By telling and reflecting on these stories, we hope to contribute towards integrating the efforts of human rights defenders across the southern African region. It is also intended to inform the policy community of the main threats confronting human rights defenders.
Locking down human rights
The main issue is obviously the Covid-19 lockdown measures and their impact on human rights.
In the last few weeks, all 10 southern African countries have issued public measures to contain the coronavirus. These lockdowns were generally of a minimum of three weeks, but are now all being systematically extended by an average of two weeks.
For example, on 9 April 2020, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the extension of the lockdown measures for an additional two weeks (at least).
President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe has already hinted that he may extend the lockdown measures and is currently reflecting based on recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
On 9 April, the Botswana Parliament endorsed the president’s 21-day declaration of a state of emergency and extended it to six months. This gives President Mokgweetsi Masisi significant power to make decisions with minimum parliamentary oversight. Civil society groups are already concerned about this, given the allegations already emerging of irregular tenders to procure equipment to fight Covid-19 that have been made and reduce government accountability to levels that are not normal in Botswana.
A quick investigation showed that southern African countries used one international justification and one of two domestic legal reasons to impose the lockdowns. The international basis was the declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic by the WHO. The local basis was either the declaration of a state of disaster or the declaration of a state of emergency.
South Africa and Zimbabwe declared a state of disaster while Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, eSwatini and Malawi have declared states of emergency.
These declarations have given extensive powers to governments to impose measures to try to contain the spread of Covid-19.
However, a major concern is the excessive use of force and violence by soldiers, and police against unarmed civilians suspected of breaching lockdown regulations. The violations include extra-judicial killings in South Africa and Zimbabwe; assaults with sticks, open hands and booted feet; torture including forced exercises like crunches, push-ups and rolling on hard surfaces and mud. In Durban and Cape Town, despite a government declared moratorium against evictions, there were violent evictions from informal settlements such as Abahlali base Mjondolo.
In all countries, there have been reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions. This comes at a time when courts are not fully functional and exercising effective oversight over the police or the executive.
To their credit, Angola and South Africa are reported to have arrested some of the security officers who assaulted unarmed civilians. In Lesotho, the Assistant Commissioner of Police Complaints and Discipline issued a Memorandum on 1 April 2020 to police to stop torturing civilians as “that was not part of their deployment instructions”!
In Namibia, Lt. Gen. Sebastian Haitota Ndeitunga, the Police Inspector-General also issued a statement denouncing violations of rights of people by the police on 8 April.
Sadly, other countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi have not taken any action against errant police details and soldiers who assault, torture or violate the rights of civilians.
As a result, on 8 April 2020, prominent Namibian human rights lawyer Norman Tjombe invited members of the public who fall victim to abuse to seek free (pro-bono) legal services to sue the police for compensation in civil proceedings.
Locking down poverty?
Another major concern has been the incompatibility between the lockdown requirements and extreme poverty. Across southern Africa, the requirement of physical distancing has proved a tall order if not impossible in extremely poor communities with no adequate housing in all high-population density locations in cities.
Almost business-as-usual movement of people as they scramble for basics such as food for survival is still common in South Africa. In Zimbabwe, Mbare and Highfields in Harare, Sakubva and Chikanga in Mutare, and Mzilikazi and Makokoba in Bulawayo also experienced almost business-as-usual conditions.
In Mozambique, the townships of Chamanculo, Mafalala, Polana Canico, Maxquane and Hulene in Maputo; Manga, Munhava, Goto and Nhamudima in Beira are near impossible to impose physical distancing due to overcrowding and limited accommodation.
Luanda, Lusaka, Windhoek and Gaborone have similar residential locations where physical distancing is almost impossible to implement.
It is fortuitous that, as yet, Covid-19 has not spread to such locations across southern Africa.
The other incompatibility with physical distancing is that communities in all these southern African cities have to scramble for food on a daily basis, making it difficult for them to remain indoors.
In Mutare, Zimbabwe, armed police expropriated and burnt huge quantities of food from the poor at Sakubva market under the guise of imposing lockdown measures.
Access to water
The requirement to regularly wash hands was also near impossible to achieve because of the absence of clean and potable water in many urban centres in southern Africa. Harare is just one example of a big city to have such a problem. The absence of water resulted in Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) mounting a series of public interest litigation cases in different provinces to compel the authorities to supply water to the people during the lockdown.
The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the right to safe and potable water for everyone and this is the first time that the lawyers have taken concerted effort to assert such rights in Zimbabwe.
As a result, on 7 April 2020 in Mutare High Court, Judge Justice Mwayera ordered the City of Mutare and the government of Zimbabwe to provide safe and potable water for residents of Dangamvura on schedules published and accessible to the public: The case was brought by Ephraim Matanda and United Mutare Residents and Ratepayers Trust against City of Mutare and the Ministry of Local Government and argued by human rights lawyers Passmore Nyakureba and Kelvin Kabaya.
