Month: Jul 2020

South Africa: SAHRDN and ICJ call on authorities to end continued intimidation, harassment of residents of Happiness Village

The ICJ and the South African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) have written to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and the Chairperson of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

They have detailed the continued intimidation and harassment of the residents of Happiness village by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

“We have written to the Special Rapporteurs because the SANDF is unrelenting in its abuse of the resident’s despite the best efforts of their legal representatives and repeated court orders,”

ICJ Legal Adviser in South Africa Tim Fish Hodgson.

“A community leader was placed under house arrest guarded by four soldiers for seven days. Another resident was subjected to a punishment by which was told to lie flat on the ground and ‘pray to his God’ for simply leaving his home. Others have been assaulted. The SANDF deliberately conducts military exercises near the residents’ homes late at night to scare and intimidate them. All this with utter disregard for the law and in direct violation of a number of court judgments and orders”,

added Tim Fish Hodgson.

The residents, who were forcibly and violently evicted from Marievale military base beginning in 2017, have repeatedly been granted court orders by the High Court declaring such evictions unlawful and directing the SANDF to refrain from harassing, threatening and intimidating the residents and not to restrict their movement.

Despite this, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, further evictions and constant harassment and intimidation continues unabated and has intensified to a point that the residents describe the SANDF as having “laid siege” to their homes in Happiness Village which is adjacent to Marievale military base.

Soldiers now police checkpoints, preventing visitors from entering the area and even journalists have been prevented from entering Happiness Village. The residents’ legal representatives were only allowed to visit a single community representative under armed military guard.

As the letter reveals, the SANDF’s actions amount to violations of the residents’ right to adequate housing protection in terms of the South African Constitution, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The intimidation, harassment, humiliation and assault of the residents’ amount to violations of the residents’ rights to liberty and security of person and may also amount to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment in violation of the South African Constitution and international human rights law.

They seem to be geared at making the resident’s lives intolerable in order to secure evictions “through the backdoor”, which is explicitly prohibited in South African law.

The residents, represented by Lawyers for Human Rights, will once again be in urgent court on July 31 seeking an interdict to prevent further harassment, intimidation and restrictions on their movement by the SANDF. The legal representatives of the SANDF have indicated that they intend to oppose their application.

The SAHRDN and ICJ has therefore implored the Special Rapporteurs to:


1. Call on the SANDF, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans and on the Ekurhuleni Municipality to desist from any further evictions, relocation, intimidation, harassment, humiliation, and assault of the Marievale community residents;
2. Call on the SANDF, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans and the Ekurhuleni Municipality to immediately lift and ensure the non-recurrence of restrictions on the movement on Happiness Village residents;
3. Call on the President of South Africa, as the Commander in Chief of the SANDF, to take appropriate action to ensure that the human rights violations that the residents of Marievale have suffered at the hands of the SANDF on a continuous basis since 2017 be investigated, and that appropriate action be taken to ensure access to justice and effective remedies for the residents; and
4. Call on the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans to ensure the accountability of the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans for the human rights violations to which the SANDF has subjected the residents on a continuous basis since 2017.

Contact

Simphiwe Sidu (SAHRDN Legal Adviser) t: +2776 675 8168; e: ssidu@southernafricadefenders.africa

Zimbabwe: Message from Robson Chere the Secretary-General of Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union

Revolutionary greetings cdes. It has come to my attention that the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) are looking for me for an ‘interview’ in relation to the impending demonstration on the 31st of July 2030.

List of HRDs and Democracy Activists that is wanted by Zimbabwe Republic Police ahead of the 31st Protests in Zimbabwe

As far as I am concerned and from where I stand, I have never applied for any job with the ZRP I am employed by the government already as a passionate and dedicated teacher. It is enough for me so I don’t need any interview with the police.

The government is emphasising the need for social distance due to the covid 19 pandemic. As a law abiding and responsible citizen, I will not ignore the government directive of social distance by availing myself to a reckless, ill advised and unnecessary interview. In that light, I advise the ZRP to contact me telephonically. They have my contact details already. We have visited one another countless times over the years.

In case that the interview materialises telephonically, my answer is clear. I am not the cause of any demonstration. Corruption, poverty and dictatorship are the causes. Not me. Let them address those issues and there will be no demonstration.

May the ancestors of the revolution guide us on the 31st of July as we make our position clear.

Aluta continua.

Cde Robson Nikita Chere.

SAHRDN 2020 Human Rights Award Nominations now open

We are seeking nominations for HRDs – an individual or organization working in any of the 16 Southern Africa region  – who have demonstrated an exceptional commitment to human rights defending. In these COVID-19 times,  human rights defenders are continuously under pressure globally, it’s never been more important to raise the profile and honor the work, of brave women and men around the world fighting to promote human dignity usually at great personal risk. To nominate individuals or organizations, please download the nomination forms below. Please use the language of your choice as the nomination forms are in English, French, and Portuguese.

The deadline to submit the nomination forms is 31 August 2020

Zimbabwean government must stop misusing the legal system to arbitrarily arrest and detain human rights defenders.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) demands the immediate release of Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume, who were arrested earlier today and are being arbitrarily detained at Harare Central Police Station.

