South Africans generally show very little regard for the law. Reckless driver behaviour on the roads is but one of many examples of how rules and regulations don’t matter to many of us. Our constitution is hailed as the world’s most progressive and is envied by many democracies around the globe because of the many civil liberties it guarantees.
With the dawn of democracy, a new country was born based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. Sadly, more often than not, these rights are used to deny others the very same privileges enshrined in our constitution. Our Bill of Rights guarantees the right to strike and the right to protest. In exercising these rights, protesters often trample on other civilians rights.
Many citizens become victims due to the violent nature of protests, which result in various crimes being committed, such as damage to property, arson, looting and theft. Another right often misused is that of citizens to express themselves freely. We have witnessed recently how this vital right was abused with impunity on social media, largely by racists and hatemongers to strip others of their right to dignity.
A few weeks ago, something unprecedented happened that should have all of us worried. The Bill of Rights guarantees the right of all citizens to earn a living. A lawyer was denied this right by a mob that assaulted him outside the Tonga Magistrates’ Court in Mpumalanga. Advocate Nico du Plessis’s sin was to represent two men charged with the murder of a three-year-old girl, whose body has never been found.
Du Plessis claims he was severely beaten and says he dreads returning to court this week to represent his clients. The community is justified in being outraged by the murder of a defenceless toddler by heartless thugs. But we are on a slippery slope once we allow communities, gatvol with crime, to resort to mob justice and vigilantism, thereby taking over the functions that should be discharged by the police and the courts.
Another lawyer, William Booth, last year received death threats for his defence of two men accused of sexual offences against minors. Up to five letters per day were allegedly delivered to his home and office and Booth also received hundreds of SMSs from anonymous people threatening to kill him unless he pulled out of the case. Yes, we all are angry that criminals are unleashing terror on law-abiding citizens.
However, does this give anyone the right to violate other citizens’s rights in bid to fight crime? Another fundamental right outlined in the Bill of Rights is the right of people accused of crime to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The Bill of Rights also guarantees the right of an accused person to legal representation in a criminal trial. This is the service that Du Plessis and Booth were providing their clients as their way of honestly earning a living – a right the two lawyers are entitled to.
South Africa is faced with myriad problems including rampant crime, corruption and a faltering economy. But lawlessness ranks high among those challenges that pose the most serious threat to our democracy.