Category: Programmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

added Professor Adriano Nuvunga

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

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

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

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health Workers and Protective Personal Equipment (PPE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mineworkers’ rights violated

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

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

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

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

Lay offs and unpaid leave in the transport industry

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

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

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

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

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

Workers rendered redundant overnight 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salary cuts 

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

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

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

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

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

The plight of migrant workers 

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

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

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

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

What do the Unions say?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Happy Africa Unity Day: Silencing the gun, defeating COVID-19 and protecting human rights defenders

Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Pan- Africa Human Rights Defenders Network together with our sub-regional partners join the rest of the mother continent and her peoples to celebrate the 57th anniversary of Africa Day. We take this historic opportunity to remind our leaders that “silencing the gun” 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.


We, the undersigned organizations, are writing this letter to bring to your attention the worrying restrictive COVID-19 regulations presenting concerning ramifications for enjoyment of human rights, including livelihoods.

As the international community strives to combat the spread of COVID-19, a number of states in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have adopted varied measures that have concerning ramifications for the enjoyment of human rights, including livelihoods for people in the informal economy. States have, in some instances adopted declarations of states of emergency and [others declared] states of disaster or other measures that limit the exercise of certain human rights. While some states have begun gradually relaxing these regulations, the business environment remains restrictive and this means that millions of people within SADC, especially those who are in the informal economy, cannot work, with the poor mostly affected. While the challenges presented by COVID-19 are enormous and compel States to employ unprecedented measures to protect populations from this global pandemic, it is important all measures comply with applicable international human rights standards. Human rights must be at the centre of all prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts, in order to best protect public health and support the groups and people who are most at risk.

Legal measures in response to COVID-19

In southern Africa, several countries have declared states of emergency or taken exceptional measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.  Those that have declared states of emergency include, Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique and Namibia. These are of varying periods and it is concerning that unduly prolonged periods or extensions of state of emergency have been declared in some countries where parliamentary oversight is not guaranteed without providing reasons to justify the length. Only Botswana and Namibia have subjected the declarations to parliamentary oversight. States of emergency must be limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, “relating to the duration, geographical coverage and material scope, and any measures of derogation resorted to because of the emergency.

All relevant safeguards under international law must be adhered to, including the official proclamation of the state of emergency and its international notification with full information about the measures taken and a clear explanation of the reasons for them; that it must be temporary and subject to periodic and genuine review before any extension; and to narrow down any derogations of human rights to those for which this is actually allowed under international law, and strictly necessary in the situation. The undersigned organization are concerned that this may lead to human rights violations, including related to freedom of movement and livelihoods. While States can derogate from certain freedoms and rights during a state of emergency, they cannot derogate from certain rights including the right to life; the prohibition from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment  medical or scientific experimentation without free consent; freedom from slavery or involuntary servitude; imprisonment for failing to fulfil a contractual obligation;  equal recognition before the law;  and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The states of emergency and the measures taken under then must not become a “new normal”. States must lift all emergency measures as soon as it is no longer warranted by the pandemic-related emergency and ensure that related restrictions or derogations of human rights do not become permanent.

Excessive use of force to enforce COVID-19 response measures

Across the SADC region, governments have deployed security forces to enforce compliance with COVID-19 response measures. Coercive enforcement approaches contradict evidence-based public health best practice, and often target disadvantaged communities which are marginalized, impoverished or at risk of discrimination resulting in stigma, fear and thwarting trust in authorities.

The imposition of penalties as enforcement measures must be the last resort after other alternatives have proven unsuccessful or if it becomes clear that the objective cannot be achieved by those other means. Sufficient steps need to have been taken to make sure the public is aware of the reasons for the restrictions and the need to comply with them. States must also put in place measures for people to be able to comply with the restrictions, including by enabling them to satisfy their essential needs, and take into account the situation of marginalised groups who may require support in order to be in a position to comply with the restrictions. In some cases, security personnel have used excessive force against people allegedly breaching such measures, including beating and humiliating them in public. Police have  been accused of entering people’s homes and assaulting them. In some cases, government officials are reported to have encouraged use of force.

In Zambia, Lusaka Province Minister Bowman Lusambo was reported to have threatened people with whipping if they did not respect the Presidential Directive to stay home, while police have been beating people with baton sticks on the streets. National police spokesperson Esther Katongo said in a television interview that police in Zambia had adopted a strategy to “hit and detain” anyone found on the streets.  Police have been documented beating people with baton sticks on the streets. In Zimbabwe, police officers raided a vegetable market forcing more than 300 vendors to flee and leave behind their produce. Police carried out the raid despite the agriculture sector being flagged as an “essential service” during the 21-day lockdown. They later disposed of the food, and vendors are yet to be compensated.

In Mauritius, police officers are under investigation for torture following reports of police brutality while enforcing the lockdown. In Mozambique, a local television station has accused police of taking advantage of the lockdown to raid vendors’ shops and steal their goods. In South Africa, there are reports of abuse, heavy-handed policing and the use of excessive force by the police and military.