The arrest of Hopewell Chin’ono was captured on camera when police armed with guns, vandalized his property, breaking a glass door to forcibly gain entry. He was dragged away from his home without a warrant of arrest and no identification from the officers, in an incident that was tantamount to an abduction. Chin’ono, an award-winning investigative journalist has recently been instrumental in exposing high levels and systemic corruption in Zimbabwe.


“We deplore the increasing weaponization of the law to attack civic space and silence human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. Over the years we have seen the systematic misuse of the law by state security institutions, including the police and central intelligence agents, to target dissenting voices and those advocating for accountable governance. These were the same tactics used in pre-independent Zimbabwe and it’s unfortunate the phenomenon continues to exist in what is supposed to be a democratic and free Zimbabwe. Criminalizing defenders which undermines rule of law cannot be a good state policy and must be stopped immediately”

Professor Adriano Nuvunga, a steering committee member of the SAHRDN and Executive Director at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in Mozambique.

Leading human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa later posted a video standing in front of the shattered door of Hopewell Chin’ono’s house, confirming the arrest of her client, but unbale to verify who had taken him and where he had been taken to. SAHRDN is aware that for several hours, Chino’ono was denied access to his lawyers, nor was he promptly informed of the charges he is facing, which was in violation of his due process rights.

Preceding his arrest, Hopewell Chin’ono had reported receiving verbal threats from ruling ZANU PF members following his corruption exposé that eventually led to the firing of Zimbabwe’s Minister of Health who was implicated in the diversion of public funds meant for COVID-19 purposes.

Jacob Ngarivhume is the President of Transform Zimbabwe, an opposition political party in Zimbabwe, who has been calling for a public protest against bad governance and corruption that is scheduled for on 31 July. Prior to his arrest, he had been similarly receiving death threats from suspected government agents or sympathizers.

The arrest of Chino’ono and Ngarivhume are the most recent in a series of arrests and attacks of human rights defenders and legitimate political opponents, targeted for merely speaking out against corruption and bad governance in Zimbabwe. Just this past week suspected state security agents broke into the house of Mr Obert Masaraure, who is the President of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ). They briefly but forcibly held his wife demanding to be told the whereabouts of Masaraure. Masaraure has been a victim of abduction and torture by state agents for his activism. ARTUZ has been key in calling for better living conditions of Civil Servants, particularly rural teachers. We also saw nurses being arrested and detained for striking for better working conditions and essential protective clothing in light of Covid-19. Young human rights activists, Namatai Kwekeza, Youngerson Matete and Prince Gora were recently arrested for staging a protests against proposed constitutional amendments. This was the second arrest of Namatai Kwekeza in less than a month.

“We urge the Zimbabwean government to comply with its obligations under regional and international law, as well as the Constitution of Zimbabwe,” said Prof Nuvunga. “Section 58, 59, 60 and 61 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe specifically guarantee freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association”

added Professor Adriano Nuvunga

The United Nations Special Mechanisms have recently written to Zimbabwean authorities on the abuse of human rights defenders and violation of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The continued targeting of defenders especially during a global pandemic where government should be more accountable is counterproductive.

The SAHRDN strongly calls on Zimbabwean authorities to stop persecuting human rights defenders, journalists, and democracy activists who are legitimately exercising their constitutional rights. We also call for the immediate and unconditional release of Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume and that their safety be guaranteed.

For more information please contact Simphiwe Sidu the Regional Legal Adviser at ssidu@southernafricadefenders.africa or +27736202608.

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, most governments in southern Africa swiftly introduced lockdowns and curfews to curb the spread of the virus.

The measures slowed the infection rates, potentially preventing calamities associated with the poor state of public health facilities in Africa. However, their most severe consequences were on livelihoods and national economies in a way that threatened stability. It came as no surprise that from May, we saw most countries slowly easing restrictive measures and opening up again — even though the peak of Covid-19 infections has not yet been reached. 

In this article, we take a look at the rate of infections vis-à-vis the state of lockdowns and the challenges that are complicating reopenings across the region.  

Lockdown measures and economic carnage

Reports indicate that 15 sub-Saharan African governments went so far as to partially or fully close their borders – closing airports, ports and in some cases land borders – before they had even confirmed a single case. 

As of 30 March, 46 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 sovereign states had imposed partial or full closures of their borders; 44 had closed schools, banned public gatherings, or put in place other social distancing measures; and 11 had declared a state of emergency. 

On a regional level, sub-Saharan Africa arguably responded more quickly and decisively than anywhere else in the world. 

While Africa hasn’t yet suffered the ravages of the pandemic on the scale that has hit other continents like Asia, Europe and America, analysts say Covid-19 could still have a devastating impact on the continent’s already strained health systems and is quickly turning into a social and economic emergency. According to the African Union, the continent faces its first recession in a quarter-century and has lost nearly $55-billion in the travel and tourism sectors in the past three months. 

South Africa, the continent’s largest and most developed economy, is the only African country among the 10 hardest hit Covid-19 countries in the world. South Africa is expected to experience its deepest recession for a century with at least a 7.1% contraction in GDP while the collapse in oil prices has hit Africa’s third-largest economy — Angola — as well as the second-biggest economy, Nigeria, hard. 

