Month: Aug 2020

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 (SAHRDN) and Maverick Citizen

Civil society leader Timothy Mtambo, now the Minister of Civic Education and National Unity in Malawi, explains how civic activism defeated the authoritarian regime of president Mutharika and created a foundation for building a durable and strong democracy. His recipe for social mobilisation has lessons for citizens of many other countries in Africa who are living under the yoke of oppression and authoritarian rule.

Far too many people in Africa are yearning for change and opportunity and unfortunately denied by those who govern them. A system of dictatorship can take its toll on ordinary people and create a sense of siege and helplessness with no clear pathway to freedom.

In the words of our own Africa liberation icon, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, “it looks impossible until it happens”.

Starting with the end in mind

In May 2019 when the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) announced election results that were not credible and the international observer teams endorsed what we Malawians were seeing as fatally flawed electoral processes, we knew immediately that the fate of Malawi was largely in the hands of ordinary Malawians. It is a truism that every country’s fate is largely in the hands of its own people. However people are paralysed by fear because of the ruthlessness of autocratic regimes.

As leaders of Malawi civil society we realised that without an independent, impartial and effective electoral commission, open civic space, effective civic engagement and participation and political reforms, that elections in Malawi were chronologically compliant meaningless rituals with no substantive value to ordinary people of Malawi.

We were determined to change that when we formed the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) in December 2017.We wanted to put the agency for accountable governance back to ordinary Malawians. Free, fair and credible elections were central to governmental legitimacy, important for implementing the social contract. But without MEC institutional reform, free and fair elections were a pipe dream. Yet we also knew that MEC reform would not be possible without people agency and power. Every generation has a mandate that it must achieve or betray. Our generational mandate was clear and we were not prepared for anything to stop us.

First things first – People power: Giving Malawians back their collective voice

As a human rights activist, leading the HRDC, we chose to mobilise and give the people of Malawi their voice. Thousands of people bravely took to the streets on a regular basis to peacefully campaign against bad and corrupt governance including the 2019 election.  We declared 2020 the year of mass protests. We actively and consistently called for the resignation of the chairperson of the MEC, Jane Ansah, and the holding of fresh elections. The message was simple, clear, and unambiguous. The demonstrations ranged from organised large-scale marches to smaller spontaneous outbursts. Teachers, sanitation workers, truck drivers, airline staff, students, lecturers, churches took to the streets. It was unprecedented.  

Some  of the most notable demonstrations that changed the democratic terrain include the demonstrations for resignation of MEC Chair Jane Ansah; the anti-bribery march to defend judicial independence; demonstrations for nullification of elections results of 2019; 16 January 2020 MEC reform Jane Ansah resignation Lilongwe demonstration; demonstrations to use chains to lock MEC offices, demonstrations for investigations of sexual assault and rape allegations against the police in Msundwe.

Mutharika’s reaction and the battle for the independence of institutions of democracy

President Mutharika tried various tricks to try to delay the elections. This included refusing to assent to the Electoral Reforms Bill that had already been passed by parliament, trying to get Members of Parliament to change the date of the elections and refusing to fire the then MEC chairperson, Jane Ansah and her team of commissioners who were found incompetent by the courts. 

Once it became clear that the HRDC leadership had mobilised ordinary Malawians to take agency for accountable governance into their own hands, Mutharika became paranoid and started constricting civic space and persecuting human rights defenders.

The law became weaponised. Arbitrary arrests and detentions of HRDC leaders became commonplace.

At a personal level I was arrested and experienced direct threats to my life and that of my wife and children, cyberbullying, character assassination, arson attacks and shooting incidents. My children were threatened at school and in social media messages. One such nasty posting encouraged people to mass-rape my wife on sight. I was forced, with the support of the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network, to evacuate my family to safety in order to tackle the dictatorship bare knuckled.

Israeli agents were conscripted into the state house with sinister motives to  either rig elections or harm civil society leaders, human rights defenders and legitimate political opponents. I wonder till today how much Malawi paid to the Israelis to frustrate our democratic growth.

Deployment of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cadres to spread fear and disrupt civil society meetings became commonplace. With HRDC and later Citizens for Transformation Movement (CFT), we mobilised more people to build a critical mass of courageous citizens who had passed the threshold of fear. In one instance, despite having security personnel with us, we were still attacked in the city of Mzuzu by 20 DPP cadres who pelted our convoy with stones.

We were very grateful that the Malawi Defence Forces were extremely professional and protected everyone, the protesters and the DPP cadres, and filled a critical gap in national security that arose as a result of the total loss of support and confidence in the police force by the Malawi people following their ready acceptance of being co-opted as a militia to protect the interests of president Mutharika.

The HRDC took an uncompromising demand that the MEC needed reform, in particular resignation of the MEC Chair as a precondition for free, fair and credible elections. Mutharika resisted this until the very last minute when in May 2020 under relentless HRDC-led civil society pressure, the MEC Chair resigned forcing the president to reluctantly appoint a new commission just 2 weeks before elections. According to a blog from Oxfam, Chifundo Kachale, the new MEC Chair, “brilliantly navigated a combination of political and logistical obstacles, despite only taking over two weeks before the election”.

