Month: Jun 2020

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

Every year, the African Union (AU), besides electing a new Chairperson, adopts a theme for the year. At the AU Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as the AU Chairperson for 2020. The theme “Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020” was also adopted with the primary objective to achieve a conflict-free Africa. 

In this article, we analyse how well Africa has performed in efforts at Silencing the Guns, taking into account the context of the fight against Covid-19. We are also halfway through 2020, making it a good time to stop and look at whether the theme can be achieved in earnest. 

Africa Day Commemorations 

In May 2020, this year’s Africa Day and Africa month celebrations were held under the theme: “Silencing The Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development and Intensifying the Fight against the Covid-19 Pandemic.”

Unfortunately, the celebrations happened amid ongoing conflicts on the continent in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, South Sudan, Libya, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Lesotho and countries in the Sahel region. It was also in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, a health crisis that is also inflicting damage of incalculable proportions on African economies and raising social as well as political tensions in many states across Africa.

As a result, AU leaders and AU civil society had sharply contrasting views about Africa’s performance and prospects for silencing the guns. 

In his Africa Day speech, President Hage Geingob of Namibia reported that Africa continues to make progress and has witnessed an increase in regular free and fair elections, smooth transition of power between presidents, increased levels of transparency, strengthening of democratic governance architectures by refining processes, systems and institutions, and increased respect of independent institutions, for example, court decisions after election disputes. 

In sharp contrast, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa), representing millions of workers across Africa, lamented in their commemorative statement that: 

The road to a real integration in Africa remains strewn with challenges such as poor leadership and abuse of democratic rights, institutionalized corruption, violent conflicts, poor infrastructure, poor public services, dependent mentality and above all, lack of confidence and ability to take our destiny into our own hands… today the Covid-19 health crisis in the world has exposed Africa in all its weaknesses.” 

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and its sister sub-regional networks, under the umbrella body of the Pan-Africa Human Rights Defenders (AfricanDefenders), reacted to the Africa Day celebrations by asserting that the celebrations offer a historic opportunity to remind AU leaders that “silencing the guns” and defeating Covid-19 are not just mutually reinforcing objectives, but are critical enablers of creating an inclusive and prosperous Africa, which is anchored on sustainable peace, justice, equality, human dignity and equal opportunities for all.

SAHRDN pointed out that Africa still lags in implementation of the human rights and developmental standards that it has set for itself. This mismatch between adopted standards and their implementation has led to the post-independence African states being unable to adequately transform and improve the lives of African people and the African continent. 

A significant number of AU member states lack the political will to domesticate and implement many progressive protocols and instruments they voluntarily developed and adopted at various summits. Despite the existence of the frameworks and instruments such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the AU Peer Review Mechanism, and the AU Governance Architecture Framework, unaccountable governance remains rife. 

Corruption, organised crime including trafficking in people and precious resources, State Capture, money laundering and illicit financial flows continue with impunity and are part of the governance culture in many countries.   

SAHRDN points out that these ills are the structural drivers of violent conflict and until they are dismantled in a systematic and sustained way, the vision of a conflict-free and fully developing Africa remains a pipe dream.

Countries where guns speak louder than words

On Africa Day, the Libyan capital was under siege in fierce fighting between forces loyal to rebel leader Haftar (called the Libyan National Army), and the forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government. The Haftar forces are supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia while Turkey supports the recognised government. 

Libya has the world’s largest uncontrolled ammunition stockpile, with an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes of uncontrolled munitions across the country, meaning there is little hope that guns will be silenced any time soon.  

In May 2020, at least 300 people were killed in a “fresh wave of intercommunal fighting in South Sudan”, in Jonglei state. Homes were destroyed, warehouses belonging to aid groups raided, and women and cattle abducted. A staggering 380,000 people have been killed in South Sudan’s civil war. 

Amid this prolific intra-state fighting, South Sudan is not spared the ravages of Covid-19: Vice-President of South Sudan, Riek Machar, and several other members of the South Sudan Covid-19 task force have tested positive.

In Mozambiqueas AU leaders were celebrating Africa Day, there were reports of insurgents carrying out “some of their most daring assaults, seizing government buildings, blocking roads, and hoisting black and white Islamic State flags in Cabo Delgado’s towns and villages. In the attacks, villages were burnt down and people beheaded. The militants also killed government soldiers before retreating into the bush.” 

In Somalia, Amnesty International continues reporting on civilian casualties mounting “from the United States military’s secret air war in Somalia, with no justice or reparation for the victims of possible violations of international humanitarian law”. 

During the Africa Day celebration week in the Central African Republic, where one in four Central Africans still remains either internally displaced or living as a refugee, fighting between rival militias left at least 25 people dead and 51 injured. 

In March 2020, the New York Times reported that in the Sahel region “the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a potent armed group with loose ties to the Islamic State, has been conducting sophisticated attacks in the border regions of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In the past four months, militants have raided four major military outposts in Mali and Niger, killing 300 soldiers”.

‘Low intensity’ conflicts: the violence of hunger and corruption

In Zimbabwe, a low-intensity conflict has raged on for over two decades, anchored in the failure to build a genuine multi-party democratic state.  Despite its immense economic potential, the refusal of the Zanu-PF elite to embrace political pluralism and tolerance has trashed the economy, and caused a social crisis that has degenerated into a humanitarian emergency: The World Food Programme has projected that over 9 million people are food insecure

The current stranglehold on the opposition, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, extra-judicial killings, resource and economic asphyxiation, politicisation of humanitarian support and weaponisation of the law all point in a direction towards a one-party state and an anti-democracy development. 

The impact of this low-intensity conflict has produced the same results as a country going through a full-blooded war like South Sudan. 

