Friday, August 10, 2007
Friday August 10, 2007 [04:00]
We welcome the decision by the Oasis Forum and the Collaborative Group on the Constitution (CGC) to postpone their planned demonstration during the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) heads of state meeting in Lusaka next week.
This is an important meeting from which nothing should be subtracted. This is not to say the constitution-review process in this country is not a very important issue. It is. But we have a lot of other avenues in which to express ourselves on this score.
And that being the case, there is no need for us to carry out demonstrations whose net effect would be to reduce our focus on regional integration and other problems facing our region.
This is not in any way to say those who wanted to carry out demonstrations have no legal or moral right to do so. They have every right, legal, moral or otherwise, to do so. But sometimes one can act imprudently in pursuit of one’s legitimate rights or entitlements. It is possible for one to stick to principles but at the same time act unwisely and in a manner that may be detrimental to his or her own broader interests.
But while we welcome the decision by the Oasis Forum and the CGC to postpone their demonstrations, we feel the police did not deal with this matter in the right way. It was not proper for the police to take away the legal right of citizens to demonstrate without their consent. The reasons being advanced by the police for stopping the demonstration demonstrate a lack of respect for the rights of citizens and a total disregard for the law. The law, as it stands today under the public order Act, doesn’t require the police to give anyone permission to demonstrate. All that the law requires is for the person intending to demonstrate to notify the police. That is all. This means that if the police have a policing problem arising from a shortage of manpower or other factors, they will need to plead with that person or group and reach some understanding.
But what we see is arrogance, with the police thinking they have got the power to determine when and when not one can demonstrate. It is time we all moved away from arrogance and lack of respect for the rights of others. Humility and compassion is needed in very big doses if we are to maintain the peace we so much talk about.
We cannot play around with our citizens’ fundamental rights, especially the freedom of speech and expression which is the lifeblood of any democracy. To assemble and protest, to ensure justice for all – these all rely upon the unrestricted freedom of expression. Democracy is communication: People talking to one another about their common problems and forging a common destiny. Before people can govern themselves, they must be free to express themselves. Citizens in a democracy live with the conviction that through the open exchange of ideas and opinions, truth will eventually win out over falsehood, the values of others will be better understood, areas of compromise more clearly defined, and the path for progress opened. The greater the volume of such exchanges, the better.
And we should never forget that democracies rest upon the principle that the government exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve the government. In other words, the people are citizens of the democratic state, not its subjects. While the state protects the rights of citizens, in return, the citizens give the state their loyalty. Under an authoritarian system, on the other hand, the state, as an entity separate from the society, demands loyalty as service from its people without any reciprocal obligation to secure their consent for its actions,
The essence of democratic action is the active, freely chosen participation of its citizens in the public life of their community and nation. Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy will begin to wither and become the preserve of a small, select number of groups and organisations. But with the active engagement of individuals across the spectrum of society, democracies can weather the inevitable economic and political storms that sweep over every society, without sacrificing the freedoms and rights that they are sworn to uphold.
A healthy democracy depends upon the continuing, informed participation of the broad range of its citizens. In short we can say democracy is a process, a way of living and working together. It is evolutionary, not static. It requires co-operation, compromise and tolerance among our citizens. Making it work is hard, not easy. Freedom means responsibility, not freedom from responsibility. Democracy embodies ideals of freedom and self-expression, but it is also clear-hide about human nature. It does not demand that citizens be universally virtuous, only that they will be responsible.
As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Government protects inalienable rights, such as freedom of expression or of assembly or protest, through restraint, by limiting their own actions. Every state must have power to maintain order, but the rules and procedures by which it does that must not be arbitrary or subject to political manipulation by the state.
The decision by the Oasis Forum and the CGC demonstrate a high level of political maturity and a spirit of tolerance and compromise. We wish other groups could emulate that. Yes, we want peace in our country but we shouldn’t forget that peace is a fruit of honesty, truth and solidarity. Peace cannot be reduced to the mere absence of conflict; it is the tranquillity of order. And to guarantee peace in our country, all are called to maturity, tolerance and responsibility. Peace is for us both a gift and a project, and something that we must work to obtain. If peace is to be established permanently in our country, the primary requisite is to eradicate the cause of dissention between people. And the actions that lead to peace must be concrete and visible actions where the government has to show the way.
Peace requires that all parties respect each other and that all, in turn, recognise and respect the government as a legal institution. An authority is needed to guide the energies of all towards the common good and the government is the instrument by which people co-operate together in order to achieve the common good.