A mixed bag for human rights in Southern Africa in 2019




A number of key events — with implications for human rights in Southern Africa — shaped 2019. While it often felt that the bad outweighed the good perhaps it’s fairer to say the overall picture was a mixed bag.

The year began on a positive note when, in January, the Angolan Parliament adopted a penal code that decriminalised same-sex relationships. This was a victory for human rights in a country where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people have faced attacks, discrimination, intimidation and harassment by both state and non-state actors.

This legal reform is welcome, but a lot of work remains to be done because people in consensual same-sex relations continue to experience homophobic violence.

The beginning of João Lourenço’s presidency in 2017 was met with hope and optimism about the prospect for increased human rights protections in Angola, but the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly remained under threat. State security forces were used to stifle dissent, including as recently as last week in Cabinda province, where as police used excessive force to break up a peaceful pro-independence march. It will be important for Lourenço to retain the optimism of his early days, including tolerating dissent and the enjoyment of civil and political rights by all.

In Botswana the high court ruled in favour of decriminalising consensual same-sex relations. With the judgment, Botswana said “no” to intolerance and hate and “yes” to hope and equality for all people.

But the country’s continued use of the death penalty bucks the regional and global trend towards abolition. Newly-elected President Mokgweetsi Masisi signed the death warrant of Mooketsi Kgosibodiba, resulting in his execution by hanging on December 2. Kgosibodiba had been on death row at the Gaborone Maximum Security Prison after his conviction for murder in December 2017.

In March, the region suffered one of the worst natural disasters in its history when Cyclone Idai hit Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Homes were destroyed as the storm ripped off roofs and walls collapsed, in many cases with families still inside. More than 1 000 people died and three million more were left without food, water, shelter and infrastructure. A lot is still at stake for the affected people, whose rights to adequate housing, food, water, health and education remain restricted. The governments are struggling to meet the cost of reconstruction and the international community has not mobilised the support needed to help people to get back on their feet.

In Malawi, people with albinism continue to live in fear because they are targeted for their body parts in the belief that they bring wealth and good luck. But the government is willing to work with civil society organisations to stop this practice, including adopting a national action plan to combat crimes against this vulnerable group. This has seen some unresolved murder cases going to court for prosecution. A budget has also been allocated for the implementation of the plan.

But the minister for homeland security, Nicholas Dausi, said that attacks on people with albinism had not reached crisis levels. Yet more than 20 people have been killed and more than 100 crimes, including attempted murders and abductions, have been committed against people with albinism since November 2014.

Dausi’s pronouncement overlooks the plight of people like Yasin Phiri, who was killed in Kande, Nkhata Bay. On the night of December 31 2018, eight people broke into his house and brutally killed him while his nine-year-old son, George, looked on in horror. Witnesses said the suspected perpetrators hacked off Phiri’s arms, removed his lower teeth, cut off his private parts and removed one of his lungs.

In Zambia, people have united to fight back against attempts to erode fundamental rights. Civil society has successfully challenged the government’s efforts to amend the controversial Bill 10, which sought to give the president more powers, which included weakening the role of the judiciary. The Bill has now been deferred to the National Assembly for further consultations.

On the other hand, the onslaught against media freedom in Zambia continued in 2019, with privately owned media houses continuing to be under the scrutiny of authorities for their independent reporting. On March 4, the Independent Broadcasting Authority suspended independent pay television station, Prime TV, for 30 days, citing failure to comply with the conditions of its broadcasting license.

In Zimbabwe the security forces have, throughout the year, responded ruthlessly towards anyone who dared to speak up or protest to demand their socioeconomic rights. In January, authorities cracked down on people demonstrating against fuel prices hikes, committing serious human rights violations including killings and torture.

In August, police assaulted peaceful protesters who had gathered in Harare to voice their concerns about hunger and their declining standards of living. The response by the police demonstrated just how far the authorities will go to repress dissent.

Throughout 2019 governments from Angola to Zimbabwe used the notion of national security to justify human rights violations. But the truth is, there is no national security or sovereignty without the people whose human rights are at stake.

But it was clear that people were not prepared to stand by while their human rights were violated.

Deprose Muchena is the regional director of Amnesty International’s Southern Africa office

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Deprose Muchena
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