Since its return to democracy in 1993, Lesotho has been plagued by political instability. A never-ending low-intensity conflict has not given the country a chance to develop. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) deployed a Commission of Inquiry under the leadership of Judge Mpaphi Phumaphi that produced a set of recommendations that have not been fully implemented. Analysts say that South Africa’s “frequent involvement in Lesotho’s politics has not helped the mountain kingdom achieve lasting peace. Instead, it has had the unintended consequence of encouraging Basotho politicians to act in intransigent and inflammatory ways.”

From aspirations to real action

If guns are to be silenced, there is the need for the AU to be true to itself by acknowledging its glaring shortcomings rather than engaging in self-praise. 

A united and prosperous Africa also requires respect for democratic governance, rule of law and dignity of its citizens. The AU needs to be people-centred and based on genuine commitment, and political goodwill. It is inexcusable for AU leaders to run the continent on aspirations only and not on concrete actions.

The big and unanswered question is how the AU vision can be achieved within the context of the current leadership or lack of it, and the current system of largely unaccountable governance in many parts of Africa. Now, there is a danger that Covid-19, which has once again exposed the inequalities in Africa, can further reinforce the already-existing trend to authoritarianism and may significantly undermine the AU’s objectives to silence the guns.

It is clear that the guns will not be silenced in 2020. The question is whether they ever will and what it would take to make peace and equal rights a reality rather than a political slogan?

The overly optimistic mood of the chairperson of the AU on Africa Day 2020 sounded fake. It was hollow, and meaningless amid the inequality, poverty and injustice that pervade the continent. 

Civil society still believes that another Africa is possible. Civil society welcomes the dream of “silencing the guns”. But it will take a different brand of political leaders to achieve it. DM/MC

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the technical and strategy adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.

Statement of Solidarity for Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities Advocacy Group over the Right to Organize

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) stands in solidarity with a case to be heard on 24 June 2020 by the Eswatini High Court, concerning arguments about the fundamental rights to dignity, freedom of expression, association and assembly of lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons in the Kingdom of Eswatini.

On 19 September 2019, the Eswatini’s Registrar of Companies refused to legally register the Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities (ESGM) as a human rights organization that seeks to advance the protection and promotion of LGBTI persons in the country. The registrar’s refusal was premised on a provision of the Companies Act which requires the formation of a company in Eswatini to carry the objective of promoting “communal or group interests” and be for a “lawful purpose”. In addition, the registrar argued that the objectives and functions of ESGM do not meet the legislative requirements for registration on the basis that it encourages homosexual conduct, which is prohibited in the country.

As it stands, the Constitution of Eswatini does not safeguard the rights of sexual minorities and there is no specific domestic legislation that prohibits homosexuality in the country. In its court papers, ESGM argues that the Registrar misrepresented the law and that the refusal to legally register the organization constitutes a violation of its members’ constitutional rights to dignity, freedom of assembly and association and the right to freedom of expression. The ESGM also maintains that the Registrar’s reasoning of the organization being formed for unlawful purposes is incorrect and there is no such proof. Lastly, the organization argues that there is no specific legislation that prohibits homosexuality in the country, including the right to protect and promote sexual minority rights through advocacy and education. As such, ESGM puts it forward that the rights enshrined in Eswatini’s Constitution belong to every person, regardless of sexual orientation, and they should only be limited when it is reasonable and necessary to further a legitimate State aim.

In the 2017 State review of Eswatini by the Human Rights Committee on civil and political rights, the Committee posed a series of questions to the Government of Eswatini related to measures, if any, that have been adopted “to protect persons from discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including in housing and employment, and to promote tolerance”. The Committee concluded with a recommendation that the State should adopt legislation explicitly prohibiting hate crimes against LGBTI persons.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is a region with the most countries of organisations that are not registered as openly advancing and protecting the rights of LGBTI persons, due to a high percentage of anti-homosexual laws that exist in many parts of the region”, said Arnold Tsunga, Steering Committee Member of the SAHRDN. “In Southern Africa, only 7 of the 16 countries allow for legal registration of organisations protecting LGBTI rights. We hope that this important case that will by the Eswatini High Court will provide an opportunity for the country to move towards protecting and respecting the rights of sexual minorities,” added Mr. Tsunga.

For any further information, you can contact Simphiwe Sidu on ssidu@southernafricadefenders.africa or Washington Katema on wkatema@southernafricadefenders.africa

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

This issue focuses on the impact of Covid-19 on workers’ rights across Southern Africa.

The restrictive measures imposed by governments to combat the spread of the pandemic has resulted in economies shrinking, businesses closing and severe deindustrialisation across Southern Africa.

As a result there has been large scale job and livelihood losses. Those who have been lucky to preserve their jobs have been forced by lockdown measures to work from home.

Workers in the essential services have experienced long hours. In many countries, workers in such essential services, which are often also high risk, have not been given adequate personal protective equipment (PPEs) that protects them from exposure to the virus. This has resulted in workplace tension manifested by strikes in many countries. 

Covid-19 added pressures to an already battered workforce in a region characterized by a large informal sector, eroded earnings, high unemployment, casualization of labour, gender inequalities. Vulnerable workers such as vendors, informal traders (self-employed), migrant workers, asylum seekers and undocumented people have suffered the most including facing evictions for non payment of rentals and starvation because they are not normally covered by social grants restricted to citizens.

At this point, there is only anecdotal evidence on the true cost of this devastating impact, especially from the private sector because, other than in South Africa, no governments offered stimulus packages for industry nor financial support to workers. Whilst concrete evidence will be too early to expect, we present a preliminary gloomy picture of how workers’ rights, safety and well being in Southern Africa have been affected. Regrettably, the situation is expected to deteriorate further. 

Health Workers and Protective Personal Equipment (PPE)

Southern Africa is notorious for weak health systems characterised by poor public health infrastructure and inadequate number of health workers. Many countries failed to ensure PPE was available in adequate quantities for health workers. Most governments did not adhere to directives on working safely in line with WHO guidelines on Getting your workplace ready for Covid-19: How Covid-19 spreads

The failure to provide public health workers with PPE resulted in strikes, picketing and demonstrations. In Tanzania, for example, one nurse summed up the situation facing thousands of health workers across Southern Africa when she had this to say:

“I have been working at Amana Regional Referral Hospital for 10 years. Here is what my normal day looks like: I do not have any PPE, but I commute in public transport. How am I supposed to protect myself and others? How am I supposed to protect my family? We are struggling… people are demoralised.”

