It is disheartening to note that SERI, a public interest law firm has been forced to temporarily close its doors following threats that began on Wednesday to injure their employees and burn down their offices. This is after SERI settled a case against the removal of informal traders from the De Villiers precinct in the Johannesburg Central Business District.
In a statement released by SERI, it states that Nkululeko Mbundu, a member of the Mayoral Committee for Economic Development in the City of Johannesburg, falsely tweeted that the city had been interdicted after “locals were used as a front” to bring a court application and that De Villiers would be invaded in the morning as a result of SERI’s litigation. In a series of social media posts and in a media interview, Cllr Mbundu also claimed, falsely, that South African Informal Traders Forum (SAITF) is “pretty much all foreign nationals… with a front of South Africans”. He also suggested that the De Villiers trading precinct would be “invaded” as a result of the order. He implied that SAITF and SERI constitute “a syndicate with big, vested interests”. It is quite concerning that such reckless statements were spread by a government official!
Sonke is extremely concerned that Nkululeko Mbundu’s tweets, establish a precedent for citizens to intimidate human rights activists or civil society. According to SERI, images of the attorney working on the case were posted on Twitter, and people were encouraged to make threatening calls to her and tell her to “back off or else” or to ‘pay her a visit’. Both lawyers were warned to guard their backs and that individuals knew their locations and were coming for them.
Councilor Nkululeko Mbundu’s remarks are despicable and constitute hate speech and an incitement to violence against SERI and the individual lawyers working on the case. This targeted attack is an affront to the values espoused in the Constitution of the Republic.
In South Africa we have increasingly observed this rising trend of intolerance expressed through the media against vulnerable groups and civil society organisations working to advance human rights freedoms. Whilst section 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 provides everyone with the right to freedom of expression. This right is qualified in terms of section 16(2) that right to freedom of expression does not extend to the incitement of imminent violence or incitement to cause harm to another. Likewise, Section 10 of the Equality Act specifically prohibits the publication of words that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to be hurtful, harmful or incite harm and or promote hatred. It is the collective responsibility of public officials to nurture social consciousness, mutual respect, tolerance and prevent incitement to hatred or violence.
SERI has since reported the threats to the South African Police Service and requested that a case be opened against those responsible.
Sonke Gender Justice welcomes the statement read today, August 1, 2022, by a representative of the City of Johannesburg, condemning Cllr Mbudu’s remarks during the press conference organized by SERI. The Mayor expressed an apology but noted that the MMC’s comments do not represent the views of the multiparty government. Furthermore, the Mayor’s statement publicly condemned the statements made by Cllr Mbundu and urges all officials to seize and desist from making any inflammatory or inciteful statements.
The City does not endorse a cleaning of the City of Johannesburg involving the removal of poor black people. We trust that the City of Johannesburg will go beyond just condemning this act but follow through with holding Cllr Mbundu accountable for his reckless behaviour.
We hope and trust that the police will move speedily to hold those who posed threats accountable and the protection of SERI’s property including their employees.
Sonke Gender Justice unequivocally supports SERI and joins the urgent call for Cllr Mbundu to retract false statements about SERI and SAITF, and to refrain from making statements that could be interpreted as incitement or endorsement of violence against any person or group of people.
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Note to editors
Sonke is a South African-based non-profit organisation working throughout Africa. We believe women and men, girls and boys can work together to resist patriarchy, advocate for gender justice, and achieve gender transformation.
About SIRI here.