As he realised that power was slowly but surely slipping away from him, an increasingly paranoid Mutharika turned into vandalising state institutions and behaving like an absolute monarch. In the run up to his predictable electoral defeat he started to rule almost by decree. In a spectacular period of less than two weeks, he fired his entire cabinet including a minister who was less than 2 weeks old in office; he fired the army commander Ndundwe; he fired the police commissioner. All the fired senior government officials were replaced by his cronies and relatives.

I was so terrified that the moves by Mutharika to summarily dismiss respected army generals would trigger instability in the army and also cause the army to lose its professionalism and be used to attack civilians as happens in other jurisdictions. We had meetings with the army and thankfully they remained professional and insistent on carrying out their mandate of protecting everyone in Malawi without fear or favour.

I would emphasize the role of a professional, disciplined and well trained army in the protection of participatory democracy. This distinguishes Malawi from many countries where the army is deployed to harm or even kill unarmed civilians and thwart democratic growth of our societies.

In his last days Mutharika converted the courts and judicial arena as a battle front in his insatiable quest for power retention.

He went after Chief Justice Nyirenda trying to force him into early retirement but this was resisted by the HRDC, the Association of Magistrates and the Law Society of Malawi, and in a quite  unprecedented way by the Chief Justices of the whole region under the auspices of the Southern Africa Chief Justices Forum (SACJF).

Despite his background as a former professor of law, Mutharika tried to put a knife into separation of powers by addressing parliament suggesting that in Malawi we did not have separation of powers but parliamentary superiority over the judiciary. The judiciary had really angered him by the decisions they made especially of nullifying the 2019 elections.

Happily the judiciary survived and again as a result of the resilience of civil society represented by the HRDC to fight for and claim the independence of their institutions, we now have a judiciary that is more independent than at any other time in the history of Malawi.

Citizens of SADC and indeed the AU must fight for and defend the independence of their judiciaries and election management bodies so that they are not co opted by the authoritarian regimes to be instruments at the hands of oppression.

Covid-19 measures as a political weapon

Like other despots around the world, Mutharika tried to use the Covid-19 pandemic to stifle dissent and prolong his stay in power. The HRDC challenged this approach in the streets through protests and in the courts through strategic litigation. The Covid-19 measures Mutharika was trying to impose were to be implemented by his cronies who aimed to milk national resources for political objectives.

This irregularity coupled with lack of safety nets for the socioeconomic effects on ordinary people left the HRDC with no option but to successfully challenge Mutharika’s announcement of a lockdown in the courts. Protests erupted in informal settlements, and in small towns and trading centers — all places predominantly made up of people working in the informal economy. Nurses and doctors embarked on go-slows and sit-ins, while the civil servants’ union also announced plans for a general strike in response to this and other issues such as corruption, the rising cost of living and drug shortages.   

These different aspects of Malawian civil society worked together to safeguard the democratic process despite the opportunity Covid-19 offered for Mutharika to undermine our democratic process that would culminate in elections. Thankfully, while Covid-19 posed a real and significant threat to both the public health of Malawians and to our democracy, elections were held and the rest is history.

In the end a government was elected that has strong legitimacy stands better prospects of getting people’s active and conscious cooperation in a sustainable fight against Covid-19.

From the terraces to the theatre: Entering the quasi-political zone 

Back in April 2020, upon the realisation that the Mutharika regime could not be shaken by human rights activism alone, and in a bid to encourage widespread participation and directly influence the democratic process, I decided to establish a politically oriented peoples movement comprised of vibrant young men and women who were determined to be governed better and actively announce their preferred political choices.

We announced the formation of a movement called Citizens for Transformation Movement (CFT), a people powered movement that was the first of its kind in Malawi. It was a new approach founded on “the values of human rights, peaceful co-existence, rule of law, active and patriotic citizenship in pressing for inclusive social, political and economic transformation and a prosperous future for all Malawians”.

Faced with and bearing the brunt of authoritarian practices of president Mutharika, we endorsed the candidature of Dr Lazarus Chakwera and his running mate Dr Saulos Chilima and actively and publicly conscientised citizens of our views holding large meetings covering the width and breadth of Malawi.  

Our philosophy as the CFT peoples movement was that we did not want to govern, but we wanted to be governed better.

This is an important philosophy for African people still suffering from the yoke of oppression by their own post-independent governments. A demand for accountable governance is indeed a legitimate demand to be governed better. It is not a demand to govern neither does it necessarily amount to a choice of any specific political party being in power. It is about constitutionalism. With this philosophy, electoral choices become easy. People’s movements actively associate with political formations that demonstrably promise better accountable governance. This is a post independence generational mandate that must be fulfilled if Africa is to be better.