In May, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) estimated that Africa could lose up to $65.7-billion (2.5% of annual GDP) for every month of lockdown. 

 Covid-19 update and status in the region

Worldometer reported that as of 14 July, Africa had registered 616,345 cases and more than 13,500 deaths. According to WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, “Even though these cases in Africa account for less than 3% of the global total, it’s clear that this pandemic is accelerating.” 

South Africa reported its biggest increase in Covid-19 infections on 9 July when the Health Ministry reported that there had been 13,674 new confirmed cases in one day. By 14 July, the number of confirmed cases in South Africa had surpassed 280,000. A record 192 people succumbed to Covid-19 in 24 hours on 7 July. Fatalities increased from 3,502 to 4,172 within a week. 

Reports indicate that by 14 July, DRC had recorded 8,135 cases, Malawi 2,430, Zambia 1,895, Eswatini 1,434, Mozambique 1,268 and Zimbabwe stood at 1,064. Namibia had 864, Angola 525, Tanzania 509, Botswana 399, while Lesotho, one of Africa’s least affected countries, had recorded 256 cases.

It is not clear what is driving the significant differences in infection rates, but there is belief that the differences in numbers may be a factor of the capacity to test and compile up-to-date statistics. South Africa has carried out and continues to carry out extensive testing while some countries like LesothoZimbabwe and Eswatini have limited capacity and therefore their infection-rate statistics will not be reliable.

Reopenings: Economic necessity or health suicide?

Due to the enormous stress the lockdowns have imposed on economies, governments in the region have gradually been reopening economies from May. Zero economic activity is unsustainable. The balance between maintaining some economic activity and containing the spread of Covid-19 is delicate.

The opening up of economies has been accompanied by some strict measures, including quarantining returnees, enforcing the wearing of masks in public, restrictions on public gatherings and continuation of physical distancing. 

The conditions in some quarantine zones in some countries and how they then become zones for the spread of Covid-19 is a matter for another day.

Despite experiencing the highest number of cases, which continue to rise, South Africa continues to move forward with its phased reopening strategy. In June, schools, churches and businesses such as restaurants, hairdressers, and hotels, among others, were allowed to reopen. On 6 July, more pupils returned to school after nearly four months of interruption. 

In a nationally televised address on 12 July, President Ramaphosa, however, announced that while the country would remain on Level 3, regulations would be tightened to ease pressure on the country’s healthcare system and slow the spread of the virus, adding that top health officials had warned of impending shortages of hospital beds and oxygen as South Africa reaches a peak of Covid-19 cases. Ramaphosa reintroduced a ban on the sale of alcohol, arguing that since the sale and distribution of alcohol was permitted again in June, hospitals have undergone a spike in admissions in their trauma and emergency wards. A night-time curfew was also reintroduced and he extended the national state of disaster to 15 August.

In response, the National Liquor Traders Council, South African Liquor Brand Owners Association (Salba), the Beer Association of South Africa, Vinpro, and the Liquor Traders Association of South Africa expressed concern that the ban will lead to more job losses. According to News24, the country’s alcohol industry directly employs about 90,000 people. 

In Tanzania, where President John Magufuli has been accused of taking an aggressive reopening strategy and has criticised local health officials for inflating the country’s Covid-19 numbers, larger gatherings – including weddings and at schools – were allowed to reopen from 29 June. 

Angola lifted its Covid-19 state of emergency at the end of May and reopened businesses at 50% capacity.

African authorities have also decided to reopen airspaceSouth Africa has resumed domestic flights while Tanzania and Zambia now have commercial flights. Tanzania opened its skies weeks ago, hoping for a tourism boost despite widespread concern that it is not being honest about the extent of infections. The country has reportedly not updated case numbers since April.

Tanzania was also the first country to reopen its borders to tourists and international travel as Africa’s tourism gears up for a comeback. 

Other countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe have followed suit. 

Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu addressed the nation on 25 June and announced the reopening of international airports to boost international tourist arrivals. On 30 June, the government of Zimbabwe announced the easing of regulations in the tourism and hospitality sector. Restaurants will be allowed to welcome sit-in patrons, national parks will reopen and safari operators will resume economic activity. Restaurants may only occupy 50% of their licensed capacity. However, international travel remains banned. 

Zimbabwe remains under an indefinite “partial” lockdown, with a fortnightly review to determine when to reopen. Given the allegations of violations of fundamental freedoms and the arbitrary arrests and detentions of human rights defenders and political opponents, questions continue to be asked whether the indefinite lockdown in the country is meant to achieve public health or rather political outcomes.

As more African countries open their borders, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) led Global Tourism Crisis Committee has drawn up guidelines to restart tourismSouth Africa, one of Africa’s most popular destinations, but unfortunately the epicentre of the pandemic in Africa, has however opted to reopen its tourism sector in early 2021.

Covid-19 and the informal economy

The impact of lockdown measures on the formal economy has been the largest trigger of efforts by many governments to reopen. Yet a significant number of African economies and livelihoods have been supported by the informal economy. In other words, Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the poor and people who operate in the informal economy. 

The majority of the peopl live off the informal sector and cross-border trade. As long as the informal sector and borders remain closed, a lot of families face a humanitarian catastrophe. 