In March, doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe protested against the government’s failure to provide them with PPE and adequately equip public hospitals to combat the Covid-19 outbreak. In an application filed on 5 April, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) approached the High Court, arguing that they were at risk of contracting the virus. 

The Food Federation and Allied Workers Union of Zimbabwe (FFAWUZ) was forced to approach the Ministry of Labour and Social Services with an urgent appeal to get adequate PPE and other necessary amenities during the 21 day lockdown as some employers failed to protect workers especially in the food industry. 

In April, healthcare workers in Lesotho went on strike following failed attempts to engage the government on how to obtain protective gear, training and a risk allowance.

Also in April in Eswatini the Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union (Swadnu), resolved to take the Eswatini government to court for gross negligence, and to compel the government to supply adequate PPE to all healthcare workers. This came after a nurse at Raleigh Fitkin Memorial (RFM) hospital tested positive for Covid-19 and 10 other nurses were isolated.

On 28 April, South Africa’s Department of Employment and Labour issued a directive giving clear guidance on mandatory safety measures that employers needed to put in place to protect employees. 

The C-19 People’s Coalitionrepresenting more than 300 civil society organizationshowever raised concern that the directive, while welcome, came over a month after lockdown commenced, thereby endangering people in the workplace. The Coalition also noted that many workplaces continued to ignore worker’s rights with some workplaces failing to provide basic safety measures. 

On 1 May, a number of trade unions in South Africa, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and community health workers picketed outside Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in commemoration of workers’ day. They too cited incidents of healthcare workers not being given the requisite PPE to protect themselves. 

They also called for the proper training of community health workers and that all frontline healthcare workers be screened and tested for Covid-19 as a matter of priority, absent of which industrial action would follow.  

Mineworkers’ rights violated

Thousands of mine workers in the DRC were subjected to enforced quarantine at Tenke Fungurume copper and cobalt mine for two months. They held a successful strike on 23 May that led to the payment of a special allowance of US$600 to the 6000 mineworkers forcibly quarantined. The workers were also demanding to be paid for the overtime that they worked during the quarantine period. Work continued at the mine during the quarantine because mining is considered an essential service under Congolese law.

In March, IndustriALL Global Union reported that the Mineworkers Union of Zambia successfully campaigned for alcohol breathalyzer tests to be discontinued as they can easily spread the coronavirus resulting in some mining companies that include Mopane Copper Mines, Lubambe Copper Mine, Kanshanshi and Barrick Lumwana complying. Additionally, biometric systems in which workers used fingers were also reported as unsafe.

With the complicity of the unions, around two-thirds of South Africa’s 450,000 mineworkers returned to work to face the dangers of coronavirus on pain of starvation when the first stage of lockdown ended on 16 April. During the first 21 days of lockdown, employees were paid, but when it was extended a further 14 days, the employers in the Mineral Council refused to extend wage payments.

Mine owners say they have “plans” to operate safely at the pits. Work conditions in the pits, however, preclude social distancing. Workers go down into the pits packed in cages and work closely in teams at the face without visors or facemasks. 

Lay offs and unpaid leave in the transport industry

Travel Bus Company Intercape sent letters to its employees in Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe notifying them it will temporarily lay them off starting 1 May 2020. The April letter informed employees they would receive their April salaries and that the temporary layoff would be for May, June and July 2020.  Employees affected were told not to expect a salary for these months.  

Forced paid leave has become the most direct consequence of Covid-19 on the labour market and no industry symbolises this than the airline industry.

Restrictions to international travel affect African airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, Egyptair, Kenya Airways, and South African Airways, which are large employers and have linkages to other domestic businesses.

The first effects were the immediate partial unemployment of airline staff.  Zimbabwe’s state-owned airline put workers on indefinite unpaid leave after revenue dried up. The perennially loss-making national carrier said it would retain skeleton staff for ad hoc operations and airworthiness compliance, adding that wages remained its biggest cost. 

At South African Airways (SAA), the majority of the national carrier’s estimated 4,708 employees have not been paid for May. Most staff are on unpaid absence. Zazi Nsibanyoni-Mugambi, President of the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca), one of the major unions at the flagship carrier, told The Africa Report that workers have not been paid for May. “And not even the benefits have been paid – like, medical aid subsidies, Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions, pensions and all of those things. That’s also been stopped.”  

Workers rendered redundant overnight 

The United Nations says about 20 million jobs could be lost globally.

In April, 216 companies throughout Mozambique notified the Labour Ministry that they were suspending or reducing their activities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, affecting 6,400 workers, according to the General Inspector of Labour, Joaquim Siuta.

Siuta added that, under these circumstances, companies should pay their workers 75% of their wages for the first month they were laid off, 50% for the second month, and 25% for the third month. The National Social Security Institute (INSS), he insisted, would only pay sickness benefit to workers with a hospital document proving they were ill. Siuta thus dashed hopes that the INSS might cash in its investments in order to pay wages to workers who have lost their jobs.

The majority of countries in the region rely heavily on the tourism sector and Covid-19 has hit this sector the hardest.

In April, the leading hotelier in Zimbabwe closed 21 of its hotels and strategic business units around the country. In an internal memo signed by the company’s acting human resources director, Believe Dirorimwe, and addressed to senior managers and staff, every affected employee’s salary was cut by 50%.

Eswatini’s Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Moses Vilakati, on 19 May, spoke to CNBC Africa on how Covid-19 has impacted the country’s recovery plan. He reported that some hotels have closed indefinitely, resulting in retrenchments and huge job losses. Over 26% of employment in the country is via the tourism industry. 

