By Dale T McKinley
February 20, 2021 "Information
Clearing House" -
In the general fog
that has enveloped our pandemically framed world, it
is understandable that we might not notice some
things that otherwise would have previously caught
our immediate attention. That’s exactly what almost
happened with the latest of President Cyril
Ramaphosa’s addresses on the state of the pandemic
and associated lockdown measures last week.
Like most people tuning in to the address, the
media included, what I heard very clearly was that
there would now be a slightly adjusted curfew
period, land borders would be largely closed, and
the alcohol ban would be reinstated; while noting
that the latter two were and continue to be
vigorously opposed by many.
When the president reiterated that “adjusted”
Level 3 restrictions would remain in place,
including that most “gatherings” remain prohibited —
with circumscribed exceptions for workplaces,
cinemas, theatres, casinos, museums, galleries and
libraries — my main response was to shrug and wonder
out loud when we might see the light at the end of
the COVID-19 tunnel.
However, after taking a closer look at the
regulations I noticed an entirely new subsection
stating that, “All political gatherings … are
prohibited” (in addition to social and faith-based
gatherings as well as traditional council meetings).
I had to do a double take to confirm the consequent
and indeed shocking reality.
As far as I can tell, for the first time in South
Africa’s history it is now (at least until February
15, when the present lockdown level is scheduled to
expire) a criminal offence for anyone in the country
to hold any kind of political gathering. This should
make us all sit up and take notice with serious
The journey of how we got here is as circuitous
and contradictory as the African National Congress’s
handling of its corrupt members.
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First stop is the definitional contradiction (of
what constitutes a “gathering”) that exists between
the foundational legislation (the Regulation of
Gatherings Act of 1993) and the initial
lockdown (State of Disaster) regulations
issued on March 18 last year.
In the former, a gathering is “any assembly,
concourse or procession of more than 15 persons in
or on any public road as defined in the Road
Traffic Act, 1989, or any other public place or
premises wholly or partly open to the air”.
In the latter, gatherings are defined as, “any
assembly, concourse or procession of more than 100
persons, wholly or partially in open air or in a
building or premises”.
This legal, definitional contradiction has
remained throughout, regardless of the varying
lockdown levels and specific rules and exceptions
adopted for particular gatherings (for example,
funerals, workplaces, entertainment and conference
To make matters even more confusing, it was only
when the country went to Level 1 in late September
last year that the accompanying regulations
introduced specific reference to “gatherings at
political events and traditional council meetings”,
in which both were “limited to 100 persons or less
in case of an indoor gathering and 250 persons or
less in case of an outdoor gathering…”
Not surprisingly, what this then translated into
was a contradictory enforcement of the regulations
as they related to “political gatherings”. As the
Right2Protest project has pointed out, during 2020
we witnessed grossly inconsistent enforcement; for
example, based on where protest gatherings took
place, who was involved and for what purpose.
As such, state law enforcement officials were
largely able to unilaterally decide which “political
gatherings” to prohibit and which to allow. This was
further fuelled by the lack of any parallel
practical and legal definition of what actually
constitutes such a “political gathering”.
And what was the solution to this regulatory
dog’s breakfast? A move back to an “adjusted” Level
3 lockdown, the reintroduction of the specific, but
undefined, category of “political gatherings”, and
their wholesale banning.
The new outright ban recreates the dangerous
situation where police may decide to prohibit any
gathering which they judge as “political” and for
reasons related to their own bias and not on any
justifiable safety and/or public health grounds.
In turn, this only amplifies the risk of
repeating the fatal consequences of poor training
and lack of accountability when it comes to the
use/misuse of force.
The legal and health-related basis for this
complete banning of “political gatherings” is, to
say the least, dubious. Here, we are not simply
dealing with a limitation of a fundamental
constitutional right, but rather its total
As this pandemic has so clearly revealed across
the globe, what started out as potentially
justifiable, health-centred limitations on people’s
right to “politically” gather have, in most cases,
quickly turned into politically saturated denials of
this basic right.
In turn, this has catalysed an increasing
state/bureaucratic authoritarianism, an elitist
centralisation of power and a general crackdown on
“political” criticism and dissent under the cover of
dealing with the pandemic.
Further, for the majority of humanity (workers
and the poor) the right in question is not simply
one related to legality as well as personal and
public health, but one of absolute necessity in the
fight against the pandemic and for life itself.
While there is most certainly a strong argument
that some of those who engage in “political
gatherings” are at risk of contracting and spreading
the coronavirus, an equally strong argument can be
made that the right to politically gather, whether
in a meeting or protest, is absolutely essential to
the basic survival of that majority.
This applies to a large portion of the
population. Here, there are particularly deep
socioeconomic inequalities, rising poverty, massive
loss of jobs, crumbling basic infrastructure and an
often-inept government that neither listens to nor
seriously engages with the majority.
More specifically, government corruption around
personal protective equipment, heavy-handed
enforcement and mismanagement of socioeconomic
support during the lockdown has only served to
further catalyse responsive political activities.
Added to the mix is a corporate private sector
that never ceases to find new and inventive ways to
further exploit workers and increase profits
regardless of the social, environmental and human
Further, given that these elites sit atop the
global rankings of white-collar crime and a mountain
of capital they mostly hoard or use for speculative
purposes, the necessities of political “gathering”
become even clearer.
The consequent and combined reality is that there
are few other options than to engage in “political
gatherings” (particularly community meetings and
protests) in order to try to ensure the basics of
life such as water, electricity, housing, education,
healthcare and food as well as the basics of
democratic accountability and responsibility.
These basics are and will be fundamental to
controlling and eradicating this and other,
While the current banning of the right to engage
in “political gatherings” will eventually be lifted,
the longer-term and more systemic problem (for those
in South Africa and in most countries across the
globe) is that the mould has been prepared. Our
individual and collective challenge going forward is
to make damn sure that the mould does not become
[This article first appeared in the
Daily Maverick. Dale McKinley is a long-time
political activist, researcher-writer and lecturer
and has been involved in social movement, community
and political struggles in South and Southern Africa
for more than three decades.] -