In addressing a SADC Parliamentary Forum Standing Committee on Trade, Industry, Finance and Investment meeting, Amnesty International “reckons that informal cross-border trade accounts for between $17-billion and $20-billion per annum” in southern Africa and “so if cross-border informal traders are unable to move and do business, the impact on household incomes would be dire.” 

This led Deprose Muchena, the Amnesty International Director for Southern and East Africa, to conclude that:

“While the globe is dealing with a health pandemic, Africa in general and southern Africa in particular, will be dealing with an economic pandemic.” 

The majority of the people, however, live off the informal sector and cross-border trade. As long as the informal sector and borders remain closed, a lot of families face a humanitarian catastrophe. 

In Zimbabwe, the suffering has raised political tensions with threats for a national anti-government strike on 31 July, led by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, the country’s main opposition party. Faced with a combination of increasing infection rates and threats of protests, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has extended lockdown measures indefinitely, subject to review every two weeks. The reopening of schools in Zimbabwe has also been deferred owing to the rising number of Covid-19 cases. For now, it appears that the lockdown measures will respond to both the threats posed by Covid-19 and potential demonstrations.

Covid-19 reopening setbacks

Until June 2020 Seychelles had gone for “70-plus straight days without a single infection” before “two chartered Air Seychelles flights carrying more than 200 passengers also brought the coronavirus”, resulting in a situation between 24 and 30 June, where the country’s confirmed cases shot from 11 to 81. This made authorities “delay the reopening for commercial flights for its lucrative tourism industry until 1 August, if all goes well”. 

In Eswatini, the reopening suffered a huge setback when judges of the Mbabane High Court contracted the virus on 6 July, forcing the courts to close just a week after a cabinet minister had also tested positive. Schools are still closed and government plans to reopen them has sparked a fierce debate. So serious is the standoff between the government and civil society that the Swaziland National Association of Teachers has filed a court appeal against the government’s plan to reopen schools. The association argues that independent inspections at more than 22 schools had established that conditions were not conducive to learning. 

After easing restrictions for the first time in 48 days on 21 May, Botswana was forced to bring back a strict lockdown in its capital city, Gaborone, and surrounding areas after recording 12 new cases on 12 May. The lockdown was to be lifted on 16 June. On 3 July, the government announced the Ministry of International Affairs and Co-operation was being shut “due to Covid-19 exposure”.  

With Covid-19 being a poverty, inequality and human rights violations multiplier, serious questions continue to be raised on the adequacy of the Covid-19 lockdown measures and current efforts at tweaking such measures in order to facilitate the reopening of the economies. 

At the beginning of July, the president was back in quarantine for the fourth time “due to the discovery of a positive Covid-19 test result on one of the officials closely serving His Excellency the President Dr Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi”.

On 15 July, BBC News reported that as doctors, unions and management fight over scarce resources in South Africa, one senior doctor described the situation as “an epic failure of a deeply corrupt system”, while another spoke of “institutional burnout… a sense of chronic exploitation, the department of health essentially bankrupt, and a system on its knees with no strategic management”.

RFI reported on 28 May that more than 400 people escaped from Kamuzu Stadium quarantine centre in Malawi — at least 46 of them had tested positive for the virus. Reasons for desertion included complaints of inadequate food, not enough bathrooms or other facilities at the stadium they were placed in while others simply bribed the police to escape. On 6 July, Malawi, which took to the polls on 23 June in a fresh presidential election, cancelled its independence celebrations that had been scheduled to coincide with the new president’s inauguration ceremony owing to a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases. 

In South Africa, teacher unions have strengthened calls for schools to close again after President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that the country’s Covid-19 peak is yet to come. Several teachers and students were infected with the virus at schools.

“Covid-19 is a global public health challenge, but in Africa, the malady has metamorphosed into an “economic pandemic” requiring bold and innovative parliamentary and governmental responses.” 

Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International says

While governments have been pushed to reopen economies largely by the impact of Covid-19 measures on the formal economy with estimated losses of $65.7-billion per month for each month of lockdown, according to Uneca, it is the carnage on the poor who rely on the informal economy worth $17-billion to $20-billion a year in southern Africa alone that the greatest impact on household incomes is felt. 

With Covid-19 being a poverty, inequality and human rights violations multiplier, serious questions continue to be raised on the adequacy of the Covid-19 lockdown measures and current efforts at tweaking such measures in order to facilitate the reopening of the economies. 

The predominantly weak economies in the region cannot cope for long without opening up. Yet without measures to enforce the conditions necessary for safe reopenings, it appears there is a looming danger of a further spike in infections and with it a possible return to strict lockdowns. The cost of another wholesale lockdown in southern Africa is economically unfathomable and a potential human rights disaster of incalculable proportions. 

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer and the technical and strategy adviser of the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.

The role of the Judicial Court of the Province of Gaza and of the Public Prosecutor in the pursuit of the public interest and the achievement of justice in the case of Anastácio Matavele

Our network member from Mozambique, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD)  followed up on the criminal case which involved state security agencies that had murdered Dr Anastacio Matavel, a human rights defender based in the Gaza Province in Mozambique.

