demonstrations which seek to protest against the actions and policies of other parties and groupings are now likely to occur more often. The tragic events in Johannesburg on 28 March 1994, less than a month away from the April elections, have revealed the palpable dangers associated with public gatherings during volatile times of change. On that day thousands of supporters of the Zulu king converged on the city centre to display support for the constitutional recognition of the king in a democratic South Africa. Fifty five people died in violence associated with the gathering, sending shock waves throughout the country and the international community. This demonstrates again how vitally important it has become to implement a just and responsible system to regulate public gatherings.

The Regulation of Gatherings Act No. 205 of 1993 is an attempt to devise such a system. The Act is a product of a process embarked upon by the Goldstone Commission. The Commission established a committee to consider and report on: the procedures to be followed in the planning of a gathering, the procedures which organisers should follow before, during and after gatherings, the norms of behaviour of the participants in the gathering, the role of the police and security forces and the adequacy of present legislation relating to mass gatherings. The Committee then appointed an International Panel of Experts to assist them in their research. The International Panel then published a set of suggestions with regard to the holding of public gatherings which the Committee in turn converted into a draft bill. The Bill was circulated for public comment, subsequently amended, and was promulgated on 28 January 1994 in the Government Gazett (No. 15446)…

This paper is designed to perform two tasks. The first is broadly informative. It is designed to inform key actors involved in the organisation, planning and control of public gatherings of their respective rights and duties. It will outline the important provisions of the Act and provide an overview as to how the Act will work in practice. The second task is more analytic. The Act will be examined in the context of the current social and political conditions in which it will be implemented. It will be considered whether it has managed to straddle the often competing considerations of the right to demonstrate and the rights of the public at large. This section will probe whether the Act takes sufficient cognisance of the volatile conditions likely to exist in the run-up to elections and beyond.