POLICE Minister Nathi Mthethwa was on Tuesday called on to provide assurance that the Dangerous Weapons Bill would not be misused by police to simply arrest people on suspicion that they might commit crimes.
The bill provides that any person who is in possession of or carries any dangerous weapon or any replica or imitation of a firearm under circumstances which may raise a reasonable suspicion that they intend to use the weapon for an unlawful purpose shall be guilty of an offence.
Mr Mthethwa presented the bill to Parliament’s police committee on Tuesday, saying the intention was to create one unified law for the whole country on the carrying of dangerous weapons to replace the myriad old homeland laws that were still in place, as ordered by the Constitutional Court.
The bill clearly has resonance with the Marikana massacre, in which police shot and killed 34 miners who were carrying dangerous weapons. Ten other people, including two policemen and two security guards, were killed by the heavily armed miners. Mr Mthethwa said the brandishing of dangerous weapons at protests and marches had been on the increase and it was the intention of the legislation to prohibit the carrying of dangerous weapons, including replicas of firearms or imitation firearms.
Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald said he was worried that the bill would "become an instrument for unlawful arrest" because of the provision that people could be arrested on "reasonable suspicion".
He said the bill should have only one clause repealing the other dangerous weapons laws around South Africa.
Mr Mthethwa stressed that the laws of the land applied equally to those carrying dangerous weapons and to the police who might need to arrest them. He also gave the assurance that the Dangerous Weapons Bill would not be used to render ordinary people defenceless and was designed to control the carrying of weapons at protests.
Thousands of submissions from members of the public to the South African Police Service have complained that defensive weapons such as pepper spray would be outlawed by the bill in its present form.
The carrying of weapons at traditional gatherings and cultural events would have to have explicit ministerial approval.
Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler Barnard welcomed the bill as a "vast improvement" on the draft released in 2011, which her party and thousands of people opposed.
"The most important aspect of the bill is that it will prohibit the carrying of dangerous weapons and objects likely to cause injury or damage to property at a demonstration or gathering. After the violent protests of the last year, this is a very welcome move," she said.
"The bill is also clear that the context of a situation must be taken into account when determining whether a person intends to use a weapon for an unlawful purpose. It should be emphasised that the use of such weapons in self-defence cannot be regarded as unlawful. However, more clarity is needed on what constitutes a dangerous weapon."