Legality of new legislation on surveillance

While legislative initiatives are critical to the fight against COVID-19, in some cases there are concerns about their legality and susceptibility to abuse during and after the pandemic is contained. Some states are using increasing and different forms of surveillance, including those aimed at movement tracking, contact tracing, and the creation of “health apps”. To date, only South Africa has put in place surveillance specific legislation. On 2 March 2020, South Africa issued revised regulations, which mandate various entities to provide the Director General of the Department of Health with personal information of persons for inclusion in the COVID 19 contact-tracing database. This includes persons who have tested positive for COVID-19 or persons that have come into contact with those confirmed or suspected to be infected. 

In addition, the Director General of the Department of Health may direct an electronic communications service provider to furnish the location or movements of any person known or reasonably suspected to have contracted COVID-19, and the location or movements of any person known or reasonably suspected to have come into contact with such a person. 

While efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 may necessitate innovative approaches, surveillance laws or regulations can and have been used to violate citizens’ rights to privacy. Increased surveillance measures will only be lawful if they can meet strict criteria. Governments must be able to show that measures implemented are provided for by law and are necessary, proportionate, time-bound, and that they are implemented with transparency and adequate oversight. In promulgating the regulations, the South African government has rightly included safeguards to minimise threats of breaches to the right to privacy and other fundamental rights and freedoms. Such measures include the appointment of a designated COVID-19 Judge to provide oversight over the implementation of the regulations and provide recommendations to the government to address any real or possible breaches of citizens’ rights.

In addition, the gathering of the surveillance information is led by health authorities and not state security authorities who might use it for other purposes including policing. Similarly, the lead role by health authorities provides a level of protection to individuals such as human rights defenders who are often the subject of surveillance by state security authorities. Importantly, the regulations state that the data collected will only be used for the purposes of controlling COVID-19, and will be destroyed or anonymised after the state of disaster terminates. Moreover, the concerned individuals will be informed if they were subjects of surveillance during the state of disaster.

Persons deprived of liberty

The conditions of prisons and prisoners in many African countries are afflicted by severe inadequacies including high congestion, poor physical, health, and sanitary conditions, as a result special attention needs to be drawn to the severe risk these conditions pose to the spread of COVID-19. Urgent and holistic preventive measures are required that focus on the most marginalized groups in our society, particularly prisoners. If COVID-19 penetrates prison systems in the sub-region, this will not only rapidly contribute to infections, but it risks high prison mortality rates. Authorities must ensure prompt and regular access to medical attention and adequate health care for people who are deprived of their liberty at a standard that meets each person’s individual needs and is similar to what is available in the community. Prison health is public health and, therefore, effective COVID-19 responses should address the risk that congestion poses to both the prison population and the broader community. In order to de-congest prisons, governments in the sub-region should adopt an urgent strategy for the protection of the rights of people deprived of their liberty, including through addressing overcrowding in prisons, through the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience; reviewing decisions to retain people in pre-trial detention as well as to detain children; considering the early, temporary or conditional release of those convicted of minor offences and people at higher risk, such as older people, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions; and adopting alternatives to detention. Efforts should be made to release older detainees if they no longer pose a threat to public safety and they have already served a portion of their prison sentence.

In addition, those convicted of minor offences should also be considered for release. Individuals arrested on immigration-related charges should not be detained in prisons. Judicial institutions should be provided with the necessary support and mandate to enable them to consider release of prisoners, especially those who have spent excessively long periods in detention pending judgment or sentencing. Judiciaries should also pay specific attention to the release on bail of older persons, persons who are chronically ill and whose state of health is exacerbated by prison conditions. Equally, special attention should be paid to children in prison and reformatory centers and women who are pregnant or remanded with their children. Importantly, on 25 March, the UN Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment also called on governments to reduce prison populations wherever possible by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release.

Gender-based violence

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the risk and exposure of women and girls to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Confinement due to stay-at-home orders or lockdowns has increased the risk of women and girls to domestic, sexual, economic, psychological and other forms of gender-based violence by abusive partners and family members. Poor housing and poverty in most countries of the sub-region exacerbate this phenomenon. Increasingly, hotlines in the sub-region have been inundated with calls from women reporting abuse and seeking assistance.

In South Africa, the Department of Social Development’s Gender-Based Violence Command Centre received about 2,300 complaints in the first four days after the lockdown came into effect. Accessing help can also be difficult due to confinement with the abuser.  It is, therefore, imperative that States adopt innovative ways in exercising their due diligence obligation to prevent and protect women and girls from SGBV during the pandemic. States must ensure that prevention of and protection from gender-based violence and domestic violence is an integral part of their national response to the pandemic.