The Court sentenced six PRM officers to between 3 and 24 years in prison, namely Tudelo Guirrugo, Edson Silica and Alfredo Macuácua to 24 years in prison; Euclídio Mapulasse to 23 years in prison; Januário Rungo and Justino Muchanga to 3 and 2 years in prison respectively. 

The sentence does not explore in a transparent, exhaustive manner the reasons for Matavel’s murder, nor does it demonstrate the investigation carried out to identify the moral authors of this murder, although there are strong signs in the file that the material agents of this crime would have been ordered to kill Matavele.

The Judicial Court of Gaza Province and the Public Prosecutor’s Office representing the State have not performed their duties in an exempt manner and in compliance with the provisions of the law concerning their powers or functions. 

Such biased, subjective conduct contrary to the law, especially with regard to the principle of criminal investigation in this criminal case, may lead to the magistrates concerned being held accountable despite the judges’ legal guarantee of irresponsibility. This guarantee is not absolute in the sense that judges are not held responsible even when they act in a partial manner contrary to the law. 

The position of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) is that the Judicial Court of Gaza Province has not carried out due justice in this case and has committed essential procedural irregularities in this criminal case as demonstrated above, such irregularities must be examined on appeal.

The conduct of the magistrates denying justice to the Matavele family and society in general in this case should be investigated by the competent bodies for the management and discipline of the activities of magistrates and prosecutors respectively, the Superior Council of the Judiciary and the Superior Council of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. The roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.

On 7 July 2020, the government of Malawi issued a little-noticed announcement, withdrawing its decision on 12 June that the country’s chief justice, Andrew Nyirenda, had to go on compulsory leave pending retirement. In a nod to both the separation of powers and judicial independence, the notice acknowledged that the matter of the chief justice’s leave and how or when it should be taken was a “matter between the Honorable the Chief Justice and [the] Judicial Service Commission”.

It was a fitting bookend to the recent story of one of Africa’s unquestionably more unlikely political models, where the judiciary has emerged with credit in policing the ground rules of democratic politics.

In the 26 days from 12 June to 7 July, Malawi navigated a tumultuous path back to the future. On Sunday 14 June, the High Court of Malawi issued two orders suspending the presidential notice that would have effectively sacked the chief justice.

Two weeks later, on 28 June, Lazarus Chakwera, a Pentecostal pastor, took the oath as independent Malawi’s sixth president, replacing Arthur Peter Mutharika, the law professor whom he defeated in the rerun in June 2020 of a ballot from May 2019, which Malawi’s courts had found to have been characterised by high electoral larceny.

The path to this outcome was both tortured and, in the view of many people outside Malawi at least, improbable.

The Tipp-Ex elections

When Malawi went to the polls to elect a president on 21 May 2019, there were 10 parties on the ballot paper. They included Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), first elected in 2014. He was running for a second term.

Mutharika’s vice-president, Saulos Chilima, having fallen out with him, ran on the platform of the United Transformation Movement (UTM). Chakwera was the candidate of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Also on the ballot was Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Malawi’s first-past-the-post  electoral system was designed to produce as the winner the candidate with the highest lawful votes. The Malawi Electoral Commission registered 6,859,570 voters to vote in the ballot.

At the end of the contest, the commission announced a turnout of 5,105,983 votes, crediting Mutharika with 38.57% of the votes, Chakwera with 35.41% and Chilima with 20.24%. Muluzi came a distant fourth with 4.67%.

Both Chakwera and Chilima were unhappy with the declared results. The public mood was also fractious, and there were allegations that the electoral commission, led by supreme court justice Jane Ansah, had rigged the polls. Duelling public protests ensued, with vocal civil society advocating that #JaneAnsahMustFall as others claimed that she was the victim of targeted misogyny.

With the support of civil society, Chakwera and Chilima headed to Malawi’s constitutional court to challenge the results. On 3 February 2020, the court nullified the result and ordered a fresh presidential ballot with two stipulations. First, the rerun had to be held not later than six months from the judgment. Second, the winner had to emerge with a clear majority of at least 50% plus one of the votes cast. This was a high threshold for a country where presidential contests had historically been squeaky affairs.

As he was entitled to, Mutharika appealed the judgment to the supreme court. On 8 May, the supreme court affirmed the judgment of the constitutional court, throwing out Mutharika’s appeal. In doing so, the court identified three categories of irregularities that had marred the elections. It found “documents whose contents were altered by either the use of Tipp-Ex, a manual crossing out of the original content or overwriting on the original document. Then there are … completely new documents. In other words, documents that were never, at all, submitted by the polling station. Examples are duplicate, fake, reserve and uncustomised documents. The third category is unsigned documents.”

Under the terms of the court orders, the rerun was set to take place on or before 2 July. There was not a lot of time to get it done. This was only the second time that a court in Africa had nullified a presidential contest.

The first time, in 2017 in Kenya, ended in a fiasco when the irate ruling party decided in response to eviscerate the electoral process to the point where the opposition effectively pulled out of the rerun, paving the way for the incumbent to emerge practically unopposed.

Courts vs. despots

By the time the Malawi supreme court had handed down its judgment, the world was already in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. In other parts of Africa, Mutharika’s peers had set about using the pandemic as cover to retain power. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé used it to amend the constitution in order to secure a life presidency. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza saw in the pandemic an opportunity to install his hand-picked successor.

