China-Africa, Covid-19 and human rights
This week, we continue exploring the measures being taken to combat Covid-19 and their impact on human rights. Quite astonishingly, the measures in China had the biggest reaction from the civil society movement in Africa, including in Southern Africa.
Recent media reports and social media video footage suggest that Chinese officials accused African people living in China, mainly in Guangzhou province, of being responsible for the second outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in China.
The reports allege that people of African descent were being systematically targeted and subjected to a variety of human rights violations, and abuses by the Chinese people, including by the Chinese police. Among other things, they were being forcefully evicted from their rented homes without notice, forcefully quarantined for 14 days despite having no symptoms, nor recent travel history or contact with Covid-19 patients, and subjected to forcible random and indiscriminate Covid-19 tests.
In a number of incidents, people from Africa were being forcibly prohibited from shopping or going to public places such as restaurants. They were also having their travel documents seized without legal basis.
In response to what was seen as China’s xenophobic violations and abuse of the rights of African people, some African Union (AU) governments and the African Group of Ambassadors in Beijing issued statements condemning the gross human rights violations and demanding the “cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans”.
Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa proved more vocal amid concerns that the xenophobic attacks would strain China-Africa relations. Others called on China to ease African countries’ debt burden or totally cancel the same as a sign of remorse.
On 12 April 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement affirming how much China values China-Africa relations, insisting that China and Africa are good friends, partners and brothers. In the statement, China committed to continue providing fair, just, cordial and friendly reception to African nationals, and to continue responding to reasonable concerns and legitimate appeals.
Unfortunately, the statement offered no apologies to Africa, despite overwhelming evidence of the racist and xenophobic attacks.
In an unprecedented move, over 9,000 AU citizens, including Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), women and youth organisations, lawyers, judges, journalists, human rights activists and Africans in the diaspora, have submitted a petition to the AU. The petition was coordinated by the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Africa Defenders.
African civil society saw the reactions of the Chinese authorities as wholly inadequate and condescending. The petition urged African leaders to demand a full and independent investigation into the human rights violations in China and to ensure that immediate remedial action is taken, including bringing perpetrators to justice while offering full reparations and compensation to the victims.
Charles Chimedza, the protection officer at the Defenders Network and coordinator of the open letter to the AU argued:
“As Africa civil society organisations and people, we feel that the relationship between the AU and China that our AU leaders always describe as excellent and of all-weather friends has never been sufficiently scrutinised by African civil society in terms of its impact on human rights.
The brazen attacks on people of African descent in China have demonstrated that China is a bully in this partnership and part of it is explained on the basis of its clever use of debt diplomacy (large expensive loans) to shackle African leaders and take away their voice in the relationship.”
African civil society will no longer be silent and will now hold AU and Chinese leaders to account for human rights violations against African people, whether in China or in Africa.
Status of lockdowns in Southern Africa
The spread of Covid-19 is at different stages around Southern Africa and authorities continue to take country-specific measures to contain the situation. While lockdowns were extended by an average of 2-3 weeks in some countries such as Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and eSwatini, others like Zambia remained under partial lockdown across the country with a complete lockdown of Kafue district being in effect from 14 April 2020 after it was declared a hot-spot.
In Malawi, efforts to lock down by embattled President Peter Mutharika hit a brick wall after High Court Judge Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda ruled against the lockdown, ordering a temporary injunction for seven days pending a full-blooded hearing on whether a lockdown should be imposed or not.
The challenge in Malawi was made by the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC).
In Zimbabwe, stakeholders are questioning if the country’s lockdown is constitutional. While the Minister of Health promulgated a series of statutory instruments to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown restricts freedom of movement and assembly guaranteed by sections 66 and 58 of the Constitution respectively.
Human rights lawyer David Hofisi argued that: “Not only do the statutory instruments infringe fundamental freedoms, they create new powers, such as those allowing the Minister of Home Affairs to close ports of entry and exit as he deems fit.”
He added that executive excesses were deliberate “institutional choices by a machiavellian executive. It is not an innocent mistake by a well-meaning administration. These are powerful functionaries circumventing constitutional imperatives to increase the scope and scale of executive power”.
Lockdowns and police brutality
The week saw continued cases of harassment of defenceless citizens (including journalists), by state security agents, particularly the police and the army for allegedly breaching lockdown regulations or spreading fake news.
A man from Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, died after allegedly being assaulted by soldiers on 10 April 2020, resulting in the South Africa National Defense Union (SANDU) reportedly calling for a military inquiry into the murder which is still under investigation.
In Botswana, two people were severely assaulted by the police for allegedly breaching lockdown regulations. The government issued a statement on 11 April 2020, condemning the assault of citizens and calling for upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.
In eSwatini, police reportedly harassed Swaziland news editor, Zweli Martin Dlamini’s wife and children for spreading “fake news”, that suggested that King Mswati III had contracted Covid-19, insisting that the king “is well and in good health”.
In Zimbabwe, freelance journalist James Jemwa was temporarily detained by soldiers and police officers and forced to delete the footage he had recorded at Gwenyambira shops. The Zimbabwe Police Commissioner went on to say that journalists should stay at home and be bound by national lockdown regulations, arguing that they are not providers of an essential service and claiming that only journalists from “broadcasting services” (usually government-controlled) are exempted.