Human rights as a people movement and election issue

The CFT people’s movement elevated human rights as an election issue in Malawi. We spoke against gross human violations and inequalities and became the voice of the voiceless. We spoke against the targeted attacks on people with albinism who had experienced ritual killings and yet the government had done little to either bring perpetrators to book or to protect them. We spoke on behalf of the women from Msundwe area in Lilongwe who were openly abused and raped by police officers but never got justice. All these issues, including dwindling educational standards, high unemployment levels, lack of quality healthcare and drugs and health personnel in hospitals resonated with the people’s day to day struggles. 

People’s movement and defending the vote

Due to Covid-19, we did not have international election observers. This left everyone in Malawi in no doubt that the responsibility to protect the vote resided in Malawians. This was especially so when confidence in the efficacy and utility value of international observation was in question given that in both Malawi and Kenya, international observers seemed to certify faulty elections as free, fair and credible only for domestic courts to overturn such elections.

Come Election Day, the people demonstrated a strong will to guard and defend their vote. Activists, civil servants, university lecturers and bankers were deployed to polling stations across the country to observe and to guard the vote.

This effort was complemented by informal patrols established by community leaders, composed predominantly of young men, who kept watch for any unusual activity in their areas. They fed information about suspicious people or vehicles to social media, and also informed units from the Malawi Defence Force, which was also deployed on Election Day. These informal patrols resulted in the arrest of several individuals allegedly carrying bundles of cash to bribe election monitors, and handed them over to the police in areas such as Nkhotakota, Salima and Rumphi districts.

People’s victory

Ultimately fresh presidential elections were held on 23 June 2020, following the annulment of last year’s elections first by the Constitutional Court and later upheld by the Supreme Court, citing serious irregularities. This was the second time on the continent and the first in the Southern Africa region where an African Court overturned a presidential election and called for a fresh election. The first was in Kenya in 2017, but saw the opposition boycotting the rerun election.

The Malawi Congress Party led the Tonse Alliance (meaning “all of us” in the local Chichewa language) of nine opposition political parties and Dr Lazarus Chakwera, won the elections by 58.5% of the votes against President Peter Mutharika’s 39.4%. The voter turnout was 64.8%. 

To many Malawians this was the dawn of a new era. 

Impact of people power acknowledged

This ‘people power’ as reiterated by Nic Cheeseman, a professor and African politics expert at the University of Birmingham, and Golden Matonga, a Malawian award-winning journalist, significantly increased pressure on key democratic institutions and those working within them. 

Afrobarometer’s Director of Surveys also echoed this:     

“Malawi was soon swept up in one of the most encouraging political revolutions to hit Africa in the last two decades — the rise of the activist generation. Indeed, an Afrobarometer survey at the time found that there was strong opposition to any attempt to subvert the democratic process, with 68 percent of its citizens believing that the opposition parties were justified in filing their case. 

“Nine months later, in February 2020, bolstered by its people, Malawi’s supreme court mandated fresh elections … The courts have really stood up to defend democracy, but so [has] civil society.” 

The fact that a coordinated opposition, protesters in the streets and independent judges in Malawi’s high courts sufficiently safeguarded Malawi’s democracy, cannot be overemphasized. 

Indeed, Malawians should be commended for adopting a “home-grown ownership” of this election process. 

Looking into the future with cautious optimism

As Malawians thronged the streets celebrating and dancing, and as the new President was sworn in, it was indeed a breath of fresh air.

As Dr Chakwera began forming his government and the realisation that I had been selected as one of the Ministers in his Cabinet, I sat down and reflected on the journey. A journey that saw blood, sweat and tears. A journey that had seen Malawians hit the streets demonstrating against the government more than any other time in the history of the country.

Today I find myself as Minister in a new ministry of Civic Education and National Unity. This is a perfect challenge for me. As someone who was being accused of being a terrorist and of bringing chaos in the country by former President Mutharika, now I find myself at the centre of promoting national unity. 

I am again reminded of Mandela’s words that it looks impossible until it happens. I sign off by sharing in solidarity with the oppressed people of Africa what Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” 

Timothy Mtambo is the Commander in Chief of the CFT People Power Movement and the Minister of Civic Education and National Unity in Malawi. 


SAHRDN and CDD condemn the bombings of Canal de Moçambique premises and the continued attacks on press freedoms in Mozambique

August 24, 2020

Maputo and Johannesburg

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and the Center for Democracy and Development – Mozambique (CDD) strongly condemn the petrol-bombing of the Canal de Moçambique offices in Maputo, Mozambique.  Canal de Moçambique, is one of the most credible, public interest  independent media outlet in Mozambique. This attack is a serious blow to the already dire situation of press freedom in Mozambique, which according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index is lowly ranked at 104 out of 180 countries.  SAHRDN and CDD calls on the authorities in Mozambique to protect press freedoms and to swiftly conduct an independent, credible and robust  investigation into this attack.

According to preliminary reports from a credible source, it is reported that on August 23, 2020, at around 20:00 hours (CAT), yet to be identified individuals broke into Canal de Moçambique newspaper facilities, poured fuel on all the furniture and computers and set off a homemade bomb. All the equipment and other accessories in the building were reduced to ashes. Canal de Moçambique has been highly critical of and exposed a raft of systemic corruption cases linked to the government of Mozambique.

