/ 11 May 2023

Civic space and human rights in South Africa and globally 

Ine Van Severen - CIVICUS, Athandiwe Saba - Mail & Guardian, Thabiso Mogapi - Action for Social Justice, Lysa John - CIVICUS, Corlett Letlojane - HURISA.

‘More than ever before the relevance of civil society and community mobilisation and action is so apparent’

“The civic space in South Africa is shrinking, and it is shrinking fast,” said Corlett Letlojane, the director of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA).

The space for free democratic participation is shrinking in South Africa, and by the look of things, it is civil society organisations that could save us from the continued erosion of democracy. Elected leaders misuse democratic institutions and resources meant for the people so they can enrich themselves at the cost of perpetuating poverty. Activists are stretched with working in increasingly dangerous conditions that are emotionally taxing, often with little to no resources. 

CIVICUS has released a report that says 42.2% of the world’s population live in countries with repressed civic space, and a mere 3.2% live in countries with open civic spaces — South Africa is part of the 14.9% that have “obstructed” civic spaces. South Africa ranked 58 out of 100. 

We’re not very different from the rest of the continent and the world, says Mail & Guardian deputy editor, Athandiwe Saba, talking about the restriction of media freedom for journalists to hold those with power accountable. Saba said that she and other investigative journalists have faced intimidation for speaking truth to power. 

Media freedom, freedom of expression, the right to assemble freely and access to accurate and truthful information must be protected.

Letlojane said: “We embraced the constitutional values that compelled us to not sit and watch as human rights violations were taking place. We have contributed to our human rights progress and the rest of the world. But now we have become a country that does not care for human rights. We need to demand justice, and we need to demand it from our governments.”

One of the ways that South Africa has regressed in upholding constitutional principles of equality for all who live on our land was passing the Refugees Amendment Act of 2017. The Act excludes people from seeking asylum in South Africa and revoked the refugee status of many, rendering them vulnerable and illegal with nowhere to seek justice. 

Activists working at the forefront of helping those in need access basic services, experience what Annah Moyo from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) called “vicarious trauma” in addition to fatigue, and burnout. The work is traumatic, and if civil society is to remain vigilant during the long walk to freedom, then self-care needs to be a priority within civil society to avoid activists running themselves into the ground.

“The criminal justice system doesn’t support victims and survivors. The national police systematically fail to help them: it doesn’t channel enough resources to help victims, and the available resources are misused due to a lack of expertise,“ said Amanda Nomnqa, founder of SheIsBrave, a South African civil society organisation that provides mentorship and empowers young girls and women to gain independence and overcome gender-based violence (GBV).

In other African countries, such as Ghana, Senegal and Uganda, there has been increased hatred towards LGBTQ+ people, with Uganda passing an anti-homosexuality bill that prescribes the death penalty or imprisonment for up to 20 years for people perceived as LGBTQ+. Journalists face intimidation, detention and attacks if seen as “promoting homosexuality” or reporting on issues that challenge their governments’ stance.

According to LGBTQ+ activist and founder of Action for Social Justice, Thabiso Mogapi, there are growing cases of discrimination against LGBTQ+ learners in education, and the department does not intervene despite several tip-offs. Mogapi noted hate crimes against lesbian women where no arrests were made despite information being provided to the police.

The criminal justice system in South Africa has proven itself incapable of addressing issues of GBV, as a result of corruption and the mismanagement of public resources.

Despite a constitution that protects the dignity and rights of sexual minorities, LGBTQ+ people continue to face homophobia, stigma, discrimination and lack of access to healthcare services, with little to no mental wellbeing and sexual health resources.

Existing LGBTQ+ organisations lack funding to help create these spaces. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+, and their status can be attributed to the homophobia they face in their homes and communities. Mogapi believes that a homeless centre for LGBTQ+ people would help create a safe space for LGBTQ+ people who have been disowned and discarded by their own families and communities.

“Our main challenge is the lack of financial and material resources to work with our target communities. Lack of funding has limited the scope of our work because we are forced to focus mostly on zero-budget activities. We depend on fundraising and sometimes have to contribute funds from our own pockets,” they said.

“More than ever before the relevance of civil society and community mobilisation and action is so apparent. It is the power of community action and citizens mobilising that is helping sustain or strengthen the values that we represent,” said Lysa John of CIVICUS. “Civil society has also emerged as the major force for transformation and continues to be the most powerful drive for climate action, against corruption, and the mobilisation for gender and LGBTQ+ rights. Although the right to protest is very much under attack, civil society continues to reinvent itself despite the scale of retaliation (online, or other varying forms of censorship and surveillance) that we have never seen before.”

The CIVICUS Monitor reports that 100 million-plus people worldwide are now displaced, and most of these are a result of the climate change crisis worldwide. The people who suffer the worst effects of climate change, due to natural disasters or unethical business practices, are the poor. 

In April, Durban rains caused floods and mudslides that affected electricity and water services and caused infrastructural damage estimated to be more than R10 billion. More than 6 000 people were left homeless, with many evacuated to emergency shelters in churches, public halls and governmental buildings.

In the Eastern Cape, civil society organisations and coastal communities took oil giant Shell to court for its use of seismic waves to explore the Indian Ocean for oil and gas reserves. According to Sinegugu Zukulu — programme manager of Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC), a South African civil society organisation that works with coastal communities of Eastern Mpondoland to protect their land, livelihoods and culture — the extraction of the fossil fuels can potentially destroy the marine protected area and affect its spiritual and heritage significance. The area also creates employment opportunities for the communities through tourism.

“We wanted to have Shell’s exploration permit revoked because we saw it as a threat to our livelihood and to a safe environment. We don’t want an oil spill on our coasts … for most coastal communities, the Wild Coast is also their source of income: they sustainably profit from the environment, for instance by catching fish and selling it in villages and to tourists. The tourism industry employs many people, so this is another way in which people depend on the coastline. People training to become traditional healers go to the coast to get in contact with their ancestors. We believe the ocean is our final resting place, so our ancestors lay there,” explained Zukulu in an interview with CIVICUS.

Disinformation has given rise to extremist forces that lead to authoritarian regimes, regimes that end up taking the law into their own hands to silence dissent and censor media freedom. During elections, the polarised nature of debates makes people susceptible to disinformation.

Civic spaces and freedoms are shrinking everywhere, and it is naive for any of us to believe that we are exempt from the growing right-wing attitudes sweeping the world. It is time we were vigilant and stood up for our right to the truth.

Article written by Welcome Mandla Lishivha, author of Boy On The Run and researcher for the Nkoli: Vogue Opera, a musical opera on the life & trials of anti-apartheid and gay activist Simon Nkoli, composed by Philip Miller.