Whether it is university students calling for accessible, quality education in South Africa under the #FeesMustFall banner, young people protesting against high unemployment in Botswana or taking a stand against corruption and economic and social exclusion in Angola, or activists taking to the streets to hold their government to account for increasing corruption, poverty and inequality in Zimbabwe, one thing is clear: Southern Africa’s youth are standing up to claim their rights and freedoms.
Throughout 2016, these demands, often initiated by the spontaneous actions of ordinary people, went viral, in particular among young people, who often bear the triple weight of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
However, the response to these demands has often been heavy-handed suppression by authorities, who are attempting to close the space for people to express their views and organise freely.
Politicians, resorting to an “us versus them” rhetoric, have frequently singled out those who were at the forefront of these protests and demands, demonising them, playing on social divisions and fostering a climate of fear.
In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe denounced Evan Mawarire, a pastor and key figure of the #ThisFlag movement, and accused him of advancing a foreign-sponsored agenda and of not being “part of us” for his role in leading protests against corruption, human rights violations and the declining economy.
In South Africa, university students protesting in support of their constitutionally enshrined right to education were often met with excessive force by the police. In Johannesburg last October, one student leader was shot in the back 13 times with rubber bullets.
In Botswana, activists, among them Tlamelo Tsurupe, who were protesting against youth unemployment in front of Parliament were beaten by the police and arrested on charges of “common nuisance”.
In other countries in the region, peaceful protest has been brutally repressed over the past year, as evidenced by the general pattern of excessive use of force by the police and security forces. Human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents were often the focus of these and other attacks.
This is just a snapshot of the 159 country entries contained in Amnesty International’s annual report, titled The Global State of Human Rights, which was released on February 22.
It shows that human rights and those who stand up for them are under attack in the region and around the world.
It documents people being killed for peacefully standing up for human rights in 22 countries in 2016, whether they were challenging entrenched economic interests, defending minorities and small communities, or challenging traditional barriers to women’s and sexual rights.
The Amnesty report warns that punishment for airing dissenting views and politically motivated attacks on peaceful protests and the right to freedom of expression are on the rise in countries such as South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The organisation is also warning that “2017 will see ongoing crises exacerbated by a debilitating absence of human rights leadership on a chaotic world stage”.
We don’t have to go down this gloomy, dystopian path. In dark times, it is important to remember that individuals who stand up for justice can make a difference. The need has never been more urgent for ordinary people to take action to reverse this dangerous decline in human rights.
In this fight, the front line is everywhere and everyone can be a human rights defender. It is time for a new agenda that respects human rights. In Africa, civil society leaders and politicians have an opportunity to rise to the challenge of defending them.
The first thing you do in the dark is light a candle. The first step to fighting back against threats to human rights is to stand with someone who has taken a risk to defend them.
In 2017, we must be ready to defend activists on the front line — in particular, those who are challenging laws, pressuring their governments and exposing violations and abuses. They need support from all of us if their voices are to be heard.
For every wall built out of repression, we must build structures of resistance based on rights and freedoms, brick by brick, taking one stand at a time to defend human rights defenders.
Unless the wider public seizes the responsibility to defend these rights and joins activists to confront those abusing them, the efforts of human rights defenders may be in vain.
Outrage must be channelled into ongoing, meaningful acts of solidarity that peacefully confront people in power and make them prioritise human rights at home and abroad.
As the world takes this dark turn, the seed of hope is that ordinary people will mobilise in defence of their rights.
History tells us that in troubled times individuals made a difference when they took a stand — civil rights activists in the United States, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, and the women’s rights movements around the world.
Let’s make 2017 the year in which we all take injustice personally.
END NOTE =Deprose Muchena is Amnesty International’s regional director for Southern Africa