Is Service Delivery Protest a Meaningful Act of Expression or An Act that Can Just Be Switched Off?

Information access democracy constitution
Thursday, 28 July, 2016 - 11:06

“…access to information has a critical role to play in the democratic process, writes Lebogang Marishane

After twenty two years of democracy and 20 years of the Constitution becoming effective; some parts of society in South Africa resort to the use of protests to get their voices heard. It is of concern that these protests are also joined by young people whom the future of this country requires them to be actively involved in equipping themselves with knowledge and skills to be able to engage and be active citizens in the running of the country. A question to be asked is – are these actions a desperate measure to polarise public opinion; are they effective in getting politicians to act? Citizen’s right to protest is affirmed by the Constitution; it is the violence meted out when protesting; that then infringe on the rights of others which is unlawful. The law does not dissemble unlawful acts through the invocation of a constitutional banner.
Access to information remains a critical element in keeping democracy alive; it is a catalyst to active participation; constitutionalism and informed choice. It further affords any citizen to hold those in public office accountable; as it’s a pre requisite for transparency. It therefore can be argued that the freedom of media to pursue its operational and constitutional mandate is critical to South Africa’s democratic processes. Information is at the core of engaging in any political processes in the country; and its running’s and it remains important to ensure that all citizens participate in the public sphere by keeping them informed and engaged, a mandate any public broadcaster should deliver on. It is a pre-requisite that the public broadcaster remain objective in its covering of news and this should be done accurately; fairly and independently. This would allow an expression of plural opinions; not restricted or censored which would reflect what is already circulating in the public sphere; as already accommodated in social media channels - an alternative unmediated space used by citizens for self-expression and covers events as they occur.
Although social media is used as a strategic and effective tool in the documentation and dissemination of messages by citizens; it still remains a costly resource for some. The documentation and distribution of these messages requires access to resources which in some instances citizens do not have. This further relegates the already excluded citizens from participating in the information society.

To promote and protect democracy there needs to be processes to build a knowledgeable and informed citizen capable of exercising their rights through various available democratic processes; including the ballot paper. The rise in the ‘service delivery’ protests are as much part of the expression that citizens understand; with its historic linkages to the apartheid era. The broadcasting space provides a perfect opportunity to engage citizens and contributes to the importance of national issues. The positioning of events as important by giving them greater significance by giving them presence in the agenda is the democratic role of the media; a deliberate decision contrary to this is a distortion of reality.

The recent political history of South Africa provides a narrative characterised by censorship; a policy under the apartheid regime aimed at silencing the dissidents and misrepresenting the political realities at the time. It is against this context that in a constitutional democracy as young as South Africa; the media needs to play its democratic role; provide material that informs. Citizen’s voices; in the realm of the constitution – in any way expressed – need to be viewed as meaningful.

It is important for institutions that are suppliers of guiding frameworks to step up. In the instance of the South African Broadcasting Corporation – the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa did indeed step up and demonstrated its democratic role. While the matter of freedom of expression has created much debate; it should be noted that access to information has a critical role to play in the democratic process. It is at the very core of civic participation; constitutionalism and freedom of choice; as it supports the principles of democracy. Media’s contribution to shaping democracy in our country is determined by the socio political and legal context. In serving communities vigilance has to be exercised to ensure these contexts are shaped by the citizens themselves.

  • Lebogang Marishane is a feminist; an ICT activist; and writes under her personal signature. 

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