South Africa‘s biggest non-food retailer Edcon, on 11 June, served 22,000 of its employees with notices of retrenchments. This is more than half of the group’s 39,000 full-time and temporary employees.

So far, a number of African startups have announced layoffs, placed staff on indefinite unpaid leave or implemented salary cuts exclusively and this is in addition to job cuts. For example Yoco which claims over 150 employees on its payroll, announced that it was downsizing significantly.  

One of the first indigenous movie streaming platforms in Africa, iROKOtv, announced that, as from May 2020, 28% of its employees will be put on an indefinite unpaid leave of absence. 

Salary cuts 

Faced with reduced business, employers across the region also arbitrarily imposed salary cuts.

In May, Lesotho Times reported that factory workers were being issued M800 salary subsidies by the Lesotho government to cushion them from the closure of businesses which were deemed non-essential such as textile companies.

On 13 May, The Patriot on Sunday reported that the government of Botswana was headed for a fresh showdown with employees following its decision to freeze overtime payments for the essential public servants.

In South Africa, President Ramaphosa announced taking a 33% pay cut motivating his entire executive and all nine provincial premiers to also take a similar percentage in pay cuts for three months. The cumulative cuts, estimated to be worth around R13.4m, were donated to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund.  

Leading hotelier African Sun also cut salaries for most of its employees including executives and senior managers by 50% as the effects of Covid-19 took a toll on the hospitality industry. 

The plight of migrant workers 

7.9% of workers in Africa are migrant workers and the majority of migration is intra-continental. In Southern Africa, South Africa is the magnet for millions of migrants but countries like BotswanaNamibiaTanzaniaDRC also host many. Migrants already face a slew of challenges, including accessing healthcare, even in normal circumstances due to lack of health insurance, cost, administrative hurdles, lack of access to facilities, and language barriers. Additionally, many migrants are frontline workers who keep people healthy, safe, and fed. Social protection for these workers, if received at all, is typically limited to some work injury compensation or health benefits, and almost never includes unemployment assistance.

It has been the South African government’s long-standing objective to reduce migration, and the pandemic has provided a cynical opportunity to do so.

On 24 April, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni urged companies to allow more South Africans to participate in the economy than foreign nationals, citing businesses such as restaurants, spaza shops, informal trading and so on. These are the very spaces occupied by most migrant workers.

There is a danger that post Covid-19, most migrant workers from the region will find themselves jobless if countries insist on inward-looking policies to try and placate local populations with populist, nationalist solutions. 

What do the Unions say?

The Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC) acknowledged that the pandemic had been very disastrous to workers’ rights. The council further noted that the impact was worse on un-unionised workers such as migrant workers, domestic workers, farm workers and those in the informal sector.

As a result SATUCC is now working on including these categories of workers in its work. In an interview on 4 May, the Executive Secretary of SATUCC, Mavis A Koogotsitse, admitted that the pandemic caught trade unions napping. She stressed that unions should now think beyond the traditional ways of mobilising in the workplace.

The European Network of Equality Bodies (EQUINET) expressed concern over what it referred to as “a new and scary discrimination trend,” that has arisen worldwide against those that are in the frontline of action noting how the daily lives of nurses, doctors and healthcare workers are increasingly being affected by discriminatory attitudes and harassment.

The International Labor Organization noted with concern how Covid-19 containment measures have threatened to increase relative poverty levels among the world’s informal economy workers thereby exacerbating already existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. Among other recommendations, the ILO emphasised the need for policies that reduce the exposure of informal workers to the virus; ensure that those infected have access to health care; provide income and food support to individuals and their families; and prevent damage to the economic fabric of countries. 

Conclusion

The impact of Covid-19 on the labour market has been huge. The healthcare shortfalls exposed by Covid-19 in Africa, led Human Rights Watch to call on governments to urgently address healthcare deficiencies in line with international human rights law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It is highly important that labour policies, laws and regulations be revamped to make them as pandemic-proof as possible if workers are not to bear the same brunt in future. Meanwhile, mechanisms aimed at redressing a litany of labour infringements against workers during the Covid-19 pandemic need to be urgently conceived and implemented. As Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the International Labor Organisation (ILO) aptly said:

“Workers and businesses are facing catastrophe, in both developed and developing economies …We have to move fast, decisively, and together. The right, urgent, measures, could make the difference between survival and collapse.” 

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the technical and strategy adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen. 

CALL BY AFRICAN CIVIL SOCIETY FOR REFORM IN THE USA TO ADDRESS STRUCTURAL AND SYSTEMIC INEQUALITY, RACISM AND INJUSTICE

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN or the Defenders Network), DITSHWANELO – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights and Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF) wrote to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives to highlight the ongoing recurrent pattern of unlawful arrests and killings of persons of color by the police. The petition was presented on behalf of civil society organisations and individuals from across the African continent where the letter that was signed by 78 organizations and over 1036 individuals calling for the United States of America to address the ongoing structural and systemic inequality, racism and injustice.

JOINT STATEMENT ON THE THREATS AGAINST THE INDEPENDENCE OF JUDGES IN MALAWI

We note with grave concern, the recent notice issued by the Chief Secretary to the Government of Malawi, announcing that the Chief Justice Hon Andrew K.C Nyirenda is with immediate effect going on leave pending his retirement. The statement reads as follows:

“Government wishes to inform the general public that the Right Honourable Andrew K. C. Nyirenda, S.C., Chief Justice of Malawi, will proceed on leave pending retirement with immediate effect. The Honourable Chief Justice has accumulated more leave days than the remainder of his working days to retirement date. In accordance with the Constitution, the most senior Justice of Appeal will act as Chief Justice until such time as His Excellency the President will appoint a successor.”

We understand that a similar communication has been issued in respect of another Judge of the Supreme Court-Justice Edward Twea. We note that Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda’s tenure is meant to end in December 2021, while the tenure of Hon. Justice Edward Twea is meant to end in April 2021, when they reach the constitutionally stipulated retirement age.

