Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Maverick Citizen launched a new feature on the 15th of April 2020.
The weekly Human Rights RoundUp is meant to give snapshots of the main human rights news that happens in Southern African countries, particularly related to the growing Covid-19 crisis.
By telling and reflecting on these stories we hope we will be contributing towards integrating the efforts of human rights defenders across the region. It is also intended to inform the policy community of the main threats confronting human rights defenders.
Locking down human rights
The main issue is obviously the Covid-19 lockdown measures and their impact on human rights.
In the last few weeks, all ten Southern African countries have issued public measures to contain the coronavirus. These ‘lockdowns’ were generally of a minimum of three weeks, but are now all being systematically extended mainly by an average of a further two weeks.
For example, on April 9th 2020, South Africa’s President announced the extension of the lockdown measures for an additional two weeks (at least).
President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe has already hinted that he may extend the lockdown measures and is currently reflecting based on recommendations coming from the WHO.
On 9 April, the Botswana Parliament endorsed the President’s 21 day declaration of state of emergency and extended it to six months. This gives the President Masisi significant power to make decisions with minimum Parliamentary oversight. Civil society groups are already concerned about this given the allegations already emerging of irregular tenders to procure equipment to fight Covid-19 that have been made and reduce government accountability to levels that are not normal in Botswana.
A quick investigation showed that Southern African countries used one international justification and one of two domestic legal reasons to impose the lockdowns. The international basis was the declaration of the Covid-19 as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The local basis was either the declaration of a state of disaster or the declaration of a state of emergency.
South Africa and Zimbabwe declared a state of disaster while Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Eswatini and Malawi have declared states of emergency.
These declarations have given extensive powers to governments to impose measures to try and contain the spread of the Covid-19.
However, a major concern is the excessive use of force and violence by soldiers and police against unarmed civilians suspected of breaching lockdown regulations. The violations include extrajudicial killings in South Africa and Zimbabwe; assaults with sticks, open hands and booted feet; torture including forced exercises like crunches, push-ups and rolling on hard surfaces and mud. In Durban and Cape Town South Africa despite a government declared moratorium against evictions, there were violent evictions of shack dwellers such as Abahlali base Mjondolo.
In all countries, there have been reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions. This comes at a time when courts are not fully functional and exercising effective oversight over the police or the executive.
To their credit, Angola and South Africa are reported to have arrested some of the security officers who assaulted unarmed civilians. In Lesotho the Assistant Commissioner of Police Complaints and Discipline issued a Memorandum on 1 April to the police to stop torturing civilians as ‘that was not part of their deployment instructions’!
In Namibia Lt. Gen. Sebastian Haitota Ndeitunga, the Police Inspector-General also issued a statement denouncing violations of rights of people by the police on 8 April.
Sadly other countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and Malawi have not taken any action against errant police details and soldiers who assault, torture or violate the rights of civilians.
As a result, on 8 April prominent Namibian Human Rights lawyer Norman Tjombe invited members of the public who fall victim to abuse to seek free (pro-bono) legal services to sue the police for compensation in civil proceedings.
Locking down poverty
Another major concern has been the incompatibility between the lockdowns requirements and extreme poverty. Across Southern Africa, the requirement of social distancing has proved a tall order if not impossible in extremely poor communities with no adequate housing in all high population density locations in cities.
Near business as usual movement of people as they scramble for basics such as food for survival is still common in South Africa. In Zimbabwe Mbare and Highfields in Harare, Sakubva and Chikanga in Mutare and Mzilikazi and Makokoba in Bulawayo also experienced near business as usual conditions.
In Mozambique the townships of Chamanculo, Mafalala, Polana Canico, Maxquane and Hulene in Maputo; Manga, Munhava, Goto and Nhamudima in Beira are near impossible to impose social distancing due to overcrowding and limited accommodation.
Luanda, Lusaka, Windhoek and Gaborone have similar residential locations where social distancing is near impossible to implement.
It is fortuitous that, as yet, Covid-19 has not spread to such locations across Southern Africa.
The other incompatibility with social distancing is that communities in all these Southern African cities have to scramble for food on a daily basis making it difficult for them to remain in-doors.
In Mutare, Zimbabwe, armed police expropriated and burnt huge quantities of food from the poor at Sakubva market under the guise of imposing lockdown measures.
Access to water
The requirement to regularly wash hands was also near impossible to achieve due to the absence of clean and potable water in many urban centers in Southern Africa. Harare is just one example of a big city to have such a problem. The absence of water resulted in Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) mounting a series of public interest litigation cases in different provinces to compel the authorities to supply water to the people during the lockdow
The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the right to safe and potable water for everyone and this is the first time that the lawyers have taken a concerted effort to assert such rights in Zimbabwe.
As a result, on 7 April in Mutare High Court Judge Justice Mwayera ordered the City of Mutare and the government of Zimbabwe to provide safe and potable water for residents of Dangamvura on schedules published and accessible to the public: the case was brought by Ephraim Matanda and United Mutare Residents and Ratepayers Trust against the City of Mutare and the Ministry of Local Government and argued by human rights lawyers Passmore Nyakureba and Kelvin Kabaya.