In 2019, MISA-Mozambique reported that “a Maputo court acquitted the editor of the weekly paper “Canal de Mocambique”, Matias Guente, who had been accused of libel because of a caricature of one of the directors of the Bank of Mozambique, Joana Matsombe, which the paper had published”.

“Democracy dies in darkness, and Canal de Moçambique has been a consistent guiding light in promoting accountable governance and is only being targeted for speaking truth to power, and for holding those in power to account. We demand that the Government of Maputo carry-out an in-depth investigation into this bombing and more importantly, that it upholds its own constitution and respect regional and international human rights laws and treaties, which regards media freedoms as the oxygen for a democratic society”

Professor Adriano Nuvunga, who is the Executive Director for CDD-Mozambique

SAHRDN and CDD urges the government of Mozambique to lead by example in its official capacity as the new SADC chairperson and respect the fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press, which is under attack in Mozambique and in the SADC region especially during this COVID-19 period.




For more information please contact Washington Katema, Regional Programmes Manager at or +27 73 620 2608

Stop interfering with the Right to Fair Trial in Zimbabwe

24 August 2020


Today the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network joined hands with civil society from Africa and beyond to call on the judiciary in Zimbabwe to stop interfering with the rights of prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa to represent her client, the detained internationally recognized journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. Hopewell has a constitutional right to be defended by a lawyer of his choice before an independent and impartial tribunal.

In an unprecedented act of rallying together of civil society to defend a leading human rights defender in Africa civil society argued that the right to freedom of expression of Beatrice Mtetwa is protected under international law. In terms of Principle 23 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (UN Basic Principles):

“Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly. In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights…..”

The right to freedom of expression is also “guaranteed in section 61 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, article 19 (2) of the International Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and article 9(2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter)” read the statement.

Consistent with the previous observations of the SAHRDN that the phenomenon of judicial persecution had reached unprecedented levels, the civil society leaders expressed concern at the violation of the right to fair trial.  “By disqualifying Beatrice Mtetwa, the court has undermined the accused person (Hopewell Chin’ono)’s right to legal representation, which is guaranteed in section 70(1) (d) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, article 14(3) (b) of the ICCPR and article 7(1) of the African Charter. Subsequently, this undermines the accused person’s right to a fair trial” read the statement.

Notable pan-African leaders of civil society who signed on to the statement include Justice Willy Mutunga, Former Chief Justice of Kenya 2013-2017, Alice Mogwe (Botswana), Nikita Kaunda, Achieng Akena (Kenya), Chikosa Banda (Malawi), Don Deya (Kenya), Makanatsa Makonese, Muleya Mwananyanda (Zambia), Martin Masiga (Uganda), Norman Tjombe, Tiseke Kasambala (Malawi), Dr. Justice Alfred Mavedzenge, Dr. Musa Kika, Dr. Rose Nakayi, Dr Walter Chambati, Professor Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, Professor Danwood Chirwa, Professor Dzodzi Tsikata, Professor Hugh Corder, Professor Issa Shivji, Professor Michelo Hansungule, Professor Paris Yeros, Professor Praveen Jha, Professor Reg Austin and Professor Adriano Alfredo Nuvunga to name a few.

We call on the Zimbabwean authorities to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the human rights of everyone, including Beatrice Mtetwa’s right to freedom of expression and to practice her profession, the right of the accused persons to a fair trial including legal representation by a lawyer of their choice.



For further information please contact Washington Katema the Regional Programmes Manager and Team Leader at the SAHRDN on or +27736202608 or Simphiwe Sidu the Regional Legal Adviser at SAHRDN on or +27766758168

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.

Zambia recorded its first two cases of the Covid-19 virus on 18 March 2020. At first, the virus appeared to be contained but gradually, as the number of local transmission cases increased, the virus increased exponentially. According to the latest official statistics, Zambia has recorded a total of 10,372 cases of Covid-19 (by 21 August) with the official number of Covid-19 related deaths at 274.

Zambia is hitting the peak of the pandemic.  Yet the government has announced that there will be no lockdown, so as to avoid curtailing the means of survival for ordinary Zambians. This is because the majority of Zambians live from hand-to-mouth, a situation now made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

So far, we have been very lucky. We are not seeing apocalyptic numbers of deaths and our health facilities are just about coping with the numbers of the sick. Only a few months ago, in May, President Edgar Lungu announced that the government was advising citizens to follow the health guidelines laid down. He talked about “transitioning to a new normal”. But effectively our “new normal” meant each man for himself and God for us all.

Whilst the jury is out on whether the official figures tally with the actual numbers, it appears that the pandemic in Zambia is being managed reasonably well. Despite a shortage of protective clothing and testing kits, the health facilities are generally adequate.

However, as with many countries across the globe, the pandemic has also created an opportunity for political expediency that has had a detrimental effect on the human rights situation in the country. This is in the context of the fact that Zambia will be going to the polls to elect a new government in 2021.

All roads lead to 2021 and as a result political expediency has been the order of the day. For example, the Government has introduced two statutory instruments under the Public Health Act in order to manage the pandemic. Both are thin on the details as to how the health regulations will be enforced.