Whilst it is appropriate for a Chief Justice or any judicial officer to go on leave pending their retirement, the decision to do so must be made voluntarily by the concerned judicial officer in consultation with the Judicial Service commission. Furthermore, in light of the separation of powers doctrine, such a decision cannot be communicated by the executive on behalf of the judges or the judiciary. It must be communicated by the Chief Justice and or the Judicial Service Commission.

For the reason that the statement has been issued by the executive branch of government, and that the statement does not disclose whether or not the Chief Justice and Judge Edward Twea did voluntarily make the decision, we view this announcement as an attempt to interfere with the independence of the judiciary.

In terms of both the domestic and international law, the Government of Malawi has an obligation to respect the security of tenure of judges and to respect the independence of the judiciary. Section 103 (1) of the Constitution of Malawi stipulates that “All courts and all persons presiding over those courts shall exercise their functions, powers and duties independent of the influence and direction of any other person or authority.” Similarly, article 26 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights enjoins members states to protect the independence of the judiciary. Principle 12 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the

Independence of the Judiciary enjoins Member States to ensure that “Judges, whether appointed or elected, shall have guaranteed tenure until a mandatory retirement age or the expiry of their term of office, where such exists.

The Government of Malawi must honour these important obligations and ensure that judges are not involuntarily placed on leave by the executive branch of government, pending their retirement. Therefore, we reiterate that the decision whether or not to go on leave pending retirement is one that must be taken voluntarily by the concerned judicial officer and must be announced by the appropriate body. In light of this, we condemn the government’s notice as simply unconstitutional, unprocedurally issued and therefore, patently void.

We call upon the Hon. Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda and the Hon. Judge Edward Twea to continue with their functions as judicial officers. We also call upon the executive branch of the Government of Malawi to respect the independence of the judiciary, especially at this time when Malawi is heading towards the re-run of the presidential election.

———-Ends


Signatories to the Statement

Institutions

  1. Advancing Rights in Southern Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa
  2. AfricanDefenders (Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network),
    Kampala, Uganda
  3. Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF), Johannesburg, South Africa
  4. African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET),
    Nairobi, Kenya
  5. Amnesty International
  6. Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA),
    Blantyre, Malawi
  7. Chapter One Foundation, Lusaka, Zambia
  8. Coalition for an Effective African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights
    (African Court Coalition, ACC), Arusha, Tanzania
  9. DITSHWANELO – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights, Gaborone,
    Botswana
  10. Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU)
  11. East Africa Law Society (EALS), Arusha, Tanzania
  12. Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA),Johannesburg,
    South Africa
  13. International Commission of Jurists – Africa Programme (ICJ-Africa),
    Johannesburg, South Africa
  14. International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
  15. Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJKenya), Nairobi, Kenya
  16. Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (MHRDC), Malawi
  17. Open Bar Initiative, Abuja, Nigeria
  18. Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)
  19. Pan African Citizens’ Network (PACIN), Nairobi, Kenya
  20. Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
  21. Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme
    (RADDHO), Dakar, Sénégal
  22. Southern African Development Community Lawyers’ Association
    (SADC LA), Pretoria, South Africa
  23. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN),
    Johannesburg, South Africa
  24. Southern Africa Women Human Rights Defenders Network,
    Johannesburg, South Africa
  25. Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), Johannesburg, South Africa
  26. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), Harare, Zimbabwe
    Individuals
  27. Hon. Dr. Willy Mutunga, Chief Justice and President of the Supreme
    Court of Kenya, 2011 – 2016, Office of the Former Chief Justice of
    Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya
  28. Mr. Chikosa Banda, Zomba, Malawi
  29. Prof. Danwood Chirwa, Cape Town, South Africa
  30. Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, Former Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human
    Rights Commission (2011 – 2015), Abuja, Nigeria
  31. Dr. Justice Alfred Mavedzenge, Zimbabwe
  32. Mr. Donald Deya, Advocate, Arusha, Tanzania
  33. Hon. Justice Oagile Bethuel Key Dingake, Papua New Guinea
  34. Mr. Brian Tamuka Kagoro, Johannesburg, South Africa
  35. Mr. Ibrahima Kane, Dakar, Senegal
  36. Ms Tiseke Kasambala, Johannesburg, South Africa
  37. Mr. Mussa Likhwa, Advocate, Malawi
  38. Mr. Wachira Maina, Nairobi, Kenya
  39. Mr. Victor Mhango, Blantyre, Malawi
  40. Mr. Wesley Chalo Kawelo Mwafulirwa, Advocate, Mzuzu, Malawi
  41. Mr. Bright Edgar Theu, Advocate, Blantyre, Malawi
  42. Mr. Gift Trapence, Malawi
  43. Dr. Musa Kika, Zimbabwe
  44. Ms. Nikiwe Kaunda, Zambia
  45. Advocate Martin Masiga, Uganda.
  46. Advocate Tererai Mafukidze, Johannesburg South Africa
  47. Advocate Chikondi Chijozi, Malawi

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Stands in Solidarity with Activists against SLAPP Suit Litigation

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) stands in solidarity with six South African human rights defenders (HRDs) who are facing a defamation suit filed by Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities Ltd (commonly referred to as the “MRC”).  The HRDs include Xolobeni community activist Mzamo Dlamini, environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan, former Centre for Environmental Rights’ attorneys Christine Reddell and Tracey Davies, Lutzville (West Coast) community activist Davine Cloete, and social worker, John GI Clarke.

This week, the Western Cape High Court is hearing an application which finds its roots on MRC’s long-standing journey to develop local mining relating to titanium minerals at Xolobeni, in Pondoland and tormin mineral sands operation, which are both situated on the Wild Coast in the northern part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Since the start of the mine’s project proposal, the community members of Xolobeni have strongly resisted bids against both the State and the MRC to grant mining license for the suggested local mining ventures. They have been subjected to several human rights violations as a result. This includes the murder of Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Radebe who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats, and the arrests are yet to be made. Additionally, due to the ongoing pressure from both the State and the MRC in fighting to implement the proposed project, members of the Xolobeni community engaged in a landmark public interest litigation in 2018, in which the Pretoria High Court held that “the Minister of Mineral Resources cannot grant a license to any mining company without first obtaining the full and informed consent of the affected community”.