This was an appealing playbook for Mutharika. On 20 March, he proclaimed an indefinite “state of national disaster” during which he banned “all gatherings including weddings, funerals, church, congregations, rallies and government meetings” of more than 100 people. With this he sought to ban all political rallies during the period preceding the proposed rerun.

Five weeks later, on 28 April, high court judge Kenyatta Nyirenda stopped Mutharika’s government from “suspending or implementing the complete closure of religious gatherings”.

For Mutharika and his coterie, the courts and the church were tag-team against him in a contest in which his biggest opponent was a pastor. It was an odd place to be for somebody who is arguably Malawi’s best known law professor. He should have known that Malawi’s political history was defined by the contest between courts and despots, one in which his own family members have been prime actors.

On Christmas Eve in 1981, the government of Malawi’s founding president, “Ngwazi” Hastings Kamuzu Banda, abducted Malawi’s exiled first attorney-general and justice minister, Orton Chirwa, and his wife, Vera, from Zambia and returned them to the capital city, Lilongwe.

Orton was the founding president of the MCP, which led Malawi to independence in 1964. He was also Malawi’s first lawyer. As minister in the transitional government of 1962, Orton took issue with the presumption of innocence and burden of proof in criminal trials, arguing for their replacement with traditional African norms and institutions. As attorney-general, he pushed for these reforms but was turfed out of cabinet in September 1964 in a power tussle with Banda, before the reforms were promulgated.

A sequence of unsolved murders in the country ended up in the Chilobwe murder trials in 1969, which collapsed when the prosecution could not meet the standard of proof. In response, Banda scrapped criminal trials by regular courts, transferring jurisdiction over crimes to traditional courts, comprising a traditional chief as chair, with three citizen assessors and one lawyer.

Banda, by this time also his own justice minister, appointed the traditional leaders. They also reported to him. In an ironic twist of fate, Orton would be arraigned for treason in 1983 before the kind of traditional courts he had advocated for as attorney-general. His trial was a charade. The court denied him and Vera – herself Malawi’s first female lawyer – legal defence or the right to call witnesses.

He was initially sentenced to death on conviction, but Banda commuted this to life imprisonment. Orton spent the remainder of his life in solitary confinement at the Zomba prison in Malawi, where, in December 1992, he died at the age of 73.

It was the eve of Malawi’s transition from the despotism of the “Ngwazi”. In 1994, under the new multiparty constitution, Banda ran against and lost to Bakili Muluzi of the UDF, who himself had served Banda as minister. In 2003, a term-limited Muluzi sought to amend the constitution to extend his tenure.

Frustrated by the courts and the people, he chose a little-known economist and former deputy governor of Malawi’s central bank, Bingu wa Mutharika, as his successor. Following a royal falling-out between them, Bingu fled Muluzi’s UDF to start up the DPP. In 2009, Muluzi sought to return to presidential politics, but the courts ruled him permanently term-limited.

Seeking to consolidate power, Bingu tapped his own brother, Arthur Peter, as his closest adviser and minister, before installing him formally as his chosen successor as DPP leader. When Bingu died suddenly in 2012, his brother attempted to short-circuit the constitutional line of succession by hiding his demise and then exporting his body to South Africa in the hope that some malefaction could be invented to stop the vice-president from taking over.

He failed and the body of his older brother suffered the indignity of being buried in a state of considerable putrefaction. A man who could do that to the remains of his brother and benefactor should not have been entrusted with power, but in 2014 the people of Malawi did.

Back to the future

In the end, the country got tired of the despotic sleaze and cronyism of Peter Mutharika. Forcing him out, however, produced a drama fit for the script of Back to the Future. After being thrown out of power in 1994 following the 30 despotic years of the “Ngwazi”, the MCP was reluctantly accepted by Malawians this time as the vehicle for their political progress.

In doing so, however, they forced it to form alliances with nine other parties in the Tonse (together) Alliance, providing the kind of broad platform for what would become a sweeping victory and constraint on abuse of power.

To resist the Tonse Alliance, the Mutharika family made up with the Muluzis, enabling Atupele, Muluzi’s son, to become Mutharika’s running mate on the losing ticket.

The result is a rousing tale of democracy in all its messiness and inspiration. In all this, the people of Malawi found the voice to defend their democracy. When, therefore, Mutharika sought to oust their chief justice and eviscerate their judiciary, they rose as one to defend it.

In an unspoken understanding, Malawi’s judges have earned trust as the representatives of the only institution capable of holding the balance of power against the machinations of these resilient political families. It is an African example that should command attention beyond its own borders. 

Chidi Odinkalu is a former chair of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and works with the Open Society Foundations.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Condemns Xenophobic Attacks against Foreign Nationals in South Africa

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) calls on the Government of South Africa to immediately adopt measures that guarantee the protection of foreign truck drivers from the ongoing violence, intimidation, and harassment that is occurring in the country.

Since the start of July 2020, calls were made by several local organizations, including the All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF), for a national truck shutdown over the hiring of foreign nationals in South Africa. Actions taken by the ATDF thus far have included blocking several roads across the country, looting, torching of trucks and attacks of foreign national drivers. Furthermore, several reports indicate that there are also widespread plans to attack foreign-owned shops across the country. 