Just a few days ago the police spokesperson, Esther Mwata Katongo announced that the police would start arresting and fining people the equivalent of $US39 for not wearing masks in public. The police did start making arrests accordingly, but the Home Affairs Minister Stephen Kampyongo rescinded the decision days later as it became apparent that there was no legal backing for the move in the health regulations. 

In terms of human rights, probably Zambia’s most well-known Covid-19 victim is Prime Television, a popular independent television station that had its broadcasting licence revoked following its refusal to broadcast government adverts and programmes on the Covid-19 pandemic for free in the midst of the economic crisis facing the country. The current Zambian government already has a history of clamping down on media freedoms following the closure of the largest independent newspaper in Zambia, The Post in 2017, and various other radio stations that have been critical of the government. The official reason given for closing the television station was that its broadcasting licence had expired.

Another casualty has been the restrictions on freedom of assembly. Public gatherings in Zambia are governed by the Public Order Act, a notorious piece of legislation whose constitutionality has been challenged several times on the basis that its provisions are arbitrary and not necessary in a democratic state. To adhere to the provisions of the Public Order Act, Zambians now have to get authority from the Ministry of Health or the Local Authority to hold public gatherings of more than five people.

These restrictions are being selectively applied. Government officials and individuals considered close to the ruling party freely hold rallies and large public gatherings without the appearance of any health and safety regulations being adhered to. Zambians have been told that government officials cannot be blamed for people following them around. This has led to many Zambians either resenting any restrictions placed on them or believing that the pandemic is a hoax.

However, when it comes to dissenting voices such as opposition political parties, the restrictions are applied with efficient (and sometimes inefficient) responses. A group of youth protestors attempted to hold a public protest on the socio-economic challenges faced by Zambian youth on 22nd June 2020. The police came out fully armed in riot gear and roamed around the streets in armoured vehicles in an attempt to intimidate the protestors into stopping their protest.

However, the quick-thinking youth took their protest to the bush and beamed it live to an audience of around 300,000 people on their social media platforms. In June there were reports of police arresting opposition members for attempting to hold intra-party elections.

As always, the hardest hit by any crisis are the poor and vulnerable. As with most countries, we are grappling with how to send our children back to school.

Like countries all over the world, our ailing economy has been further crippled by the loss of business and resulting unemployment or underemployment. The government has partnered with donors to provide social protection to the most vulnerable but with 58% of the Zambian population of around 17 million living below the poverty line according to 2015 World Bank figures, resources are stretched. There has been little done to ensure that the rights most affected by the pandemic are still protected, promoted and fulfilled and this is impacting on the overall effectiveness of the government’s response to the pandemic.

Ultimately, whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has been a universal crisis, Zambia’s is a crisis of leadership. Our government needs to put the interests of the country above partisan interests and unite the country regardless of the upcoming general elections. We need to take a human rights-based approach to tackling the pandemic specifically and to tackling governance issues generally.

Our “new normal” should leave no one behind. 

Linda Kasonde is a lawyer and human rights activist heading Chapter One Foundation, a civil society organisation that promotes and protects human rights and the rule of law. She is also an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow.

Hands off Beatrice Mtetwa! Southern Africa Women Human Rights Defenders

The Southern Africa Women Human Rights Defenders Network (SAWHRDN) has today called on the authorities in Zimbabwe to immediately stop persecuting Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa and desist from using threats of contempt of court and disbarment to suppress freedom of expression and her rights as a lawyer to represent her clients without any impediment from the state. The SAWHRDN also called on the Law Society of Zimbabwe to protect Beatrice Mtetwa from the unlawful interference by the Zimbabwe authorities with her rights as a lawyer.

“The blatant attacks on the rights, not only of those who openly challenge State violations but those who represent them, mark a disturbing trend under the Mnangagwa regime. The courage and resilience of Beatrice Mtetwa cannot be doused by the recent State attempts to silence her persistent demands for justice for all”

DITSHWANELO – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights

“What is happening to Beatrice Mtetwa is totally wrong and deplorable. Lawyers should be able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference,”

Mary Pais Da Silva the SAHRDN Gender and Social Inclusion Advisor.

On 18 August 2020, Magistrate Ngoni Nduna issued an order “disqualifying” and barring Beatrice from continuing to represent her client Hopewell Chin’ono in his case. The aggravating concern is that the decision to stop Beatrice Mtetwa from representing her client is not just an attack on Beatrice Mtetwa but also a violation of the right to fair trial for Hopewell Chin’ono. The case was at a critical stage where Hopewell was applying for bail in relation to charges brought against him for investigating and publishing articles on systemic corruption in Zimbabwe including exposing the improper tender for procurement of COVID-19 personal protection equipment resulting in the loss of millions of dollars of public funds.

The gripe of the State in applying for Beatrice’s removal from the case emanated from Facebook posts made on a page dedicated to profiling her and her work in the human rights arena, which posts were improperly attributed to her personally by the State. The court not only disbarred Beatrice from the case, but also advised the Prosecutor General to consider instituting contempt of court proceedings against her, thus overstretching itself, and exceeding the relief that had been sought by the State in its unfortunate application for her removal.