The unique challenges that COVID-19 presents to addressing SGBV due to confinement require bold responses from States including re-prioritizing access to support and protection services, helplines and shelters for survivors States should also ensure that women, girls and people who can get pregnant can access sexual and reproductive health services, especially ones that are time-sensitive such as emergency contraception, pre-natal testing and counselling, abortion, post-abortion care and miscarriage treatment as well as the prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Victimization of human rights defenders

COVID-19 has increased threats to civic space and human rights defenders. Some of the emergency measures to combat the novel coronavirus have severely restricted the civic space and led to violations of human rights, including targeted attacks on human rights defenders. The rampant arrests and detention of grassroots human rights defenders across Africa including Southern Africa as well as journalists and those involved in trying to disseminate information resulted in the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and Focal Point on Reprisals in Africa, Honourable Commissioner Rémy Ngoy Lumbu, expressing concern in a statement on 12 May 2020. For example, in Malawi human rights defenders were forced to institute what we refer to as firewall public interest litigation to stop the imposition of lockdown measures that would pose a threat of generalised harm to women vendors and informal traders and grassroots defenders including police brutality and detentions.

In Eswatini police reportedly harassed Swaziland news editor, Zweli Martin Dlamini’s wife and children for spreading “fake news,” that suggested that King Mswati III had contracted the coronavirus, insisting that the King “is well and in good health.” In Zimbabwe, President Mnangagwa has indefinitely extended the lockdown. And three young women political leaders from the Movement for Democratic Change – Alliance, Cecilia Revai Chimbiri, Netsai Marova and Joana Ruvimbo Mamombe, a Member of Parliament were abducted, tortured and sexually abused after having participated in a flash protest against rising levels of  hunger and abuse of government sourced food aid during the lockdown.  In addition, a freelance journalist, James Jemwa was temporarily detained by soldiers and police officers and forced to delete the footage he had recorded at Gwenyambira shops, Harare. The Zimbabwe police Commissioner went on to say that journalists should stay at home and be bound by national lockdown regulations, arguing that they are not providers of an essential service and claiming that only journalists from “broadcasting services” (usually government controlled) are exempted.  Opposition officials were also arrested and fined for providing food relief to the poor and hungry in Mutare notably Regai Tsunga a member of Parliamnet for Mutasa South.

In Malawi threats have been made against the chairperson of Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition Mr Gift Trapence before he was later involved in a serious accident. In Zambia on 9 April 2020the government controlled Independent Broadcasting Agency cancelled the broadcasting/television license of the popular Prime Television Station citing “public interest … safety, security, peace, welfare and good order” as the reason for such action. Civil society see this conduct as part of the wider government policy of systematically closing civic space ahead of the 2021 elections.

Rather than resort to intimidation, states should provide human rights defenders on the frontline of the pandemic with the necessary information, tools and protective equipment they need to carry out their human rights activities in safety.


While noting the enormous social, economic and other challenges presented by COVID-19, the respect for human rights is key in ensuring that responses are humane and do not negatively impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. We therefore call on States in southern Africa to:

  • Ensure that declarations of states of emergency respect international human rights law, particularly to the provisions of article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including (i) notifying the Secretary General of the United Nations of the rights derogated: (ii) ensuring institutional oversight to curb abuse of emergency powers; (iii) undertake regular reviews to assess if emergency powers are no longer required in the circumstances;
  • Ensure that only permissible limitations under international human rights law are imposed if they decide to restrict the rights and freedoms of individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Take appropriate measures to prevent the excessive use of force by security and other personnel in the enforcement of COVID-19 measures including by ensuring that regulations establish clearly circumscribed responsibilities and tasks for law enforcement officials, avoiding overly broad discretion that may lead to arbitrary or otherwise excessive use of police powers. and that those responsible should be held accountable and sanctioned with commensurate penalties;
  • Avoid responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with increased digital surveillance, unless these measures meet strict criteria. States must ensure that any surveillance regulations adopted to curb the spread of COVID-19 contain appropriate legal safeguards to protect citizens’ rights to privacy and other rights; and that such measures should not be used to gather any information un related to the containment of COVID-19 and to crash dissent or surveil the activities of human rights defenders; Measures implemented are provided for by law and are necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory, time-bound, and that they are implemented with transparency and adequate oversight; And that such data are not used for any other purpose, that collection is limited to the minimum possible and is securely stored and subject to mandatory, time-bound deletion;
  • Take urgent steps to de-congest places of deprivation of liberty to protect prison populations and communities from COVID-19 by taking urgent action to protect people in detention from COVID-19, including guaranteeing access to healthcare and sanitation products in all facilities and releasing prisoners of conscience and others in arbitrary detention, reviewing cases of pre-trial detention, and considering release for children, women and girls who are in detention with their dependent children or who are pregnant, and other prisoners specifically at risk, such as older prisoners or those with underlying medical conditions.
  • Urge the Government of Zimbabwe to conduct a swift, thorough and credible investigation into the abduction, torture and sexual assault of opposition Member of Parliament Joana Ruvimbo Mamombe, along with Cecilia Revai Chimbiri and Netsai Marova. We expect justice and accountability on this egregious and heinous violation of human rights.