“The attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, particularly those who come from other parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, are not new”, said Simphiwe Sidu, Legal Advisor of the SAHRDN. “What we are witnessing is part of a larger societal issue concerning the ongoing systemic challenge of achieving an equal society, particularly in relation to race, class and nationality”, added Miss Sidu

The Constitution of South Africa is founded on the values of equality and the creation of a non-racial and non-sexist society. Section 9 of the Constitution guarantees the right to equality and equal protection and benefit of the law for every person, including foreign nationals who are within the borders of South Africa. In addition, South Africa is a party to a number of international human rights instruments, which promote the right to equality and non-discrimination. Some of these instruments include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which all prohibit discrimination and guarantee the equal protection of every person according to the law.

According to previously published reports by Xenowatch, more than 300 deaths and 900 physical assaults related to xenophobia have occurred since 1994 in South Africa. Additionally, more than 100 000 foreign nationals have been displaced within this period. Although the South African Government has recently adopted a National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, research shows that the attacks continue to worsen, and little has been done by the criminal justice system of the country to hold perpetrators of such actions accountable.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa has previously spoken out against the attacks on foreign nationals, we believe that there further needs to be a strong demonstration of leadership from all sectors of government in order to protect the rights and interests of all foreign nationals in the country. The SAHRDN embraces the spirit of Ubuntu and Pan-Africanism, and we call on Mr. Ramaphosa as both the President of South Africa and Chairperson of the African Union to safeguard the unity and protection of all Africans, by ensuring that:

  1. The Police and every other relevant stakeholder to immediately investigate the criminal acts and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice for the harm done.
  2. Government needs to take urgent measures in reforming and implementing the National Action Plan to combat Xenophobia, by inviting all relevant stakeholders, including Civil Society Organizations and the public for comments.
  3. Government needs to urgently tackle the root cause of Xenophobia in South Africa, including eradicating inequalities in the country in order to promote peace and stability, within the framework of the South African Constitution and any other relevant instruments.
  4. Government should promote the founding values of the Constitution by seeking to ensure the need for equitable access of services for every person who lives in the country.

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.

As Covid-19 takes hold in Africa, with rising numbers of infections, governments should prioritise the protection of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) who remain vital vehicles for social change and rights protection in the region.

The Covid-19 crisis has triggered disproportionate risks for marginalised and vulnerable communities globally and has made plain the structural inequalities built into our world. Across the globe, there has been an increase in authoritarianism and state repression in response to the pandemic, and southern Africa is no exception. Governments in the region have cracked down on dissent, activism and rights and increasingly securitised their enforcement of Covid-19 regulations. Thousands of citizens face fines, arrests, harassment and violence for violating Covid-19 regulations. 

WHRDS have played a significant role in fighting against this rollback of rights. Over the past three months, my organisation, the Advancing Rights in Southern Africa Program at Freedom House (ARISA) has spoken to WHRDs from Angola, Eswatini, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and South Africa and participated in regional discussions to assess the impact of the pandemic and government responses on WHRDs and their work. We found that in addition to the unrelenting nature and impact of the public health crisis, repressive government actions pose a serious threat to WHRDs and the rights of vulnerable and marginalized communities.

International human rights organisations have warned that Covid-19 measures in many countries have further restricted the space for civic activism. WHRDs in southern Africa have long faced government-backed threats and harassment in retaliation for their activism. Those who speak out are routinely subjected to arrests, threats of, and acts of violence, and gendered attacks and harassment, including online.

In the context of Covid-19, this has been reinforced by the particular effects of the pandemic on women, such as the additional burden of care, restricted access to health services, and a reduction in income for women in the informal sector. WHRDs are at the forefront of mitigating these negative effects, calling for greater women’s representation in government health responses and ensuring that women’s rights are protected. This has brought them in direct opposition to some governments and led to attacks and their exclusion from national government health responses to the pandemic.

For example, in Zimbabwe, security forces arrested, abducted and tortured three women members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance in May, after they participated in a citizen demonstration over the lack of government assistance for poor and vulnerable communities during the pandemic. The women were released but later arrested for violating lockdown regulations and making supposedly false reports about their abduction and torture. They spent several days in custody – putting them at great risk of Covid-19 infection – before they were released on bail. 

In South Africa, attacks have taken place in the context of gendered socio-economic rights violations. Soon after a government declared nationwide lockdown in March, security forces evicted hundreds of shack dwellers in parts of the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, despite a moratorium on evictions during the Covid-19 crisis. Evictions often disproportionately and adversely affect women and children. Gender activists seeking to prevent local authority-led evictions faced threats of arrest and violent treatment by the security forces. Police fired rubber bullets at scores of community members and activists protesting the evictions in the Western Cape.

WHRDs face additional barriers of economic and structural discrimination, which have been worsened by the pandemic and government restrictions. WHRDs and human rights organizations in Angola, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana informed ARISA that government resources for Covid-19 have failed to reach WHRDs and women’s rights organisations working in remote areas even though many are on the frontline of pandemic responses.

