Hey, minister, leave those kids alone
Equal Education wants an apology from KZN education MEC and police for halting protest about plight of rural children
Advocacy group Equal Education wants KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Mthandeni Dlungwane and acting provincial police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi to apologise for allegedly illegally shutting down its peaceful protest to highlight the plight of rural schoolchildren without scholar transport.
The protest, which was to have included a screening of the film Long Walk to School, took place outside the Pietermaritzburg offices of the department of education (DoE) on July 11 2017. But Equal Education (EE) claims it was “unlawfully” shut down by the department and the police.
Equal Education said the film highlights years of struggle by their members to secure more effective scholar transport in the province.
Now the group has asked the Pietermaritzburg High Court for an order confirming that their constitutional right to protest was violated and that Dlungwane and Mkhwanazi must publicly apologise.
But the department and the police are digging in their heels, arguing that they had not stopped the gathering. They are also opposing Equal Education’s application.
“We had in fact complied with all the formalities in the Gatherings Act and the protest began peacefully. Despite this, we were approached by police officers and KZN DoE’s head of security who challenged whether we had ‘permission’ to gather and eventually ordered [Equal Education] members to disperse,” the group said on Wednesday.
When Equal Education questioned the order to disperse, they were told to approach the court if they were aggrieved, “but if we did not disperse, police officers would be ordered to use teargas on us”.
Fearing for the safety of Equal Education members, some of whom were younger than 18, a decision had been made to halt the screening of the film and to end the gathering.
“Shocked and frustrated at this flagrant violation of such a critical democratic right, EE instructed the EE Law Centre to write to the SAPS and KZN DoE about what had happened. In the absence of any meaningful response, EE turned to the court.
“KZN DoE and the KZN police commissioner have opposed our application. In their court papers they say the affidavits giving the view of learners on what happened are unnecessary. It is deeply saddening that our government should find these critical concerns of children unnecessary,” said the group.
The group said the state had made the assertion that their protest was unlawful because KZN DoE was not invited to the pre-protest meeting contemplated in the Gatherings Act.
It viewed litigation as a last resort but could not “sit idly and allow free reign on the trampling of the rights of EE members to organise”.
“For children in poor communities this is one of the only powerful means of expressing a political voice. After more than a year of waiting for an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and an apology, we are hopeful that our judiciary will ensure that justice is done, for EE as a movement, and for children, activists and communities seeking to organise and protest throughout the country.”
In papers filed in the Pietermaritzburg High Court in which the KZN education MEC and KZN police commissioner are cited as respondents, EE argued that the respondents’ conduct to shut down their protest was “unlawful and unconstitutional” and “violated the applicants and its members’ constitutional rights to dignity and freedom of assembly”.
“The unlawful conduct failed to give paramountcy to the best interests of the children who attended the protest.”
According to EE, Dlungwane and Mkhwanazi should be ordered to provide a “sincere and unequivocal public apology to the applicants and its members as well as to the public generally”.
The apology must be given orally at a place and time to be agreed with EE, and Dlungwane and Mkhwanazi were also ordered to convene a meeting with EE leadership within 30 days of the order to determine the time and place of the apology.
The venue for the apology must be in close proximity to Nquthu in northern KZN, and accessible for EE members in Nquthu, including those who were at the protest, and the public.
‘They weren’t threatened’
But in his responding affidavit, KZN DoE’s acting deputy director for risk management Andreas Ntshangase said that at no stage were the protesters told to stop toyi-toying, chased away and told to stop screening the film, despite the fact that it had been projected onto the wall of the department’s offices.
The protesters, he said, were also not threatened in any manner.
Ntshangase’s affidavit was supported by the department’s head of security, Mthokozisi Ngubane, and three police officers who were deployed to monitor the protest. Ntshangase also said the department had no knowledge that EE was going to hold a protest at its offices because none of its officials had been part of a meeting held on July 4 ahead of the protest.
“The failure to extend the invite to the department is strange in that the event in question was to take place at the department’s offices. It was important for the department to be invited for its input. It was important for the department to be involved in the planning,” said Ntshangase.
He said department officials, including himself, had been aware of the gathering for the purpose of screening a film for the public after being informed by the head of security.
The department was also concerned about pupils in school uniform taking part in the protest without authority from the head of department.
A meeting between Ntshangase and EE representatives relating to the venue for the screening and the presence of pupils without following proper procedures, failed to find a solution.
“I dispute that any of the alleged rights of the applicant and the persons present at the gathering were in any way infringed or violated by the department and the police commissioner,” said Ntshangase.
“It is also important to observe that the department also has the rights, in particular the right to carry out its activities as an organ of state without any interference. The failure to inform the department of the intended gathering also violated this right.”
The SAPS didn’t file papers, nor respond to queries.