States must ensure that women survivors continue to have access to police protection and justice as well as to shelters, helplines, community-support services, including by designating these as essential services and ensuring they receive the necessary support and resources to continue operating during the pandemic. Sufficient resources must be available to scale up services when necessary and provide information about their availability while also responding to the specific challenges and needs of certain groups of women and girls such as migrant and refugee women, minority and Indigenous women, LGBTI women, women experiencing discrimination based on work and descent, and women living in poverty.


Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA)

Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)

Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC)

Amnesty International

SAHRDN welcomes Malawi’s Supreme Court of Appeal ruling and calls on the authorities in Malawi

Lilongwe and Johannesburg 09 May 2020

SAHRDN welcomes  Malawi’s Supreme Court of Appeal ruling and calls on the authorities in Malawi and SADC to sincerely guarantee a peaceful and credible fresh presidential election in Malawi.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN or the Defenders Network) welcomes the ruling by the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) to uphold the ruling by the Constitutional Court on February 3, 2020 to nullify the May 21, 2019 presidential election and order a fresh presidential election within 150 days, including weekends and holidays from the day of the ruling.  Malawi has set a democratic precedent in a voter-centric ruling,  which gave a new impetus to the imperative of the separation of power as a cardinal principle in a democratic society, and the will of the voters as the flywheel of a democratic and credible electoral process.

While the SAHRDN welcomes the SCA ruling, it is however disturbed by the incidents of politically motivated violence,  which has unfortunately claimed two lives so far and the threats of targeted political assassinations as widely reported in the media.  The SAHRDN, therefore calls for a peaceful, free, fair, and credible election, which guarantees, at the minimum; the security of the voter; security of the vote; and security of the candidates. The SAHRDN acknowledges that the hallmark of a credibly free and fair election is marked by “procedural certainty” in terms of the rules of the electoral game, and equally important, “outcome uncertainty”, – that there should be a no predetermined winner.

The SAHRDN reminds all the contesting candidates that the primary focus of a  democratic contest should be “on the will to transform people’s lives, and not “on the will to power at any cost”, -including walking over dead bodies to the State House, and – ruling over a divided, bitter and broken society. This, just like any other democratic poll  should be a “let live” election not a “let die” election, where intimation, violence and political assassinations are instruments of choice to “harvest fear” on the election day. The SAHRDN abhors an election where the voters will not have to make a choice between contesting candidates but to be coerced to  vote for peace or violence, death or life.

The authorities in Malawi should demonstrate political goodwill, respect for human rights and put in place mechanisms to ensure a peaceful electoral competition with zero tolerance to and no room for the “margin of terror” and enhance the integrity and quality of the election to significantly reduce the “margin of error”. A disputed election is a seedbed of more violence and a threat to regional peace, security, and stability.


In light of the foregoing;

  1. The SAHRDN calls upon SADC, AU, UN  and the International Community writ large  to deploy qualified and experienced election observers without further delay. 
  2. The SAHRDN  urges all political parties/alliances, and candidates  to commit to a Code of Conduct which makes respective political parties, candidates and individuals accountable for any acts of violence and violation of human rights and other fundamentals.
  3. The SAHRDN calls on the security forces, the parliament, the judiciary, the media and the human rights defenders, in particular, Malawi’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition  to continue defending the Malawian constitution and protect the citizens of Malawi, -including  female and male civic space and human rights defenders and people living with albinism.
  4. The SAHRDN also calls upon President Arthur Peter Mutharika and the Malawi Electoral Commission to implement all key reforms recommended by the Constitutional Court and upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals to ensure a free, fair and credible  electoral process, – with an undisputed outcome even during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
  5. The SAHRDN encourages all the key stakeholders, domestic, regional and international,  to spearhead an inclusive, sustainable and gender-sensitive Vote in Peace (VIP) “in an election with choice” campaign.
  6. The SAHRDNs also calls for an all stakeholderselectoral risk/integrity assessment to effectively mitigate against current and potential incidents of electoral fraud, electoral malpractice, systemic manipulation and electoral violence among other electoral malfeasances. Malawi should set a “gold standard” for the conduct of a credibly  democratic election in the region, and the world at large.
  7. In conclusion, the SAHRDN reminds the authorities in Malawi of its obligations and urges them to observe and respect their own constitution,  and respect the  international and regional statutes, treaties, protocols they are part too, including but not limited to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the Africa Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections,  and the Maputo Protocol.


“Standing with HRDs during elections in the COVID-19 global crisis”

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

Extend the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea

05 May 2020


At the 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council (24 June-12 July 2019), the Council extended a hand to the Eritrean Government. While renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the coun­try, it signalled its willingness to offer Eritrea a constructive way forward, in particular by shifting the resolution from agenda item 4 to item 2.

While welcoming the adoption of Council resolution 41/1, and in particular the renewal of the mandate, many non-governmental orga­ni­sations cautioned that any shifts in the Council’s ap­proach should reflect corresponding changes in the human rights situation on the ground.

