Author: Charles Clint Chimedza

Protection Officer at Southern Africa HumanRights Defenders Network

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

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

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

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

Africa Day Commemorations 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countries where guns speak louder than words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From aspirations to real action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

Issue No; 7 25-29 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education or health? The schools reopening debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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