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Taking to the streets
You have the right to take to the streets in order to march or picket. S.17 of the Constitution refers to everyone’s right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate, picket and to present petitions). Holding a gathering and airing grievances in public is one way to get the attention of people in power! But when organising a demonstration there are certain procedures that must be followed. To ensure that your march is legal, you must follow the procedures set out in the Regulation of Gatherings Act.
Steps to take when organising a march
Identify the convener
The convener is the person who is officially in charge of a gathering, and who is responsible for asking permission from the local authority. They are the contact person for your organisation.
Fill in the notice form
The process for notifying the local authority is as follows: Firstly, the convener fills in the notice form and gives it to the local authority. Secondly, the convener must take part in the negotiations at any meeting that may be called by the representative of the local authority.
A deputy convener must also be appointed, to replace the convener when necessary. A notice is a form containing the details of the gathering, the details of the convener, and, when it applies, the details of the organisation. This signed and completed document is handed to the local authority to inform them about the gathering.
The information requested on the form is listed below. Where the local authority does not provide such a form, the convener must create a document that is similar to this by writing down all the questions below and completing the answers. In both cases the convener must sign the form.
Identify the right person to give the notice to
The notice must be given to the responsible officer, either by hand or fax. The responsible officer is the person appointed by the local authority to deal with matters associated with gatherings and he/she has the authority to approve the notice. In Johannesburg, for example, the responsible officer is based at the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department.
Ensure the notice is given on time – at least seven days before your protest
According to the law, the notice must be given to the responsible officer at least seven days before the planned gathering. If it is not possible to send the notice seven days in advance, the convener must include in the notice the reason why it was not sent on time. If a notice is sent within 48 hours of the gathering, the responsible officer may legally prohibit the gathering without reasons.
Meet the authorities
In most cases the convener will be invited to a meeting by the responsible officer. This meeting is called a Section 4 meeting and is normally attended by the following:
The convener or, if he/she cannot make it, the deputy convener
The responsible officer
A representative of the police
Any other officer concerned.
The purpose of the meeting is to discuss any possible changes to the gathering as it is planned and described in the notice. The responsible officer or the police representative may want you to follow another route than the one described in the notice for security or other reasons.
Important: The Section 4 meeting is a negotiation between all parties. It is NOT the local council or police telling you what you may or may not do.
If an agreement is reached, the gathering may proceed in accordance with the notice as it has been changed. If no agreement is reached, the responsible officer may impose on the convener any reasonable changes to the conditions under which the gathering was planned to proceed. If the convener is not called to a meeting within 24 hours of sending the notice, the gathering is automatically legal and approved, and can proceed without any further formalities under the conditions described in the notice.
Can a gathering be prohibited?
The police or the responsible officer may prohibit the gathering only after meeting the convener to discuss the reasons why. The responsible officer must also give written reasons justifying the prohibition. To justify the prohibition, the officer must feel that one of the following will take place and that it will not be possible for the police to prevent these:
- The gathering will result in serious disruption of traffic
- The gathering will result in injury
- The gathering will result in extensive damage to property.
You can challenge this decision – if you believe your march should not have been prohibited, you may approach a Magistrate’s or High Court and ask the magistrate or judge to override the prohibition and give permission for the gathering to go ahead.
If the gathering takes place despite the prohibition, it will be treated as illegal. Any person attending a prohibited gathering is committing an offence.
When you organise a march make sure you have marshals and other activists to guide a demonstration and prevent it from getting out of control.
If the police act violently or break the law at a legal gathering, you should complain to the relevant police department and contact the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), which investigates complaints of criminality and misconduct against members of the police.