Regrettably, one year later, we, the undersigned non-governmental orga­ni­sations, recall that the concerns expressed in a joint letter[1] published last year remain va­lid, for the reasons set out below. Ahead of the 44th session of the Coun­cil (currently scheduled to begin in June 2020[2]), we urge you to support the adop­­tion of a resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rappor­teur on the human rights si­tu­ation in Eritrea.

As Eritrea has entered the second year of its Council membership term, its domestic human rights situation remains dire. A free and independent press continues to be ab­sent from the country and 16 journalists remain in de­tention without trial, many since 2001.[3] Impunity for past and on­going human rights vio­la­tions is widespread. Violations continue unabated, including arbitrary arrests and in­com­mu­ni­cado de­ten­­tion,[4] vio­lations of the rights to a fair trial, access to justice and due process, enforced disappearances, lack of infor­ma­tion on the fate or whe­re­abouts of dis­appeared persons, violations of women’s and girls’ rights, and severe res­tric­tions on the enjoyment of the rights to free­dom of ex­pres­sion, peaceful assem­bly, asso­cia­tion, and religion or belief. Secondary school students, some still chil­dren, continue to be conscripted in their thousands each year into the country’s abusive na­tional ser­vi­ce system.[5] In­de­finite national service, involving torture, sexual vio­len­ce and forced labour continues; thousands re­main in open-ended conscription, sometimes for as long as ten years or more, despite the 2018 peace accord with Ethiopia.[6]

In reso­lu­tion 38/15 (6 July 2018), the Council invited the Special Rapporteur to “assess and report on the situation of human rights and the engagement and cooperation of the Gov­ern­ment of Eri­trea with the Human Rights Council and its me­ch­a­nisms, as well as with the Office of the High Com­missioner [OHCHR], and, where feasible, to develop bench­marks for progress in improving the situ­a­tion of hu­man rights and a time-bound plan of action for their imple­men­t­ation.” The Council should ensure ade­quate follow-up by allowing the Special Rapporteur to pursue her work and OHCHR to deepen its en­gagement with the Eritrean Government.

As a Council member, Eritrea has an obligation to “uphold the highest stan­d­ards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and to “fully cooperate with the Council.” However, during the Council’s 43rd session, in February 2020, both the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Da­nie­la Kravetz, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, reported that no concrete evidence of pro­gress in Eritrea’s human rights situation, including against the bench­marks, could be reported.[7]

By streamlining its approach and adopting resolution 41/1 under its item 2, the Council of­fered a way forward for human rights reform in Eritrea. In March 2019, Eritrea took an initial step by meeting with the Special Rapporteur in Geneva. More recently, in February 2020, a human rights dialogue took place between the Government and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in a more constructive spirit than during Eritrea’s 2019 review by the Hu­man Rights Com­mit­tee. Unfortunately, despite the window of opportunity provided by Eritrea’s CEDAW review and the Eritrean Ambassador indicating, at the Council’s 43rd session, that his country was committed to confidence-building measures and technical cooperation, Eritrea refuses to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur, and recently launched yet another unwarranted attack on her and her mandate.[8] The Government continues to reject findings of ongoing grave violations, as well as calls for re­form, and human rights-based recom­men­dations, including in relation to the Covid-19 crisis.[9]  

The Council should urge Eritrea to make progress towards meet­ing its membership obligations and to engage with the UN human rights system constructively. It should not reward non-cooperation by, but rather maintain scrutiny of, one of its members. We believe that a technical rollover of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, under the same item, would contribute to this aim.

At its upcoming 44th session, the Council should adopt a resolution: (a) Extending the mandate of the Spe­cial Rap­porteur for a further year; (b) Urging Eritrea to cooperate fully with the Spe­cial Rap­por­teur by granting her access to the country, in accordance with its obligations as a Council member; (c) Calling on Eritrea to develop an implementation plan to meet the progress benchmarks, in consultation with the Special Rapporteur and OHCHR; (d) Requesting OH­CHR to present an oral update on Eritrea at the Council’s 46th session; and (e) Requesting the Special Rappor­teur to present an oral update at the Council’s 46th session in an interactive dia­lo­gue, and to present a report on the implementation of the mandate at the Council’s 47th ses­sion and to the General Assembly at its 76th session.

We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues and stand ready to provide your delegation with further information as needed.


  1. African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies
  2. AfricanDefenders (the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
  3. Amnesty International
  4. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  5. Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine)
  7. Civil Rights Defenders
  8. Committee to Protect Journalists
  9. CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)
  10. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  11. Eritrean Law Society (ELS)
  12. Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR)
  13. Geneva for Human Rights / Genève pour les Droits de l’Homme
  14. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  15. Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)
  16. Human Rights Watch
  17. International Service for Human Rights
  18. Network of Eritrean Women (NEW)
  19. Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa / Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC)  
  20. One Day Seyoum
  21. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
  22. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
  23. West African Human Rights Defenders Network / Réseau Ouest Africain des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (ROADDH/WAHRDN)
  24. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT

[1] DefendDefenders et al., “Eritrea: the UN should ensure continued scrutiny of the human rights situation,” 11 June 2019, (accessed on 16 April 2020).

