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.

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