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CIVICUS MONITOR

South Africa downgraded to ‘obstructed’ in annual global civic freedoms index

South Africa downgraded to ‘obstructed’ in annual global civic freedoms index
From left: Nokuthula Mabaso; Lindokuhle Mnguni, the Abahlali baseMjondolo chairperson of the eKhenana commune; Abahlali baseMjondolo leader Nokuthula Mabaso was shot dead; Ayanda Ngila, deputy chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo. (Photos: GroundUp / Abahlali baseMjondolo / Nomfundo Xolo / Supplied)

A new report has noted a concerning decline in civic freedoms in African countries south of the Sahara. South Africa has been downgraded from ‘narrow’ to ‘obstructed’ in the annual global index of civic freedoms, due to killings of land rights activists as well as threats to journalists and whistle-blowers.

The Civicus Monitor, which tracks the democratic and civic health of 197 countries across the world, released a new report on 16 March, noting a concerning decline in civic freedoms in African countries south of the Sahara: 44 out of 49 countries in the region had civic freedoms highly restricted – meaning people in the region face significant restrictions when exercising their fundamental rights. 

In Africa, the top civic space violations were intimidation, detention of journalists, detention of protesters and attacks on journalists. 

The report documents incidents of intimidation in about 23 countries.

David Kode, Civicus advocacy and campaigns lead, said: “In Sudan, many human rights defenders are summoned by the prosecutor to ask questions, and even though that might look as if it’s a legal process, the idea is that we have called you to ask questions … don’t do what you’re doing again.” 

Killings cause downgrade

South Africa has been downgraded from “narrow” to “obstructed” in the annual global index of civic freedoms. 

Countries labelled as “narrow” will have organisations and civil society groups that can protest, journalists can write stories, and human rights defenders can carry out their activities. Even though there will be some hints and limited restrictions imposed by the government, civil society groups are still able to carry out their activities, explained Kode. 

However, countries labelled as “obstructed” will have certain restrictions on civil society groups, human rights defenders and media outlets that raise concerns about human rights, he said. 

One of the reasons South Africa has been downgraded is the killing of land rights activists, said Kode. 

Ayanda Ngila, deputy chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo in the eKhenana community near Durban, was shot and killed in broad daylight on 8 March 2022. According to several reports, four armed men opened fire on Ngila as he was working on an irrigation system in a communal garden. 

Abahlali baseMjondolo is a grassroots movement advocating for the rights of those who live in informal settlements.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “The murder of Ayanda Ngila is an injury to us all”

In March 2022, another member of the group, Siyabonga Manqele, who lived in the eNkanini community, was shot and killed during a police raid.

On 5 May 2022, Nokuthula Mabaso, a leader of the eKhenana commune, was shot and killed outside her home in front of her children. According to a statement from Abahlali baseMjondolo, Nokuthula was shot five times

On 27 May 2022, Petronella Baloyi, a land activist, human rights defender and community leader of the Rugby Club informal settlement was gunned down in her home. According to a statement by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, Petronella was in her home with her husband and family when armed gunmen entered and fired several shots before fleeing.

At the time of her murder, Petronella had recently taken on administrative and community mobilisation duties to help organise permanent housing for residents.

“The killing of land rights activists is one reason why the change happened in South Africa. But added to that are attacks on journalists brought by the state and non-state actors, including political individuals … physical attacks, threats, acts of intimidation on journalists, and the threats that whistle-blowers face in South Africa,” said Kode.


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Zimbabwe and Eswatini are countries of concern 

Certain actions or events have taken place in both countries to suggest there are increasing restrictions on civic spaces. 

In Zimbabwe, the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill was passed last year. “That would really, really restrict the ability of civil society organisations to be able to function, and to be able to raise concerns about the state,” Kode explained. 

Ahead of the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe, there have been targeted attacks on members of the political opposition, an increase in restrictions, intimidation, and threats to human rights defenders and civil society organisations. 

“We are concerned that these restrictions are likely to increase in the coming months,” he said. 

The extreme violence that has been used against protesters in Eswatini is a cause for concern, said Kode. 

“Because protests are likely to occur again, we are likely to still see violence against protesters.” 

The arrests, detentions and even forceful disappearances of those who the state perceives to have taken part in protests in the past, or believes they may take part in the future, are also concerning, he added. 

The murder of Thulani Maseko, a prominent Swazi human rights lawyer and activist is a cause for concern as it has not happened before, but could very well happen again, said Kode. 

“It’s not just the killing of this human rights defender. It’s not just an act of murder and assassination, but it’s also aimed at creating a climate of fear where human rights defenders may become a target,” he explained. 

Sexual and gender minorities under attack

In 2022, LGBTQI+ rights and sexual and gender minority groups continued to be targeted in several countries in Africa, said Kode. 

“It is not looking good … over the last few months, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and a few other countries across the continent have continued to either pass laws that target sexual minorities, or continue to refuse to act when those who advocate for the rights of sexual minorities are targeted or assaulted,” he said. 

“These states continue to allow the perpetrators to act with impunity, including in South Africa,” he added. 

Some bright spots on the continent

Ivory Coast, Burundi, Central African Republic and South Sudan were upgraded as there was a slight improvement in the state of civic space in the country compared with previous years. 

“In Burundi, for example, we noticed the changing in government or changing in the leadership of the country, and compared with the year before, you have human rights defenders who have returned who were previously in exile,” he explained. Certain restrictions were also relaxed in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, he added. 

Recommendations

The report calls for the release of all human rights defenders and journalists who have been detained. 

“In countries where you have rights defenders currently in detention for their human rights actions, the report calls on states to abide by regional and international human rights standards that guarantee the respect for the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression.”

The Constitutions of many countries on the continent respect the right to protest. “The report calls on countries to respect this right in line with their constitution, but it is also in line with the regional human rights mechanisms which these countries have,” he said. 

The report also calls for the repeal of restrictive laws that are used to target individuals, human rights groups and civil society groups, and says states should hold open and honest conversations with citizens in cases where they want to promulgate laws. 

“Many of these laws nowadays are passed without adequate consultations with civil society, so in future, states should pass laws after consulting citizens and civil society,” he added. 

The report calls for institutions such as the African Union to speak out when the rights of citizens are violated by their governments. DM/MC

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