[2] The exact dates of the session are likely to be affected by the Covid-19 situation, which led the Council to suspend its 43rd session on 13 March 2020.

[3] Committee to Protect Journalists, “2019 prison census: 16 Journalists Imprisoned in Eritrea,” (accessed on 30 April 2020). Eritrea remains at the top of the CPJ’s most-censored countries, as per a 2019 report, “10 Most Censored Countries,” available at: (accessed on 30 April 2020). 

[4] Amnesty International, “Human rights in Africa, Review of 2019,” 8 April 2020, Index: AFR 01/1352/2020, available at (accessed on 16 April 2020), p. 39.

[5] Human Rights Watch, “‘They Are Making Us into Slaves Not Educating us.’ How Indefinite Conscription Restricts Young People’s Rights, Access to Education in Eritrea,” 8 August 2019,; Human Rights Watch, “Statement to the European Parliament’s Committee on Development on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea,” 18 February 2020, available at (accessed on 24 April 2020).

[6] Amnesty International, “Human rights in Africa, Review of 2019,” op. cit., p. 38.

[7] Interactive dialogue with the SR on Human Rights in Eritrea – 9th Meeting, 43rd Regular Session, Human Rights Council (webcast archive), 26 February 2020,; Presentation of High Commissioner/Secretary-General country reports & Item 2 General Debate – 10th Meeting, 43rd Regular Session, Human Rights Council (webcast archive), 27 February 2020, (accessed on 9 April 2020).

[8] Permanent Mission of the State of Eritrea to the United Nations, Geneva, “Harassment of Eritrea is Unconscionable,” 6 April 2020, (accessed on 23 April 2020).

[9] Amnesty International, “Eritrea: Show humanity and release prisoners of conscience amid COVID-19,” 3 April 2020,; Human Rights Watch, “With COVID-19 Threat, Eritrea Should Release Political Detainees,” 2 April 2020, (accessed on 24 April 2020).

Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup

Issue 3, 26– 1 May 2020

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

This week we examine how southern African countries are responding to the dual paradoxical objectives of ensuring that measures to protect people from Covid-19 do not negatively affect human rights and the strengthening of democracy.

The number of Covid-19 cases continues to grow in southern Africa, threatening scheduled elections and democratic processes.

However, in the words of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, on 27 April, emergency powers invoked to fight Covid-19 “should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power”.

As a recent article in Maverick Citizen explains, the UN has reiterated time and time again that respect for all human rights — economic, social, civil and political — is fundamental to the success of the fight against Covid-19.

Nonetheless, the chorus of complaints about how Covid-19 measures are deliberately being made repressive by some governments in southern Africa — to produce political outcomes as opposed to public health outcomes — is increasing in volume. 

With Covid-19 hanging over their heads, African governments are faced with a difficult choice: to go ahead with scheduled elections and risk accelerating infections or to postpone and compromise their democracy, including by creating potential leadership legitimacy crises.

Some countries, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, have already suspended political activity and elections due to fears of spreading the virus. Others like Malawi and Zambia appear to be proceeding with elections as planned or as ordered by the court while implementing measures that have the effect of limiting the enjoyment of fundamental rights in a way that affects the potential freeness and fairness of the polls.

Concerns about preparedness from election authorities and political parties have also been considered.

The African Union’s governance instruments affirm that “regular elections constitute a key element of the democratisation process and, therefore, are essential ingredients for good governance, the rule of law, the maintenance and promotion of peace, security, stability and development”.

It is therefore important to prevent Covid-19 from not just killing people but also from killing electoral democracy.

On 19 March, South Africa’s Electoral Court granted an urgent application by the Electoral Commission to postpone all municipal by-elections and associated voter registration activities that were originally scheduled for March-May 2020.

On 26 March, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that all by-elections and other electoral activities had been suspended until further notice as part of precautionary measures to protect its employees and the general public from the pandemic.

In Malawi elections ordered by the court are around the corner, in July. The impact of Covid-19 on this vote has been topical in the past month. The general view is that adequate logistical preparation for the election in important key result areas would be difficult within the timeframe. These include procurement of voting materials, recruitment and training of election officials and enabling administrative processes such as voter registration and setting up of election management infrastructure in constituencies.

Voting procedures would have to be adjusted to comply with lockdown regulations.

Altogether it is a mammoth logistical undertaking that requires additional resources, both material and financial, that Malawi does not have. As political analyst Taona Mwanyisa argues, if Malawi goes ahead with the election amid the pandemic there will be serious hurdles to overcome. 

The opposition has expressed the worry that President Peter Mutharika is going to use the pandemic to delay the election and cling on to power.

Malawi is in a difficult situation because the election dates are part of a court order. Any postponement could have far-reaching implications on the health of democracy at a time when there are already significant questions about the legitimacy of Mutharika remaining in power when his term expired.

