Civil society groups unite for march to demand protection for whistle-blowers, human rights defenders
GroundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights and several other civil society organisations marched to police headquarters in Pretoria to demand widespread protection for human rights activists and whistle-blowers. This follows a spate of threats, attacks and killings of land rights and climate activists and whistle-blowers in South Africa.
‘Activists, climate defenders and whistle-blowers are agents of justice. They sacrifice their lives for the well-being of their fellow community members while performing a responsibility that should be borne by the government, which has a constitutional obligation to protect the human rights of its citizens.”
These words by Nomalungelo Xhakaza, the last living child of murdered anti-mining activist Mam Fikile Ntshangase, were read as several civil society and community organisations gathered outside South African Police Service headquarters in Pretoria on Thursday, 19 October.
Climate justice and land rights organisations from across South Africa came out in their numbers, taking to the streets of Pretoria as part of the Defend Our Defenders march. The activists had one call: for the government to protect human rights defenders and whistle-blowers who put their lives on the line to make the nation a better place for all.
Activists from groundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights, Greenpeace Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo and other community-based organisations from affected areas, such as Xolobeni and Somkhele, gathered in the nation’s capital for the mass march.
The call comes in the wake of unprecedented threats, attacks and assassinations of community land and climate justice activists and whistle-blowers nationwide.
Tributes to the fallen
While calling on the government to follow through on its commitment to protect human rights defenders, the gathering also commemorated the activists and whistle-blowers who have lost their lives in the name of public interest.
Starting at the Old Putco Depot, activists leading the march carried a cardboard box fashioned into a coffin to represent those killed fighting for justice in South Africa. On the trek to the SAPS headquarters they sang Struggle songs, stopping several times to read out the profiles of slain human rights defenders and whistle-blowers, including Babita Deokaran, Bazooka Radebe, Mam Fikile Ntshangase and Abahlali baseMjondolo activists Ayanda Ngila and Nokuthula Mabaso.
Deokaran, the former chief director of financial accounting at the Gauteng health department, was gunned down in 2021 in front of her home for exposing corruption within the department. Radebe, an activist opposing a proposed titanium mine in Xolobeni, in the Eastern Cape, was shot eight times in his own house, in front of his family.
The people who help make South Africa a better place are not being protected, they are being martyred.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the demonstration was when Xhakaza, Ntshangase’s daughter, read out her mother’s profile in front of the crowd.
Ntshangase was shot four times after opposing the expansion of the Tendele Coal Mine in Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal. This brazen murder took place in her home, in front of her grandchild, Xhakaza’s son.
Speaking to Daily Maverick, Xhakaza described how the trauma of her mom’s assassination lives on in her. “In front of everyone, I am coping, but when I am alone, and the world stands still, it all comes back to me. Even when I do good things, all I think is about how my mom would have been proud of me.”
Xhakaza lamented the inaction of the police in solving her mother’s assassination. “The police are not doing anything regarding the case. Not just in my mother’s case but in every case, whether it be a human rights defender or an ordinary citizen. I want to see murder cases and assassination cases being solved. There are people in power behind this, and we need to show the world that no matter how powerful you are, no one is above the law.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Shot 16 times – another land rights activist murdered, this time in mining-affected North West village
While Deokaran, Radebe, Ntshangase, Ngila and Mabaso’s sacrifices were monumental, they only represent a drop in the ocean considering the number of people who have been killed trying to protect the rights of the vulnerable in South Africa. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime counted a total of 1,971 assassinations in South Africa between 2000 and 2021, many of whom were whistle-blowers.
For one of the march organisers, a coal campaigner for groundWork in KwaZulu-Natal, Robby Mokgalaka, this is why the Defend Our Defenders gathering was so important: “The people who help make South Africa a better place are not being protected, they are being martyred. The police and the government from different departments are meant to come together and do their job and protect all citizens. But they have not.”
During his 2023 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa assured the public that the government was working on strengthening whistle-blower protection.
“We are working to capacitate the Witness Protection Unit and will introduce amendments to the Protected Disclosures Act and Witness Protection Act to strengthen protections for whistle-blowers,” he said.
The President’s promises were echoed by Justice Minister Ronald Lamola during a meeting with the South African National Editors’ Forum, when he told the Sanef Council about the government’s plan to amend the relevant legislation to ensure that all government departments, institutions and agencies understand their obligations to protect whistle-blowing.
Addressing the civil society organisations and activists gathered outside SAPS headquarters, Mokgalaka said while he was grateful for the work the government had done so far in ensuring human rights defenders are safe, he and many of the activists gathered believed more could be done.
We are very disappointed because we invited the President of South Africa to be here to listen to our cry to protect his people, but unfortunately, [he] did not accept our invitation.
“We are not fighting with the government. We are here to help the government implement what they have agreed to implement. We are here to remind the government departments that they should play a role and that we are here to help them and walk with them on this path,” he said.
Speaking to Daily Maverick, Mokgalaka said that aside from following through on its commitment to strengthen and implement legislation, civil society wants the government to develop active and consistent awareness campaigns around whistle-blower and human rights defender protection as well as establish a special task force to investigate the abuses of human rights and assassination of human rights defenders.
Ramaphosa, Lamola and Police Minister Bheki Cele were invited to the gathering outside the headquarters to receive the Defend Our Defenders memorandum of demands. However, the public servants were a no-show.
“We are very disappointed because we invited the President of South Africa to be here to listen to our cry to protect his people, but unfortunately, [he] did not accept our invitation,” Mokgalaka said. “We also invited the minister of justice to come here because we are pushing for the law which will protect our human rights defenders, who are all here. So, we need our minister of justice to come here because this process is going to include him all the way, but unfortunately he is not here, and we are very disappointed.”
Mokgalaka handed the memorandum to an SAPS officer who signed it and vowed to get it to the desks of Lamola, Cele and Ramaphosa. The government has been given 30 days to respond to the demands.
For Xhakaza, the Defend Our Defenders march was a reminder that her mother’s legacy lives on and that the fight is not over.
“The big thing is that she’s not around to see how much she means to people and that her case is not solved. But for me, it’s also a beautiful feeling, and I’m glad to see there are people behind us and there are people who believe in my mom’s vision.
“We just wish that justice can take its course. As long as we keep fighting, as long as we keep my mother’s spirits alive and Bazooka’s spirits alive, and all the people who have been killed spirits alive, we will get the justice that everybody deserves,” Khakaza told Daily Maverick. DM