The right to a fair hearing is enshrined in Section 69 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe and in particular, the right to legal representation by a lawyer of his choice is provided for in Section 69 (4). We also remind the Zimbabwean government of its obligations on guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression under international law and the Constitution of Zimbabwe; Section 61 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the freedom of expression. The right to fair trial is also enshrined in international instruments that Zimbabwe has signed and ratified such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.
The blatant attacks on the rights, not only of those who openly challenge State violations, but those who represent them, mark a disturbing trend under the Mnangagwa regime.

“Beatrice Mtetwa is a regionally and internationally recognised lawyer and woman human rights defender who is known for her fearlessness and dedication to tenaciously use the law to protect the rights of others while placing herself in the firing line,” Da Silva continued. “She serves as a mentor, role-model and inspiration to many young lawyers and WHRDs and the SAWHRDN is concerned that the way she has been targeted has a chilling effect on many lawyers who may have been thinking of practicing human rights law”.

added Da Silva

The SAWHRDN therefore calls on the Zimbabwean authorities to.

  • Stop persecuting Women Human Rights Defenders and Lawyers.
  • Stop identifying lawyers with their clients as a result of discharging their functions.
  • Guarantee that Beatrice Mtetwa is able to perform all of her professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.
  • Respect the Constitution and guarantee the freedom of expression.
  • To desist from using threats of contempt of court and disbarment to suppress freedom of expression and the right to legal representation.
  • Respect the Constitution and International Instruments on the rights of a person to a fair trial and access to justice that guarantees a person the right to legal representation of their choice.



For more information please contact or Mary Pais Da Silva our Gender and Social Inclusion Advisor at or +268 7603 0076.

Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup

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.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summits never fail to come up with the most colorful and promising of themes. The 40th (SADC) Summit currently underway is themed: SADC: 40 Years Building Peace and Security, and Promoting Development and Resilience in the face of Global Challenges

In light of the Covid-19 global pandemic, the annual Summit is for the first time in history being held in a virtual format. Mozambique is coordinating the summit from 10-17 August 2020. Despite the colourful and hopeful theme the summit is being held in the midst of serious human rights violations with total impunity in Zimbabwe, where the government has mastered the art of using Covid-19 measures to stifle democratic participation and demands for accountable governance. 

As Maputo is co-ordinating the summit on peace and security, the main news was that Mozambique’s army had lost the key port of Mocimboa da Praia, to Islamist militants on Wednesday 12 August 2020. The Islamist militants now control the territory and have a resources foothold in southern Africa, given that Mocimboa da Praia is near the site of natural gas projects worth $60bn (£46bn). 

This could spell serious calamity. Southern Africa might as well kiss goodbye the long-held notion of southern Africa being seen as the most peaceful and stable sub-region in Africa.

This week’s roundup looks at the SADC Summit and issues around it.

Virtual Heads of State summit

The virtual summit is taking place with a reduced agenda to allow the leaders to focus more on critical issues in the region, including: co-ordinated response to Covid-19; review progress towards the development of a post-2020 SADC agenda; measures to address food insecurity; receive a progress report on the implementation of the industrialisation strategy; take stock of interventions undertaken to promote peace and stability member states; and renewal of institutional leadership.  

Over the years, SADC has been widely criticised for failing to tackle regional peace and security challenges, with some critics labelling it a ‘toothless bulldog’. The inability to resolve conflict is best demonstrated by the ignominious collective decision of the SADC heads of state and government to disband the sub-regional judicial organ, the SADC Tribunal, merely because Zimbabwe disagreed with a binding judgment of that court.  

Although some argue that in the absence of SADC, violent conflicts could have been more pervasive in southern Africa, the body’s interventions have not effectively dealt with violent and political crises, thereby undermining development. This is supported by the notion that it is inconceivable to have socio-economic development in the absence of peace and stability. 

Toothless bulldog?

SADC’s inherent weaknesses are both historic and institutional. First, the co-operation is rooted in historical ties steeped in anti-colonial struggles such that liberation war parties view themselves as each brother’s keeper. 

Second, the recurrent electoral crises produce contested outcomes and arguably illegitimate leaders. This unfortunately creates leaders who are not fully accepted by their populations and therefore rule by coercion and not consent. This results in unaccountable governance that breeds corruption and conflict. If unaccountable leaders of questionable legitimacy are at the helm of SADC, what reasonable expectation is there that they will fight impunity and work towards justice, peace and stability?

As political instability in many SADC states is driven by complaints of inability to conduct free, fair and credible elections, one thing SADC should focus on is to invest in strengthening the independence of election management bodies. Only South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and lately Malawi seem to get it right. The SADC Summit should devote attention to this to create a basis for sustainable peace and stability. It is unlikely that it will, though.

This year’s theme recognises that peace and stability are key preconditions for sustainable development and regional integration. However, SADC is also notoriously inefficient or incapable of enforcing its own protocols. The weak, and at times nonexistent, enforcement mechanisms for its decisions make the SADC a toothless bulldog.

