Ethics Institute responds to calls for civil disobedience

The South African Public Service Union (Sapsu) has called on South Africans to engage in non-violent civil disobedience until President Jacob Zuma, his cabinet and members of parliament resign.

Professor Deon Rossouw, CEO of the Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA) believes that there are five levels of ethical protest and that it is imperative to understand what each one entails. “We are dealing here with moral disagreement which is likely to arouse strong emotions, so we need to be very conscious of acting ethically in each instance,” he says.

The first two levels are verbal debate and demonstrations. Each are perfectly legitimate but must be conducted within the law and ethically—which is to say, with due respect for the rights of others, especially their right to dignity.

Boycotting is another avenue that is again legitimate, and this means refusing to participate. “Boycotting is legal but it sends out an extremely strong message, as one has seen in the consumer context,” says Professor Rossouw.

Passive resistance raises the bar somewhat. In this instance, one adopts an attitude of non-cooperation.

The final and most drastic level of protest is civil disobedience. However, says Professor Rossouw, this form of protest should be reserved for matters of the highest import, such as the abuse of fundamental human rights. “Unlike other forms of protest, civil disobedience is about changing the law, and to do that it takes the grave step of breaking the law,” he explains. “As such, it must be a public and political act, and cannot be based on expediency.”

This kind of extreme action is only to be taken as a last resort, Professor Rossouw believes. He notes that even the morally justified anti-apartheid campaign, for example, only took this step when all other avenues had been exhausted. And once the step was taken, it accepted the consequences of breaking the law.

“We need to be clear about what type of protest is appropriate, and what the consequences of that protest are,” Professor Rossouw believes. “At all costs, we have to steer clear of attacking the foundations of our democracy by the way we protest.”