In Zambia, civil society expressed shock when videos started circulating on 8 April of a ruling party official distributing masks made of their political party regalia.
The material the masks are made from did not seem to meet WHO standards Martin Masiga, Secretary-General of Africa Judges Forum, arguing that “those cloth masks … offer 0% protection and 100% exposure.”
Vaccine Development and testing
Civil society in Southern Africa was engaged in hot debate after a video of two French doctors was leaked where they were discussing that Africa should be the main testing ground for vaccines.
The WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, condemned as racist the suggestion that the COVID-19 vaccines be tested first in Africa.
Prominent soccer players Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o were also at the forefront of arguing that Africa is not a laboratory.
The fear of Africans continuing to be used as guinea pigs to test vaccines to save humanity was raised in the SAHRDN discussion platform. While the need for the development and testing of a vaccine was generally accepted, there was concern after two French doctors were caught on video discussing extensive testing on African people.
In other news
Malawi: On 1 April 2020 prominent human rights defender Mr Timothy Mtambo resigned as Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation and Chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition ahead of the fresh elections in July 2020 ordered by the Constitutional Court of Malawi.
In his resignation Mtambo publicly stated his support for the opposition coalition against incumbent President Mutharika whom he accused of breach of the Constitution and wanton violations of human rights and abuse of power with impunity. He also announced that he has formed a new citizen’s movement called the Citizens for Transformation, focussing on democracy consolidation.
Mtambo indicated that his decision to create a civil society movement that gave people a greater voice in socio-economic and political develpments was informed by the need to help rescue Malawi from what he referred to as “accidental and transactional leadership.” The former HRDC Chairperson has faced numerous arrests for spearheading anti-government protests since last year’s disputed presidential elections.
On 8 April 2020 the SAHRDN and the Pan Africa Lawyers Union issued a statement advising that the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (AfCOURT) has suspended the execution of a US$ 29,000 punitive personal costs court order imposed against Charles Kajoloweka, a Malawian frontline Human Rights Defender by the Supreme Court of Malawi.
Kajoloweka took the punitive costs order made against him by the Supreme Court of Malawi for scrutiny to the AfCOURT arguing that it amounted to indirect punishment by the judiciary of a human rights defender who used public interest litigation legitimately to demand good and accountable governance. This was after he had sued President Mutharika to fire a Minister, George Chiponda, who was alleged to have swindled millions of public funds in Malawi’s Kwacha in a scandal known as “Maize Gate”.
Mozambique: On 7 April 2020 the village of Muedunbwe in Cabo Delgado Province in the North of Mozambique came under attack by the so-called Daesh or rebels.
Southern Africa civil society continues to express deep concern at the deteriorating security situation in oil and natural gas rich Cabo Delgado province calling for a more nuanced and deep understanding of the political economy of the security situation and understanding of who solution holders are.
They call for stronger government action to protect civilians and for journalists to be allowed unimpeded access in order to report openly on what is going on. They have also called for SADC to declare the situation there a matter of threat to regional peace and security and intervene to restore the rule of law. Prior, Amnesty International issued a statement calling on authorities in Mozambique to do all needed to lawfully protect people in Cabo Delgado.
Eswatini: On 8 April 2020 Eswatini media reported that the latest United States of America 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices alleges that the Eswatini government and its agents carried out ‘arbitrary or unlawful killings’ in 2019.
For example the report alleges that:
“In June police shot and killed a man suspected of harboring prison escapees and drug dealing. There were no reports that the suspect attacked or otherwise threatened the police. In early June, a man was found severely injured after being questioned by police. The man’s cousin alleged that the man was beaten by police, and then left to die in a secluded area some 18 miles away.”
The report alleges other violations by the Eswatini government including arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings that happened with impunity.
Zambia: On 9 April the government-controlled Independent Broadcasting Agency canceled 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 sees this conduct as part of the wider government policy of systematically closing civic space ahead of the 2021 elections in order to consolidate power by President Edgar Lungu.
This is another high level of media closure after similar action was taken against The Post newspaper. The Law Association of Zambia issued a statement on 11 April 2020, strongly condemning the closure and asking the government to reverse the decision on account of numerous irregularities that they cited.
To date, the Zambian authorities have still not reversed the decision despite widespread criticism from various stakeholders with the latest being by the International Press Institute.
The attacks on civic space also include arbitrary arrests and detentions of human rights defenders; the case of Pilato, Laura Miti and Barnabas Mwewa is a case in point, the three defenders were arrested for promoting human rights in Livingstone. Their case is still pending.
Arnold Tsunga is a Human Rights Lawyer, the Director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Chairperson of the SAHRDN; Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a Professional Rapporteur and an Election Expert; Mark Heywood is the editor of Maverick Citizen.