Covid-19 measures should be targeted at producing public health outcomes and not be exploited as an avenue to clamp down on human rights.
On 17 April 2020, in an unusual step, all the UN Special Rapporteurs expressed “grave concern at the multiplication of accounts of police killings and other acts of violence within the context of Covid-19 emergency measures”, expressing alarm: “At the rise of reports of killings and other instances of excessive use of force targeting in particular people living in vulnerable situations.”
The UN SRs went on further to state that “breaking a curfew, or any restriction on freedom of movement, cannot justify resorting to excessive use of force by the police; under no circumstances should it lead to the use of lethal force”.
Lockdowns and poverty
Granted, the most effective way of slowing the virus down is isolation and physical distancing. However, the plight of a significant population that practically lives from hand to mouth in informal economies in Southern Africa needs to be taken into account to avoid criminalising normal human behaviour for everyday survival.
In Malawi, many small-scale traders who declared that “it would be better to contract the virus than die of hunger,” rejected the lockdown through protests. The Malawi situation is worsened by the trust that has been lost between those who govern and the governed. A significant number of people view the lockdown as a means by which the president is trying to stop political activity ahead of fresh elections ordered by the Constitutional Court in February 2020.
Reports of chaotic mealie-meal distribution in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where even the police are abusing their authority to get the bulk of deliveries for resale at exorbitant prices are disturbing.
In Namibia on 17 April 2020, over 500 people gathered at the Moses//Garoeb Constituency office in Windhoek demanding Covid-19 food relief packages. The constituency has a population of an estimated 60,000 people yet the councillor’s office had only received 700 food packages. Physical fights reportedly broke out between civilians and law enforcement agents, as the former scrambled for the limited packages.
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has already expressed alarm about the vulnerability “of homeless people, prisoners, the masses of people living in highly congested and poor neighbourhoods like slums lacking sanitation and those who survive on a hand-to-mouth basis, people in Internally Displaced Persons camps, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants with devastating consequences, including the risk of enduring severe illness and losing their lives without receiving adequate care”.
Access to water
Despite recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that water, sanitation and good hygiene are key elements in fighting the spread of Covid-19, access to clean and potable water in Southern Africa’s urban and informal settlements remains a huge challenge.
Reports indicate that lockdowns may have worsened already existing challenges and inequalities in accessing water, and sanitation services – Cape Town and Harare being some of the most affected areas.
South Africa’s Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced that the ministry procured 41,000 water tanks for national distribution to ensure water supply during the lockdown period. She, however, expressed concern that “the threat and risk of coronavirus in our informal settlements is real and that we have to make haste so that we don’t find ourselves overwhelmed”.
Efforts to ensure that Gweru residents in Zimbabwe are supplied with water received a knock after Bulawayo High Court Judge Justice Maxwell Takuva dismissed an application filed by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) on behalf of Gweru Residents Forum.
The absence of water forces citizens, particularly women, to defy lockdown regulations as they search for water, hence endangering their lives.
Covid-19 testing, treatment and vaccination
A Zimbabwe court ordered the government to provide healthcare workers with protective gear and to roll out mass testing. The Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) brought the case to compel the government to provide protection for public hospitals and healthcare workers who are on the frontline of fighting the pandemic.
There is still no good news about the treatment and an effective vaccination against the Covid-19. Sadly, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) says that “the Covid-19 pandemic will likely kill at least 300,000 Africans” and push “29 million into extreme poverty” unless a $100-billion (R1.8-trillion) safety net can be found for the continent’s population.
Despite efforts by the US to oppose it, the UN General Assembly led by Mexico on 20 April 2020 adopted by consensus of 193 members, a resolution that calls for “equitable, efficient and timely” access to any vaccine developed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
In other news
Lesotho: On 18 April 2020, the Prime Minister Thomas Thabane deployed armed soldiers, clad in bulletproof vests and helmets onto the streets to “restore order”, accusing unarmed law enforcement agencies of undermining democracy.
Botswana: On 17 April, Botswana’s Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation in a statement refuted claims that the government of Botswana has embarked on forceful deportation of Zimbabwean nationals, arguing that this was a voluntary repatriation exercise by both governments following requests from Zimbabweans who wanted to be assisted to go back home.
Mozambique: On 17 April, Mozambique’s public prosecutor reportedly refused to compensate the family of an electoral observer who was gunned down by police in the run-up to the 2019 national elections. The development sparked outrage among local rights advocates. Adriano Nuvunga, head of Mozambique’s Centre for Democracy and Development, said Matavele’s murder was a “state crime”.
Even though the Covid-19 disaster has engulfed the world with unimaginably disastrous consequences for life, health, economies and way of life, for Southern Africa, it has just served as a stark reminder of the urgent need to always address poverty, inequality and injustice by the Southern Africa authorities.
Widespread poverty, inequality and injustice have complicated responses to the huge health emergency. Priorities need to change with a more sustained focus on improving almost moribund health systems in many Southern African countries.
There can be no better way to manage these kinds of crises than investing in resilient systems that make effective responses possible. For now, we can only be thankful that the region is not the epicentre of the pandemic. Otherwise, we would be staring at a disaster of monumental proportions. 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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