He has remained in office merely because of technical aspects of the law that will not allow a vacuum at State House. Questions have been raised about the extent of his powers, given that he is in office but unelected.

The AU governance instruments are clear that “democratic elections are the basis of the authority of any representative government”.

Such is the extent of the impact of Covid-19 on electoral contestation in Malawi that efforts by Mutharika’s government to impose lockdown conditions have been widely rejected by the population, resulting in protests and court challenges.

Law enforcement agencies have threatened to use force to ensure compliance with lockdown. 

Threats in 2021

Southern African elections scheduled for next year could also be affected.

Information on whether Zambia will proceed with its 2021 poll remains sketchy. The country is set to conduct its first ever-electronic population census in August this year. But even that has not been officially announced.

Ominous signs that authorities in Zambia are using Covid-19 measures to clamp down on enjoyment of fundamental rights are showing. There have been several reports of police brutality to enforce regulations. The Minister for Lusaka threatened to whip the spokesperson of the Human Rights Commission after he condemned police for whipping people for allegedly violating rules.

Leading lawyer John Sangwa has been disbarred administratively from practicing for opposing a parliamentary Bill centralising executive power and removing effective separation of powers. 

Independent television station Prime Television has been forcibly closed under the guise of protecting public interest and public safety. Restrictions to civic space — oxygen for citizen voices — prevent activists from drawing attention to human rights emergencies and risk creating a wider human rights crisis.

That, after all, is the lesson of China’s suppression of doctors who tried to warn about Covid-19 in early January.

Allegations of weaponisation of the law to restrict civic space and attack human rights activists and institutions — often described as “judicial persecution” or “persecution through prosecution” — keep arising in Zambia.

In Lesotho, where embattled Prime Minister Thomas Thabane is under pressure to resign, fresh elections can happen at any time.

Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli has raised serious allegations that there were plans to have him killed but was “a free man only because Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander Lieutenant General Mojalefa Letsoela defied orders to arrest him” during the army’s deployment by the prime minister on Saturday 25 April.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) raises concern that, while there may be broad political consensus regarding the postponement of elections, the legal basis for such postponement and the modality of governance between the end of term of the current parliament and new elections have raised political and constitutional contestations.

Many constitutions are silent on what should happen if elections fail to take place for one reason or another.

Notwithstanding the devastating effects of Covid-19, the pandemic presents an opportunity for election authorities and legislators in southern Africa to better organise themselves and put in place measures and plan Bs that ensure their citizens are able to exercise their franchise to vote at any given time. We, therefore, agree with Thomas White that “while these measures may mitigate the spread of coronavirus in the short term, they do create another risk that Covid-19 will be used as a smokescreen to rationalise attacks on democracy”.

Status of lockdowns in southern Africa

Southern African countries have continued operating under lockdown conditions with minimum or no cross-border travel. 

As South Africa entered its final week of a 35-day lockdown, the government announced it would gradually ease the restrictions in five stages from 30 April, citing economic concerns. President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of an additional 73,180 soldiers to help police enforce lockdown regulations until June, raising concerns in civil society about possible abuses, some calling it “a strategic blunder against an invincible enemy”.

Zimbabwe and Namibia have also remained under strict lockdowns that are scheduled to end on 3 and 4 May respectively.  On 21 April, Lesotho extended a 21-day national lockdown by another 14 days despite not having recorded any cases. On 22 April, Eswatini reversed a decision to relax coronavirus restrictions after infections almost doubled to 31 in one week. During April, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organisation director-general, laid out six criteria that should guide countries as they consider lifting restrictions.

These include but are not limited to ensuring that transmission is controlled, health systems capacities are in place to test, isolate, treat every case and trace every contact, and that communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the new norm.

Lockdowns and police brutality

Civil society continues recording cases of torture, arbitrary arrest and murder of citizens by law enforcement agencies in all countries.

Police and soldiers in South Africa are accused of assaulting people they allege were breaching lockdown regulations. In one incident, riot police went as far as to fire rubber bullets at nurses protesting shortages in personal protective equipment. To date, reports indicate that eight people have been killed by law enforcement officers and at least 200 cases of police brutality have been recorded.

In Eswatini, the police commissioner warned journalists against writing “negative news” about the kingdom. The warning comes in the wake of the detention of former Times of Eswatini journalist Eugene Dube. The Economic Freedom Fighters of Swaziland issued a statement strongly condemning “the psychological warfare, abuse of power and demonising and torture of innocent journalists and its members by the police”. 

In ZimbabweLovemore Zvokusekwa was arrested for allegedly originating a statement that brought the president into “disrepute”.  There was general outrage when police in Mutare arrested an opposition member of parliament, Regai Tsunga, on 21 April for distributing food as part of measures to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 measures on poor people facing starvation. Ruling party MPs have not faced a similar fate for doing the same thing. To date, reports indicate that there have been 190 assaults by the police, 12 attacks on journalists, 7,000 arrests — mainly people moving around in search of food — and one case of malicious damage to property.