As such, the matter inspired activism on both grassroots, national and international level, with criticisms expressed against the MRC and the State through the use of public platforms by countless individuals, including the six HRDs in which the case is brought against.

In its application, the MRC is claiming damages of R14.25 million ($ 846 000), or in the alternative, public apologies, from the six South African HRDs. However, the HRDs argue in their court papers that the application is part of a strategy employed by the MRC to silence and intimidate them from exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression, and this is commonly referred to as a ‘SLAPP’ suit. At present, South Africa has no established legislation to regulate the issue of SLAPP suits and there is little legal precedent from courts on this subject matter. Nonetheless, countries such as Canada, Australia and several States in America have enacted anti-SLAPP suits legislation, which mainly find its roots from environmental law. In terms of the international legal framework, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its 2017 General Comment elaborated on States’ obligations to protect individuals under their jurisdiction from interference by third parties, by requiring State Parties to take measures, such as adopting a legal framework guaranteeing the free enjoyment of human rights to its citizens. Additionally, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide the obligation to respect human rights as a global standard of expected conduct for all business enterprises wherever they operate.

“Now more than ever, we are witnessing an increase of human rights violations committed by both the State and major corporations not only in South Arica, but the entire African region and the world as a whole”, said Arnold Tsunga, Steering Committee Member of the SAHRDN. “The protection and fulfillment of the Constitution is dependent on a number of factors, such as ensuring public participation through safeguarding the right to freedom of expression and ensuring that no person is subjected to intimidation or harassment while exercising such rights”, he added.

The significance of the hearing that is taking place this week relates to the court being asked to consider the objections put forward by the defendants through two special pleas, entitled “Abuse of process and strategic litigation against public participation” and “Failure to plead patrimonial loss and failure to plead falsity”. In addition to the argument that the application amounts to the abuse of a court process that is aimed at silencing the defendants, the HRDs’ second special plea argues that a major corporation such as the MRC should only be able to bring a claim for defamation in circumstances where it can prove, amongst other things, that the statements made were false and it has suffered financial loss as a result. Nonetheless, should the application succeed, the HRDs are asking the court to develop the common law by bringing it in line with the Constitution and ensure that activists and individuals are protected from SLAPP litigation in the future. Additionally, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) and the University of Cape Town have joined the case as friends of the court, with each organization arguing that the application should be dismissed on the basis that it is a SLAPP suit and lacks merit and that the protection of academic freedom is fundamental and should be recognized by law as a “qualified privilege for academic speech”.

“As the SAHRDN we reiterate the pleas made by the HRDs and friends of the court in this case and we are hoping for a successful outcome that can create the potential of establishing a necessary legal framework that seeks to prevent the stifling of public participation, that is meant to strengthen the cornerstone of a democracy,” said Mr. Tsunga. “The use of SLAPP suits is a serious emerging threat against several human rights, and we hope that this issue can also be resolved in many parts of the region,” he added. “We are mindful that the fight will be long, but we will continue to stand in solidarity alongside every human rights defender who is faced by this issue and ensure that a better region is created where activists are protected and their safety is guaranteed when exercising their right to freedom of expression and participating in matters of public interest,” Mr. Tsunga concluded.

For more information please contact Simphiwe Sidu our Legal Advisor and RSA HRD Fund Coordinator on ssidu@southernafricadefenders.africa or Washington Katema our Regional Programmes  Manager at wkatema@southernafricadefenders.africa  or +27736202608

Johannesburg: Ongoing Human Rights Violations and Disregard of the Rule of Law by the South African National Defence Force against the Marievale Community

In the past several years, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has continuously violated the rights of the residents of Marievale community despite numerous court orders prohibiting the forced eviction and relocation of the community. The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) remains extremely troubled by the government’s failure at local, provincial and national levels to uphold its duties on protecting the basic human rights of the community and obeying the rule of law. These evictions have continued during the COVID-19 pandemic despite Lockdown Regulations explicitly prohibiting the execution of eviction orders during Lockdown periods.

“Although  numerous court orders against the government represented victories  that continue to affirm the rights of the Marievale community, it remains deeply concerning that the continued attacks and intimidation tactics are perpetrated by the SANDF and local government against some of its most vulnerable members of society”, said Arnold Tsunga, Africa Director of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Chief Strategy and Technical Advisor of the SAHRDN. “Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society should not continue to suffer at the hands of those who are meant to protect them” he added.

Since the unlawful eviction that occurred in 2017, the Marievale community has obtained a series of court judgments and orders against the state, holding that the community should be allowed back to the their homes, or be provided with adequate alternative accommodation in accordance with their rights.  

On 21 May 2020, representing members of the community, Lawyers for Human Rights obtained a court order interdicting the SANDF and the Municipality “from once again” forcefully relocating the Marievale community. However, in an interview conducted by the ICJ on a visit to the residents of Marievale, community leader Mr. Chris Koitsioe says that the SANDF continues to disregard the court order as it has recently unlawfully evicted a community member without providing alternative accommodation. As explained by Mr. Koitsioe in the video which is included on this post below, the actions of the SANDF and the government over a long period of time have instilled fear amongst members of the community, causing distress of further relocations, evictions, and intimidation, despite the SANDF having now committed to not continue such practices.