Brotherhood philosophy

The Organ for Politics, Defence and Security (Organ) launched in June 1996 is the formal institution of SADC with the mandate to support the achievement and maintenance of security and the rule of law. Its leadership is in the form of a ‘troika’ system comprising a current chair as well as the previous and incoming chairs. 

Zimbabwe currently chairs this Organ, which is charged with ensuring peace and the rule of law in the region.  

However, when it comes to the crucial responsibility of building peace and security, efforts have been undermined by the ‘brotherhood’ approach that has resulted in the regional bloc failing to collectively solve the socio-economic and political crises that consequently deepen over time. 

Ringisai Chikohomore of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) characterises this cheap ‘brotherhood’ well. He describes it as member states who “opt for accommodation and fraternal solidarity as an unsaid modus operandi, resulting in a failure to sanction delinquent states.” 

The systemic failure by SADC leaders to hold each other to account for human rights violations is seeing southern Africa’s non-violent image fading due to events occurring in various countries in recent years. 

Current conflicts and crises in the SADC

Governance issues have ignited the most acute crises in the SADC states for more than a decade. These include coups, disputed elections, and political instability, authoritarian rule, civil unrest, abuse of state power, and lack of transparency and accountability by governments in their desperate bid to cling to power and authority. 

Members of the Zimbabwe National Army stand guard at a checkpoint in the central business district, Harare, Zimbabwe on 31 July 2020. Police and the army blocked planned anti-government mass protests organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). People were prevented from getting into town. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

On 13 August prominent civil society leaders from southern Africa met virtually at a regional meeting facilitated by the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and the Zimbabwe NGO Forum to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis and make recommendations for consideration by the SADC Summit. 

A woman fetches water from a spring amid water shortages in Harare. (Photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli / Getty Images)

The findings were that the government of Zimbabwe is guilty of attacks on democratic space; use of the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association; organised violence and torture and using the criminal justice system as a political weapon.

Their final communique concluded:

Zimbabwe’s human rights problems are highly entangled with the political developments. Similarly, the economy is reactive to political developments. According to the 2019 Labour Force Survey released in March 2020, 74% of Zimbabwe’s labour force is in the informal sector… Zimbabweans are therefore now suffering the triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequality. 

Nurses at Harare Central Hospital protest over low salaries on 6 July 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

The Zimbabwe government of President ED Mnangagwa, which was born out of the November 2017 coup and a disputed 2018 election, has become notorious at weaponising the law and judicial persecution of human rights activists akin to how the law was instrumentalised during the colonial regime of Ian Smith.  

Critics are sceptical that President Mnangagwa as part of the Organ leadership can allow for a SADC-led solution to the Zimbabwe crisis. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sent his special envoys Mbete and Mufamadi to Harare to try to mediate the low-intensity but high-impact conflict last week, but the envoys returned to Pretoria empty-handed after Mnangagwa apparently blocked them from meeting anyone else from the opposition or civil society.

That the current leaders got away with a soft military coup in 2017, the first time in the history of the SADC that a military coup was staged, might explain why the government of Zimbabwe is able to blatantly violate rights in a serial way with impunity.

Mozambique and Islamic terrorism: Mozambique has a troubled political history. In 2012, Mozambican Renamo rebels took up arms again and, although they apparently lacked the military capacity to rekindle a civil war, they attacked government troops and transport routes, creating economic disruption and insecurity ever since. 

Passengers and cargo board a boat from a fishermen’s beach that has become one of the main arrival points for displaced persons fleeing from armed violence raging in the province of Cabo Delgado, in the Paquitequete district of Pemba, northern Mozambique. Radical Islamist militant groups seeking to establish an Islamic state in the region, such as Ansar al-Sunna, have claimed responsibility for some of these attacks over the past year. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ricardo Franco)

In May 2020, 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. 

Recent reports indicate that the civilian security situation in Cabo Delgado continues to worsen. In Mocimboa da Praia, sporadic attacks by insurgents since July resulted in homes being burned, food supplies looted, and people killed and some kidnapped.

A child from the Vicente Tiago family of 30 people who fled the armed attacks in Muidumbe, Cabo Delgado, and took refuge in a small, precarious house in Chiuba, Pemba City, Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique. Thousands of families are in need of food aid in the humanitarian crisis affecting the northern province of Mozambique. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ricardo Franco)

Sadly as the current SADC summit is taking place there are reports that dozens of Mozambican soldiers have been killed, and a patrol boat sunk, while the army says it has killed about 60 militants. The Islamist militants took over and conquered Mocimboa da Praia from the ill-equipped, ill-prepared, and demoralised Mozambican army that fled the scene of fighting. 

For more than three years now, the SADC region has stared at the prospects of Islamic terrorism getting a foothold in the region via the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique, where 700 000 people are now affected by the war. Yet such an obvious threat to regional peace and stability has not received any meaningful reaction from the SADC. It will not be a surprise if this summit comes and goes as if nothing is happening.

