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Hope for citizen voice, despite ‘narrowed’ civic space

President Jacob Zuma heads to China this week to meet with the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China at the the 9th Brics Summit.

As far as respect for civic space is concerned, South Africa outshines its counterparts in the Brics bloc, whose members together account for more than 40% of the world’s population. But President Zuma now heads to Xiamen with that record looking worse for wear, in the midst of increasing restrictions on South Africans’ basic rights to organise, speak out and take action.

The theme of the upcoming summit, “stronger partnership for a brighter future”, according to the organisers, seeks to take “South-South cooperation to a new level, accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open up a brighter future for the economic development and social progress of all developing countries”.

But if any of this is to be achieved, and particularly if Brics is to realise its goal of “strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive economic growth”, its leaders will have to start listening to their people. For South Africa, this means making a U-turn on its growing civic space restrictions.

The Civicus Monitor, an online tool that tracks threats to civil society around the world, rates South Africa’s civic space as “narrowed”, meaning that although freedom of assembly, expression and association are protected in principle, violations still take place. This occurs in spite of South Africa having one of the most liberal constitutions in the world.

Protests take place almost daily in South Africa, whether they be country-wide anti-Zuma marches, student demonstrations against increasing fees or the frequent service delivery protests against the lack of basic social services. 

While the majority of protests are peaceful and within the confines of the law, police frequently overstep the mark in ways that include the use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests. At least 567 people were arrested in the #FeesMustFall demonstrations and the police were accused of using excessive violence during the protests.

Five years after the Marikana massacre — when police officers used lethal force against striking miners, killing 34 and injuring more than 70 in a single incident — the survivors and the families of killed miners have yet to see justice. 

To date, no one has been held accountable, no compensation has been paid to victims or their families, and the socioeconomic conditions that gave rise to the protests have not changed.

A recent global rise in killings of environmental rights defenders has also affected South Africa. In March 2016, Sikhosipi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, chairman of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, was murdered. Rhadebe had vigorously opposed open-cast mining of titanium in the Xolobeni area of the Eastern Cape by Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC), an Australian-owned mining company. 

Others that spoke out and acted against abuses have been subject to legal harassment, as a lawsuit by MRC against another Wild Coast community activist and two lawyers of the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) shows. 

Other grassroots activists have also fallen victim to this trend. Community activist Vincent Thibello “Papi” Tobias of the Boiketlong community, who has been active in raising funds for the legal fees of the Boiketlong Four, has been missing since February 2016.

Meanwhile, acts of intimidation and threats against journalists are undermining freedom of expression in South Africa. Recent attacks have targeted those working on exposing corruption, particularly reporters revealing the extent of state capture by the Gupta family. 

Journalists Sipho Masondo of City Press, Pieter-Louis Myburgh of News 24 and Suzanne Venter, among others, have been targeted for exposing corruption. 

In July this year a panel discussion, “Inside the #GuptaLeaks”, organised by the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism was violently disrupted by members of Black First Land First (BLF) — a movement that is linked to the Gupta family, according to documents released in the #GuptaLeaks. Meanwhile Peter Bruce and Tim Cohen, a columnist and editor with prominent daily Business Day, were threatened and assaulted by the same group weeks before.

Critical civil society organisations — those that speak out on corruption and governance issues or bring government decisions to the courts — also have experienced covert attempts at intimidation such as office “break-ins”. Last year the offices of the Helen Suzman Foundation were broken into, with the armed robbers getting away with documents and computers.

Although South Africa’s rating for its respect for civic space outshines that the other Brics countries, there is much work to do if the country is to realise the lofty goals of its 1994 Constitution. 

Once considered democracy’s great hope, post-apartheid South Africa is sadly regressing in its respect for the fundamental freedoms envisaged by the drafters of its famously progressive Constitution. Of course, the country can still change course, and become once again a leader in promoting human rights at home and abroad, but it needs to act swiftly.

As South Africa prepares to assume the Brics chair in 2018, there will be an opportunity for it to take up this leadership role. Beginning with this year’s summit, South Africa should support Brics’ further development of people-to-people exchanges to ensure that the voices of citizens are brought into the debate about what genuinely broad-based South-South cooperation can achieve. 

Citizens’ voices are the resources Brics can benefit from.

A practical first step that South Africa can take is to begin preparations for a wide-ranging public consultation on its engagement with Brics and make sure that the 2018 Civil Brics meeting is not just another exercise in ticking boxes, but an effort at genuine consultation.

Corlett Letlojane is executive director of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa and Ine van Severen is a policy and research analyst with global civil society alliance Civicus.

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