The SAHRDN makes the following calls in solidarity with the Marievale community:

  1. The SANDF, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans and the Ekurhuleni Municipality must ensure that no further evictions, relocations and intimidation of the Marievale community continues in violation of multiple court orders and the human rights of the community;
  2. That the President, as the Commander in Chief of the SANDF, takes appropriate action to ensure that the violation of the community’s rights by the SANDF on a continuous basis since 2017 is investigated and appropriate action is taken to ensure access to justice and reparation for community members; and
  3. That the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans ensure the accountability of the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans for the violation of the community’s rights by the SANDF on a continuous basis.

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

Issue No; 7 25-29 May

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

Schoolchildren, university and tertiary education students have been at home for almost two months following the outbreak of Covid-19. 

The requirement to observe social distancing as part of efforts to curb the spread of the virus resulted in school closures and bans on large gatherings across southern Africa. 

While the spread of Covid-19 has slowed down, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and medical scientists say the peak is yet to come. On 17 April, the WHO warned that Africa could be the next epicentre of the virus. In the WHO’s best-case scenario, where governments introduce intense social distancing, once a threshold of 0.2 deaths per 100,000 people per week is reached, Africa would see 122 million infections, 2.3 million hospitalisations and 300,000 deaths.

On 7 May, a study by the WHO Regional Office for Africa estimated that up to 190,000 people could die in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures fail. This has led to a serious debate on reopening schools, colleges and universities. 

Meanwhile, schools, especially private schools, continue charging fees, and parents have become the teachers. Even the homeschooling introduced is mainly virtual and digital heavy. Virtual education works when students and parents have access to the internet. This requirement precludes the poor showing that the digital divide separates the children of the wealthy from those of the majority poor when virtual learning is practised. 

Home and virtual learning has also put a huge burden on parents, particularly women and single parents, who must share time, homes, computers, televisions and generally family chores with teaching children.

The universally recognised right to education, which in 2019 was elaborated in the Abidjan Principles on the human rights obligations of states to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education, has therefore become an area of severe contestation in Southern Africa.

On 30 April, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Bank issued guidelines on the safe reopening of schools amidst ongoing closures affecting nearly 1.3 billion students worldwide. The guidelines provide a framework that informs decision-making regarding school reopening, support national preparations and guide the implementation process.

Education or health? The schools reopening debate

Over the last three weeks, most countries in the region have gradually eased lockdown restrictions. While gatherings remain banned, indications point to a systemic reopening of schools starting from 1 June in Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eswatini, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. But in some countries such as Malawi, schools remain closed until further notice.  

Angola, which recently moved to a “State of National Disaster” from a “State of Emergency”, is reopening schools. 

On 25 May, Angolan government officials announced that high schools, tertiary institutions and universities would reopen on 13 July while primary schools will be reopened on 27 July in line with the rules of operation of public and private services that took effect as of 26 May. Restarting the functioning of preschools will be determined at a later stage and will be subject to its own regulations. 

The Minister of State and of the Civil House, Adão de Almeida, laid out some of the requirements for reopening schools, including maintenance of physical distance, building and hand hygiene, the use of face masks and reduction of libraries, laboratories and computer rooms’ maximum capacity by 50%.

Botswana ended its lockdown on 20 May, allowing all businesses and schools to reopen under strict conditions such as body temperature checks, regular disinfection, reduced class sizes and the wearing of masks. 

The country will begin reopening schools in stages from 2 June for final-year students while others would resume 2-3 weeks later and pre-primary classes on 4 August. 

According to Bridget John, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Basic Education, classes will start from Standard 7, Form 3 and Form 5 and primary, junior and senior secondary schools respectively. Tertiary institutions will open in two phases from June starting with teaching, technical colleges and institutes of health sciences and then universities.

Parents and caregivers, however, expressed concern during a press briefing held on 25 May by the ministries of Basic and Tertiary Education on readiness. 

This is not a wise decision, it is not safe out there. Kids are naive and careless, hence they need to stay at home where it is safe especially considering that there is still no vaccine or cure for the disease. We have nothing to lose by these kids staying home but we stand to risk a lot if they don’t,” read one comment.  

When the announcement to reopen schools was made, the Covid-19 Task Force Coordinator, Dr Kereng Masupu, indicated that the authorities would continue monitoring the disease patterns and reinstate lockdown measures in the event of a new spike in Covid-19 cases.

On 11 May, Africanews reported that authorities in the DRC were discussing plans to save the academic year. The Minister of Primary, Secondary and Literacy Education, Anatole Collinet Makosso stated that the government has not yet taken any decision on the matter but is working on the possibility as guided by health authorities. While the dates for reopening remain uncertain, DRC authorities have indicated that they will regulate the period during which national examinations will be organised. 

The Students’ Union of Congo, however, raised concern that there will not be an equality of opportunity between candidates given that not all students have access to online lessons. Makosso dismissed this concern, arguing that a regulatory act is not influenced by media agitation or protests on the streets. He insisted that equality measures had been established and included handouts and online courses.

In Tanzania, preparations to reopen universities and colleges are underway. President John Magufuli ordered the reopening of all universities and other institutions of higher learning effective from 1 June. The development follows a declaration by the president that there had been a decline in Covid-19 cases in the country. Form 6 students who were preparing for their final examinations before the Covid-19 outbreak are also to resume their studies on 1 June. Primary and secondary schools will, however, remain closed. 

Critics say Magufuli’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is both irrational and dangerous. Zitto Kabwe, a member of Parliament who leads the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency – Wazalendo party, said the declaration that the country is winning the battle against the pandemic and accordingly would be reopening schools and universities was made without any publication of official or verifiable statistics about the rate of infection and deaths, claiming that the last publication was made on 29 April. 

The WHO and the international community have also criticised Tanzanian authorities for their casual approach in addressing the global pandemic.

Authorities in Eswatini are considering reopening schools on 1 July amid the partial lockdown. According to the Eswatini Observer, a draft framework by the Ministry of Education and Training proposes an approach which could see schools reopening in phases, giving preference to completing classes, reopening schools that have low enrolments, using a shift system and key stakeholder engagement with regional education officers, teachers, learners, parents, civil society and development partners.