Organisations providing legal services for women reported a reduction in access to courts and legal information on women’s rights due to travel restrictions mainly in rural areas. Organisations have been unable to reach women who have in turn struggled to access courts for adjudication and redress.

In Lesotho and Eswatini, women’s rights organisations reported that they had struggled to provide legal services to women involved in land grabbing and land dispute cases. The organisations reported a fear of a spike in women being evicted from their land due to a lack of access to their services and legal dispute mechanisms.

Indigenous People’s Organisations (IPOs) and those working with indigenous communities in Angola, Botswana and South Africa have also stressed the specific effects of Covid-19 on indigenous women. Indigenous women face multiple layers of discrimination and limited access to health and other social services. Government regulations in response to the pandemic have heightened these challenges.

IPOs in Botswana informed ARISA about the lack of information on the pandemic in indigenous languages and a lack of resources to specifically address indigenous peoples’ needs. Indigenous women, who often have lower literacy rates but have the greater burden of care than indigenous men, are likely to be most affected by the dearth of information.

WHRDs have also reported that governments have failed to take the impact of Covid-19 on women’s livelihoods into account in their legislative responses to the pandemic. While various national regulations in the region have allowed for essential services, including food manufacturing and supermarkets to remain operational, informal traders – a large percentage of whom are women – have been excluded by these regulations.

Initial lockdown measures in almost all countries in the region required informal traders and vendors to vacate their trading sites. In many instances, these bans have remained largely in place, even as countries have eased their lockdowns. The bans and restrictions have impacted rural women and women informal traders.

In Angola and Eswatini, women’s rights organisations reported that many rural women farmers were unable to sell their produce and lost earnings. In Lesotho, Covid-19 regulations failed to include informal traders and rural women farmers as essential goods and services providers leading to questions of whether rural women farmers and traders could continue to operate without violating regulations. In Namibia, the City Council of Windhoek initially closed all informal markets before re-opening some informal markets under strict conditions. In Zimbabwe, even as the government eased restrictions, it retained its ban on informal traders. In one case, police in Mutare, in the eastern province of Manicaland, confiscated and burnt tons of fresh produce at the province’s largest open-air fresh food market as part of enforcing lockdown measures.

WHRDs have also had to deal with a spate of gender-based violence cases during the pandemic. While gender-based violence in southern Africa is endemic, the number of reported cases of violence against women in a number of countries has increased during the pandemic. A women’s rights organization in Lesotho informed ARISA that the country recorded 1,450 cases of gender-based violence, including 12 cases of femicide during the country’s emergency lockdown. They reported that the number had surpassed annual numbers of gender-based violence in the country.

In South Africa, despite police figures indicating a decrease in reported cases of domestic violence during the lockdown period compared to previous years, calls to domestic violence hotlines increased significantly. As Covid-19 restrictive measures eased, a spate of femicides in the country compelled President Cyril Ramaphosa to condemn the rise in gender-based violence cases. Women’s rights activists have called for tougher action by the police and expressed frustration at the slow-pace of reforms to address gender-based violence.

Government-led pandemic health responses in local, national and regional Covid-19 policy and decision-making spaces have in many cases failed to reflect women’s experiences.

Although women constitute over 50% of the poor population in the Southern Africa Development Community, their views are often overlooked. There are few WHRDs or women’s rights organisations represented on national Covid-19 task forces or committees and their expertise and knowledge has not been fully incorporated into public health responses.

In Malawi, WHRDs called for equal representation of women and men in the decision making process after former President Peter Mutharika announced the restructuring of a special cabinet committee on Covid-19 to a task force in May. Only four out of the 21 members of the task force were women. Another organisation, Human Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities (HRWGD), made a similar call highlighting the lack of women with disabilities on the task force.

In grappling with these multiple challenges from the pandemic, WHRDs are experiencing significant socio-psychological pressure. They face extra burdens of care in their homes, loss of earnings and the threat of infections in their interactions with communities. In Botswana and Zimbabwe, women journalists informed ARISA that the pandemic had added to their hours of work and placed extra burdens on their lives. This was coupled with the fear of infection due to a lack of protective equipment and overexposure to the virus in the course of their work.

The reduced public visibility of WHRDs and their reporting on rights due to Covid-19 restrictions has heightened the risk of violence for many WHRDs and further impacted their social and mental wellbeing. WHRDs reported that they felt less safe during Covid-19 lockdowns. Some reported experiencing more online harassment after they turned to online forms of activism and mobilisation during the pandemic.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The crisis has also led to different forms of mobilisation by WHRDS, including in responses to the crisis. Throughout southern Africa, WHRDs are providing essential services, distributing food, care packages and protective equipment to communities and bolstering government responses. They are working closely with local authorities and donors to generate awareness about the needs of the most vulnerable and ensuring that they are catered for. WHRDs have also shone a spotlight on national inequalities and inequities and engendered critical reflection by governments on the need for rights respecting and inclusive political and socio-economic reforms.

The catalytic role that WHRDs play in the region underscores the need for the introduction of government protections for WHRDs in the region that is not only representative and consultative in approach, but responsive to their multiple and intersectional needs. 

Tiseke Kasambala is the Chief of Party, Advancing Rights in Southern Africa Program.