Lockdowns and poverty

Severe hunger continues to threaten southern Africa’s efforts to enforce lockdowns. In its annual Global Report on Food Crises, released on 21 April, the UN World Food Program reported “the number of people battling acute hunger is on the rise again”. Although research for the publication was conducted before the coronavirus outbreak, the WFP supposes the pandemic “may push even more families and communities into deeper distress”. 

On 24 April, a Zimbabwean man was arrested and charged with undermining the authority of President Emmerson Mnangagwa by allegedly circulating a message on social media accusing the country’s leader of ineptitude for not implementing a rescue package like that of his South African counterpart.

Malawi’s lockdown remains suspended until the government puts in place necessary socio-economic protection measures as ordered by the High Court. Authorities must strike a balance between enforcing compliance and ensuring respect for fundamental human rights. The government of South Africa has led the way in this. It allocated R500-billion towards relieving the plight of those most affected by the pandemic.

Access to water

The absence of clean and potable water, a key element in fighting the spread of Covid-19, remains a huge challenge in the region. 

On 21 April, Community Water Alliance, a Zimbabwean civil society organisation, condemned the Zimbabwe Republic Police for arresting one of its staff members whilst she was on her way to help raise funds for sanitisers and public water points — even though she was in possession of a letter from the City of Harare giving her permission to do so.

South Africa should be applauded for availing R20-billion to municipalities tasked with provision of emergency water supply, increased sanitation of public transport and facilities, and providing food and shelter for the homeless.

Covid-19 testing, treatment and vaccination

Health experts have expressed worry over a significant rise in reported Covid-19 cases in Africa. This has prompted most governments to ramp up tests in addition to lockdowns.

South Africa has conducted more than 161,000 tests after rolling out a mass testing exercise earlier in April. On 14 April, the UN’s resident coordinator in Angola announced an additional grant of $12.5-million to combat Covid-19.

The WHO issued a warning that “there is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection”. This was after some governments were considering issuing “immunity passports” or “risk-free certificates”  that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection.


The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on two fronts: health and economy. With the exception of South Africa, the lack of government support for most citizens in the region has been exacerbated by the excessive use of force by authorities in the name of enforcing lockdowns. Denied the right to food, water and other basics, democracy is likely to be the next casualty for citizens as other important events such as elections have been caught in the Covid-19 crosshairs.

Whilst it can be argued that the postponement of these processes is important to constrain the spread of the virus, the implications are very worrisome. Measures ought to be taken to ensure that the interests of human rights and democracy are not unnecessarily sacrificed on the altar of the health emergency.

Southern African democracies are fragile and, in enforcing lockdowns and restrictions, authorities are urged to exercise restraint to limit further regression during this tremendous stress test. 

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the immediate past-chairperson 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.

2019 SOUTHERN AFRICA HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS SUMMIT REPORT. “Reflecting Innovating And Co-creating A Sustainable Protection Agenda Based On Trends And Opportunities”

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)  in collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA), World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS Alliance) and Lifeline held the 2019 HRDs summit from the 27 – 30th of November 2019 The summit was held under the theme; “Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Southern Africa: Reflecting, innovating and co-creating a sustainable protection agenda based on trends and opportunities.”  It was attended by over 100 HRDs, policymakers, and human rights experts from eleven Southern African countries and various organisations. 

The project was made possible through the support from OSISA and Ford Foundation.
Please download the process report of the 2019 SADC HRDs Summit below

SAHRDN conducts a Strategic Planning Session for Chapter One Foundation, Zambia

Between 7 and 9 February 2020 the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network carried out a Strategic Planning Session for Chapter One Foundation (COF), Zambia as part of its wider programme of contributing to a stronger network of human rights defenders (HRDs) in Southern Africa. The strategic planning process was attended by the staff and board members of COF.

The participants made a rapid assessment of how COF has performed as a start-up organization looking at what is working and why and what is not working and why. They also looked at where they want to take the COF to by 2024 with a clear appreciation of where they are presently. Some tools to look at the internal capacities and weaknesses and the environmental challenges and opportunities were deployed as part of the strategic planning process resulting in the adoption of an implementable and realistic strategic plan with a strong angle at protection of human rights defenders and use of impact litigation to contribute to positive social transformation through promotion and protection of human rights and the constitution of Zambia.

Washington Katema of SAHRDN facilitating one the Strategic Planning Session

One of the “core objectives of the strategic planning process is to contribute to the Institutionalisation of the COF and make the organization survive individuals and have perpetual succession” said Linda Kasonde the Executive Director of COF. “COF arose after the realization that there was no organized public interest litigation firm in Zambia that systematically worked to promote the rule of law and good governance” added Kasonde.

The participants felt that the sustainability of the organization was important as it was part of important national cogs to unlock the effective participation of Zambians in matters that affect them. If this strategic plan is implemented, it is hoped that the COF will be the go-to institution for human rights defenders in Zambia