Teachers, under the banner of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) issued 15 conditions that must be met prior to the opening of schools. These include ensuring that all the 970 schools (primary and secondary), and 30 tertiary institutions (both private and public) are extensively disinfected and provided with water tanks to ensure a constant supply of clean running water.

On 19 May, South Africa’s Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced that all public school teachers had to return to work on 25 May in preparation for the return of Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils on 1 June, including public and private schools. She encouraged all schools to adhere to and observe the health and safety protocols that will be put in place, adding that other grades will follow in due course. 

However, unions, parents and student organisations have joined forces to oppose the decision. 

The National Association of Parents in School Governance, also acting on behalf of the Congress of South African Students, dismissed the development as an “irrational and arbitrary” move that puts pupils, teachers and families in danger of succumbing to Covid-19. The association’s president, Mahlomola Kekana, said it is unfortunate that the minister’s plan excludes those pupils that are taught under trees, in tents, dilapidated buildings or overcrowded schools.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) also believes June is too early for schools to be able to meet all the preconditions laid out in the Covid-19 regulations. 

The National Teachers’ Union, Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie (SAOU), the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas), the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa and the National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations (Naisa) also expressed misgivings around the department’s plans and around provincial readiness. 

Other stakeholders have resorted to litigation in their bid to force the government to reverse the decision. The Educators Union of South Africa (Eusa), is taking the government to court. Eusa accuses Motshekga of lying and misleading the public about supplying PPE and guaranteeing the safety of pupils and teachers. The union also argues that PPE alone will not guarantee the safety of those involved – this is only one out of 15 demands that have to be met before classes can resume. 

Meanwhile, a teacher in Cape Town has reportedly tested positive for Covid-19 a week before schools reopen.

Plans to reopen schools in Zambia have been met with mixed reactions. In his 8 May national address, President Edgar Lungu said examination classes in primary and secondary schools would reopen on 1 June on condition that schools enforce all public health guidelines, regulations and certifications. He went further to direct health and education authorities to ensure that face masks, hand washing soaps and sanitisers are prioritised and provided at all schools. 

The National Action for Quality Education in Zambia welcomed the decision but urged the government to provide PPE at all schools. The general secretary of the Zambia National Teachers Union reported that they were ready for the reopening of schools and encouraged parents to allow learners to attend class, adding that necessary measures had already been put in place to ensure a safe learning environment. 

The Basic Education Teachers Union of Zambia said they are committed to working flat-out in all schools across the country to ascertain preparedness ahead of the reopening. However, the Zambia National Union of Teachers described the move as a bold decision that could backfire and result in schools becoming epicentres of Covid-19 if not managed well.

Similarly, authorities in Zimbabwe have received mixed reactions, with some stakeholders strongly opposing the idea of reopening schools and universities from 1 June as announced by the government. 

On 23 May, the minister of primary and secondary education told The Sunday Mail that schools would resume classes in mid-June while universities would reopen on 1 June. He stated that 2020 exam classes would be prioritised and be opened in Phase 1 followed by 2021 exam classes, then Grades 3, 4, 5 and Forms 1 and 2. Phase 4 will consist of Grades 2 and 1 and lastly pre-primary classes. 

The minister insisted that teachers would be screened and tested to ensure the safety of learners. Further, he stated that schools would be provided with thermometers for screening while learners would be allocated PPE.

Despite the government’s laid out plan, teachers’ unions are concerned that the decision may be premature considering that the months of June and July carry a high probability for infections of ordinary flu. The Zimbabwe Teachers Association (Zimta) has warned that if authorities go ahead with their plan, stakeholders may be headed for industrial conflict. 

Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) president, Obert Masaraure said the June examinations should only be written when conditions allow, stating that:

“There is no rush really. We do not want to lose lives, we should not force premature reopening of schools. Learners, teachers and everyone involved in the process should be tested before there is any activity at schools, be they examinations or lessons.”

Some parents believe it is still premature to reopen schools, while others seem to agree with the government, arguing that Covid-19 is not going anywhere anytime soon hence people ought to adapt to the new norm.

The Zimbabwe National Students’ Union (Zinasu) has issued a statement saying that while they acknowledge and agree with efforts to rescue and fulfil the 2020 academic year, tertiary and university students can only go back to campuses if the government can assure that institutions will adhere to WHO guidelines on preventing the spread of Covid-19. The union also indicated that end-of-semester examinations should not be a rushed formality but a proper process to prevent the majority of students from being unfairly condemned to failure.

Midlands State University (MSU) students have approached the High Court challenging the government’s decision to introduce e-learning in tertiary institutions during the national lockdown. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) filed an urgent chamber application on behalf of the students, arguing that the majority of students are from poor backgrounds and can neither afford smart electronic gadgets nor the internet that is required to access online classes.

Unlike most countries, there seems to be consensus regarding the reopening of schools in Namibia

Media reports suggest that some education stakeholders, including the Namibia National Teachers Union (Nantu) and Teachers Union of Namibia (TUN) have agreed among themselves that learners who are in critical grades and are expected to sit for external examinations like Grades 11 and 12 should resume classes by 3 June to allow them to complete their academic year. Former education minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa also agrees. 

The unions, which also agreed that other grades would resume between July and August, as the situation dictates, are now in the process of consulting school principals in the country’s 14 regions to discuss the best way forward that ensures health and safety will not be compromised.

Conclusion 

The decision to shut down schools in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic was universally accepted, a very stark contrast to the raging debate on their reopening. Governments in southern Africa want schools reopened but parents, students, teachers and stakeholders do not seem to generally agree, as they are not satisfied that the conditions for reopening exist yet. 

It can be discerned that there is a serious lack of mistrust between governments and the rest. As the debate rages, it is learners who are paying the highest cost, as their right to education has been seriously compromised. Governments and all stakeholders must be guided by medical advice and take all necessary precautions to ensure that reopening the sector does not put anyone at risk. 

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the technical and strategy adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.