DRC and potential regression: When President Tshisekedi ascended to the throne in 2019, there was relief that for the first time in more than 60 years there was a transition of power to a civilian leader as a result of elections. 

However, political instability and ethnic-based conflict continue. Between October 2019 and February 2020, more than 300 civilians were killed in northwest Beni, North Kivu province, when the Congolese army launched a military operation against a non-state armed actor, the so-called Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), in an attempt to dismantle and expel the group. 

There are fears that a power struggle is currently raging between President Tshisekedi and former president Kabila, “who continues to wield enormous power through his parliamentary majority, control of the army and several cabinet ministries, to interfere with the country’s next elections in 2023.”

SADC can ill-afford another full-blooded conflict in the DRC. SADC’s military intervention in the DRC in 1998 has already been widely discussed and criticised as an illustration of SADC’s lack of unity, dearth of co-operation, and ability to be hijacked by national if not private interests. 

Zambia and Lungu’s power consolidation: President Lungu came into power after questionable elections. The United States’ 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Zambia notes that the country’s last election in 2016 was marred by irregularities. 

“Although the results ultimately were deemed a credible reflection of votes cast, media coverage, police actions, and legal restrictions heavily favoured the ruling party and prevented the election from being genuinely fair.

Civil society has of late reported systematic and sustained attacks on the free media in Zambia ahead of the 2021 elections. The following radio stations have been disrupted by Patriotic Front cadres during this Covid-19 period: Feel Free radio station, Power FM, 5FM radio, Muchinga Radio, and Radio Maria.

This systematic and sustained attack on free media in Zambia shows that the militias who religiously carry out these attacks act with the acquiescence of the state. Frankly speaking, no one expects SADC to do anything about this, in the process reinforcing the notion that impunity pays.

Eswatini – Last absolute monarchy in the world: Eswatini remains as the last absolute monarchy in the world, with notable governance deficits. King Mswati holds supreme executive power over the parliament and judiciary by virtue of a 1973 State of Emergency decree.

Why the SADC does not hold King Mswati to account and fully implement the 2005 constitution remains a mystery. 

Lesotho and failure to implement the Phumaphi report: Since its return to democracy in 1993, political instability, characterised by excessive meddling in civilian politics by the military, continued to rock Lesotho. In May 2020, former Prime Minister Tom Thabane finally bowed to pressure and resigned. Moeketsi Majoro, who according to analysts faces enormous hurdles ensuring peace and political stability in the country, replaced him. 

Such is the political instability in Lesotho that by 2018, when the SADC established a commission of inquiry into killings of the army commander led by Justice Phumaphi, Lesotho had had three elections in five years , after the government collapsed with votes of no confidence in Prime Ministers. 

SADC has failed to enforce the full implementation of the Phumaphi report resulting in prime Minister Tom Thabane being ousted and political instability and economic and social suffering of Basotho continuing unabated with the possibility of a fourth election in seven years.  

Can Tanzania hold credible elections? 

Despite the raging on of Covid-19, Tanzanian President Magufuli decided to power on with elections. Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who was shot 16 times in an attempt on his life in 2017, has said he lacks confidence in the electoral commission ahead of his presidential contest in October’s general elections. Lissu accused Tanzania’s electoral officials of serving at the pleasure of the incumbent, arguing that the chairman and the chief executive of the electoral commission were appointed by President Magufuli in an opaque manner, rendering their impartiality questionable. 

Lissu has also recently written to President Cyril Ramaphosa in his capacity as Chairperson of the AU, appealing for his own protection ahead of the elections.

Peace, stability and development in southern Africa:  A pie in the sky

In 1992, a landmark achievement by the Community was the establishment of the SADC Tribunal. However, it died a slow death as the result of political interference by Zimbabwe after the Tribunal made judgments against Zimbabwe in 2007-8.

It was disbanded in 2011-12. Hope for the revival of the SADC Tribunal was re-ignited after South African High Court judge Dunstan Mlambo ruled that “if the intention of the Zuma-led government was to withdraw Pretoria from the SADC Treaty and Protocol, consent of Parliament had to be obtained first”.  This judgment was confirmed by South Africa’s Constitutional Court in 2018.

If SADC heads of state and government genuinely believe in the rule of law and human rights, then they should prioritise reviving the SADC Tribunal.

It is for reasons such as these that SADC’s institutional framework for regional peace and security is proving ineffective – its leaders are unwilling to enforce democratic principles and to hold each other to account. 

While it has established strong protocols on security co-operation and safeguards on democracy and human rights, SADC continues to operate on the pillars of absolute sovereignty and solidarity, leaving a yawning gap between standards and practice. 

Thus, according to former Botswana President, Ian Khama 

Most of the time presidents at the SADC and the African Union (AU) hold meetings just to look politically correct … they just go home after that and it is business as usual.”

This reinforces the criticism of SADC as a moribund organisation that is ill-equipped to confront critical challenges necessary for the achievement of real progress. 

SADC must be for the people of SADC and not an exclusive inaccessible club for the presidents and heads of state. In its current form and modus operandi, SADC is part of the problem driving instability in the sub-region.

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 Mazurura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) and an election expert.