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Southern Africa’s human rights problem


In a Christmas Eve message to party supporters, Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema reflected on a tough year. “We understand 2017 has been a difficult and stressful year for most of us…This is also the year that the country witnessed a total breakdown in the rule of law and loss of fundamental freedoms leading to the brutal arrests of citizens for crimes they never committed.”

Hichilema’s anger is especially poignant because Hichilema himself spent a large chunk of 2017 in prison, after being arrested in a violent midnight raid on his property. The accusations against him were spurious, bordering on the absurd – his main offence was to have briefly delayed a presidential motorcade – and the charges were eventually dropped, but not before Hichilema had spent four months in a squalid cell.

Of course, Hichilema’s critique of President Edgar Lungu’s administration should not be taken at face value: it’s his job to exaggerate the government’s faults. Although troubled, Zambia is still far from “a total breakdown of law and order”, and remains one of the most stable and peaceful countries on the African continent. Nonetheless, he is right about one thing: the trend in Zambia is indisputably towards a more closed political space as government cracks down on media, civil society and opposition parties, making it harder and harder for citizens to hold their leaders to account.

Ominously, in southern Africa, this trend is not confined to Zambia. “Southern African governments clamped down on vocal journalists, activists, and opposition politicians in 2017,” said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2018 World Report, released on Thursday.

Dewa Mavhinga, HRW’s southern Africa director, added: “Southern Africa’s leaders should do more to uphold and protect human rights and meet the basic needs of all the people. Improvements in fundamental freedoms are vital to the betterment of people’s lives across Southern Africa.”

The report paints a grim country-by-country picture of human rights abuses in the region.

In Angola, new laws threaten freedom of expression and the press. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, security forces are routinely firing live rounds into crowds of protestors as President Joseph Kabila seeks to keep himself in power. In Mozambique, impunity rules, with no one held accountable for abuses committed in recent armed clashes. In South Africa, respect for the rule of law and human rights remains poor, exemplified by the fact that the president himself is facing 783 counts of fraud, racketeering and money laundering. In Swaziland, an already poor human rights situation has got worse with new laws that grant sweeping powers to police to crackdown on protesters. And in Zimbabwe, a new president with a dark past has yet to implement any of the reforms necessary to ensure credible elections, curb the excesses of security forces or reinforce the independence of the judiciary.

In an unstable international environment, it’s easy to see why southern African leaders may feel emboldened to behave badly. A major factor, of course, is the sudden abdication of the United States from its self-declared role as ‘leader of the free world’. Under Donald Trump, the US no longer exerts the moral influence that Barack Obama’s administration (despite its own flaws) was able to bring to bear on regional leaders.

Similarly, a distracted South Africa has failed to use its status as regional hegemon – and, this year, as chair of the Southern African Development Community – to encourage positive change, with President Jacob Zuma repeatedly failing to raise human rights issues with his counterparts. As HRW observes in its report: “In 2017, South Africa missed key opportunities to consistently place human rights at the center of its foreign policy.”

This might be about to change. South Africa is in the process of leadership renewal, which means that Zuma may not be calling the foreign policy shots for much longer. Will a new South African president be brave enough to stand up for southern Africa’s beleaguered journalists, activists and opposition leaders?

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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