When President Jacob Zuma assumed the reins of office in May last year, his inaugural address echoed the promise made by former president Nelson Mandela about South Africa being founded on the principles of human dignity and equal rights for all, and recommitted the nation to being an active member of the international community.
As he approaches 16 months in office, this promise will be tested when South Africa votes on the landmark Resolution on Freedom of Association and Assembly, being decided at the United Nations Human Rights Council at the end of the month. The response from South Africa, as a democratic beacon in Africa, needs to be unconditional support.
As a country that espouses the values of a stable democracy, and with one of the most modern and progressive constitutions in the world that incorporates the key principles behind the country’s long struggle against colonialism and apartheid, South Africa’s position on human and democratic rights at regional and international forums matters.
Key challenges to democratic freedoms are the shrinking space for civil society and the persistent limitations being placed on the work of human rights defenders.
How South Africa reacts to this is being closely watched.
Systemically restricting civil society activities
Over the last few years, governments across the world have been systemically restricting civil society activities by placing limitations on the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Much of the official retribution stems from the fact that civil society performs a watchdog role to engender greater transparency and accountability in public life. In many countries, legislation has been introduced to prevent civil society groups from being formed, carrying out their legitimate activities and accessing resources. In many countries, organisations seeking to bring accountability and transparency into public life are being intimidated and impeded in their activities through intrusive raids, bureaucratic red tape, bans and arbitrary closures.
The right to peacefully protest, express dissent and expose malfeasance, too, is under threat in many parts of the world. This week alone, we witnessed the trial in Japan of Greenpeace activists Junichi and Toru, who were treated like criminals despite having already been cleared in the court of international public opinion.
What is worrying for South Africa is that many of these negative trends are being witnessed in its very own neighbourhood. The Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation, introduced in 2009, seeks to reduce non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to a mere service-delivery role by prohibiting organisations that receive more than 10% of their funding from international sources from working on vital governance issues such as the advancement of human and democratic rights, gender equality, conflict resolution and accountability of law enforcement agencies. Tiny infractions carry sentences up to 20 years. In Egypt, an NGO Bill is in the pipeline to send a clear message to civil society to steer clear of criticising the government. Among the most serious restrictions in this Bill is the unchecked ministerial power to deny registration to, deregister or liquidate any civil society organisation.
Last year, Zambia introduced a new NGO law that requires all NGOs to register through a cumbersome pre-screening process. Now NGOs are required to renew their registration every five years, creating opportunities for bureaucratic harassment for any NGO critical of its government. The law also gives the government-dominated NGO Board the power to approve the area of work of NGOs and, by implication, determine their thematic and geographic areas of functioning and exercise control over their affairs.
Further north, Uganda’s law requires NGOs to notify the authorities one week in advance before a visit to any rural area, which seriously hampers any fact-finding missions to monitor human rights violations. Additionally, NGOs are prohibited from acting in the “national interest”, a subjective concept determined by the political priorities of the government of the day.
Leading global democracy
Just as other countries supported South Africans in the dark days of the anti-apartheid struggle, it is vital that South Africa, as a leading global democracy with a vibrant civil society, comes out in support of civil society freedoms in Africa and beyond.
One key global forum where South Africa can use its influence to support civil society freedoms is the UN Human Rights Council. The council — mandated to address situations of human rights violations across the globe and make recommendations on them — includes representation of UN member states from every region of the globe. The council holds sessions periodically at different times of the year where issues affecting human rights are discussed.
It is slated to hold its next session in September, where a United States-led delegation of countries concerned about shrinking civil society space are planning to introduce a resolution to protect the freedoms of assembly and association, including the rights of those who espouse minority or dissenting views. An important aspect of the resolution is the appointment of a special rapporteur to assist states in protecting these freedoms.
This would be an opportune moment for South Africa’s government to show its support for fundamental freedoms and civil society. It would also reaffirm the president’s commitment in his inaugural address: “We will continue to use multilateral and bilateral forums and relations to take forward the goals of eradicating global poverty, strengthening peace and security and to promote democracy.”
It’s time South Africa cemented its stance as the democratic leader of the African continent.
Ingrid Srinath is the secretary general of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and Kumi Naidoo is the executive director Greenpeace International.