In Zambia, civil society expressed shock when videos started circulating on 8 April of a ruling party official distributing masks made of their political party regalia.
The material the masks are made from did not seem to meet WHO standards, according to Martin Masiga, Secretary-General of Africa Judges Forum, arguing that “those cloth masks … offer 0% protection and 100% exposure”.
Vaccine development and testing
Civil society in southern Africa was engaged in hot debate after a video of two French doctors was leaked where they were discussing that Africa should be the main testing ground for vaccines.
The WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, condemned as racist the suggestion that the Covid-19 vaccines be tested first in Africa.
Prominent soccer players Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o were also at the forefront of arguing that Africa is not a laboratory.
The fear of Africans continuing to be used as guinea pigs to test vaccines to save humanity was raised in the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) discussion platform. While the need for the development and testing of a vaccine was generally accepted, there was concern after the video of the two French doctors had emerged.
In other news
Malawi: On 1 April 2020, prominent human rights defender Mr Timothy Mtambo resigned as Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation and Chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition ahead of fresh elections in July 2020 ordered by the Constitutional Court of Malawi.
In his resignation, Mtambo publicly stated his support for the opposition coalition against incumbent President Peter Mutharika whom he accused of breach of the Constitution and wanton violations of human rights, and abuse of power with impunity. He also announced that he has formed a new citizen’s movement called the Citizens for Transformation, focussing on democracy consolidation.
Mtambo indicated that his decision to join frontline politics was informed by the need to help rescue Malawi from what he referred to as “accidental and transactional leadership”. The former HRDC chairperson has faced numerous arrests for spearheading anti-government protests since the disputed presidential elections in 2019.
On 8 April 2020, the SAHRDN and the Pan Africa Lawyers Union issued a statement advising that the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (AfCOURT) has suspended the execution of a $29,000 punitive personal costs court order imposed against Charles Kajoloweka, a Malawian frontline human rights defender by the Supreme Court of Malawi.
Kajoloweka took the punitive costs order made against him by the Supreme Court of Malawi for scrutiny to the AfCOURT, arguing that it amounted to indirect punishment by the judiciary of a human rights defender who used public interest litigation legitimately to demand good and accountable governance. This was after he had sued Mutharika to fire a Minister, George Chiponda, who was alleged to have swindled millions of public funds in Malawi’s Kwacha in a scandal known as “Maize Gate”.
Mozambique: On 7 April 2020, the village of Muedunbwe in Cabo Delgado Province in the North of Mozambique came under attack by the so-called Daesh or rebels.
Southern African civil society continues to express deep concern at the deteriorating security situation in oil and natural gas-rich Cabo Delgado province, calling for a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the political economy of the security situation, with further understanding of potential solutions.
They call for stronger government action to protect civilians and for journalists to be allowed unimpeded access in order to report openly on what is going on. They have also called for the Southern African Development Community to declare the situation there a matter of threat to regional peace and security, and to intervene to restore the rule of law. Prior, Amnesty International issued a statement calling on authorities in Mozambique to do all that was needed to lawfully protect people in Cabo Delgado.
eSwatini: On 8 April 2020, eSwatini media reported that the latest United States 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices alleges that the eSwatini government and its agents carried out “arbitrary or unlawful killings” in 2019.
For example, the report alleges that:
“In June, police shot and killed a man suspected of harbouring prison escapees and drug dealing. There were no reports that the suspect attacked or otherwise threatened the police. In early June, a man was found severely injured after being questioned by police. The man’s cousin alleged that the man was beaten by police, and then left to die in a secluded area some 18 miles away.”
The report alleges other violations by the eSwatini government including arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings that happened with impunity.
Zambia: On 9 April 2020, the government-controlled Independent Broadcasting Agency cancelled the broadcasting/television license of the popular Prime Television Station citing “public interest … safety, security, peace, welfare and good order” as the reason for such action.
Civil society sees this conduct as part of the wider government policy of systematically closing civic space ahead of the 2021 elections in order to consolidate power by President Edgar Lungu.
This is another high-level media closure after similar action was taken against The Post newspaper. The Law Association of Zambia issued a statement on 11 April 2020, strongly condemning the closure and asking the government to reverse the decision on account of numerous irregularities that they cited.
To date, the Zambian authorities have still not reversed the decision, despite widespread criticism from various stakeholders with the latest being by the International Press Institute.
The attacks on civic space also include arbitrary arrests and detentions of human rights defenders – the case of Pilato, Laura Miti and Barnabas Mwewa is a case in point, the three defenders were arrested for promoting human rights in Livingstone. Their case is still pending. DM/MC
Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the chairperson of the SAHRDN; Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert; Mark Heywood is the editor of Maverick Citizen.
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