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OPINION: Why South Africa Must Not Lose Plot on Civil Society

Mandeep Tiwana & Teldah Mawarire work for CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 5 2016 (IPS) - South Africa celebrated human rights month this March with President Zuma recalling the “heroism of our people who stood up for their rights.” However, this same month which commemorates the sacrifices of those who took part in the struggle against apartheid and those who died in the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960 was not a happy one for today’s civil society activists and organisations engaged in defending human rights. Two shocking incidents raise troubling questions for the future of civil society in the country.

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Mandeep S. Tiwana

A day after observing national human rights day, the land and community rights activist Sikhosiphi Rhadebe was brutally assassinated near his home. A day before national human rights day, the offices of the venerable Helen Suzman Foundation were robbed of their equipment, including computers containing information about politically sensitive cases being pursued by the organisation.

Sikhosiphi Rhadebe was the chair of the Amadiba Crisis Community (ACC), which has led a campaign for several years to protect the ecologically fragile Xolobeni area of South Africa’s pristine Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape province from harmful mining activities. The struggle of the ACC is a principled one. It opposes mining on the grounds that it will adversely affect local agricultural activities and potentially lead to forced displacements.

Sikhosiphi Rhadebe was rallying the local population against the activities of Transworld Energy and Minerals (TEM), a South African subsidiary of the Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities (MRC) which wants to mine the shoreline for titanium. His killing with eight gunshots to the head by suspects masquerading as police is not the first instance of violence against those who oppose the mining activities – community activists have reported being subjected to lethal attacks and raids on their houses by local authorities – but it is probably the most brutal.

Teldah Mawarire

Teldah Mawarire

Two days prior to the attack on Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, in a robbery orchestrated with military precision, several computers and important documents were taken from the offices of the Helen Suzman Foundation in the upmarket Parktown area of Johannesburg. The Foundation had recently challenged in the High Court regarding the fitness to hold office by the head of the country’s premier investigation agency, Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation also known as the Hawks.

With its mission to promote and defend constitutional democracy, the Helen Suzman Foundation has been involved in a number of high profile cases, including acting as amicus curie or friend of the court in the case involving the non-compliance by South Africa’s government with an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir. In a consequential ruling, a few days before the robbery, the Supreme Court of Appeal held the government’s failure to arrest war crimes suspect, Omar Al Bashir when he visited South Africa to attend an African Union Summit in 2015 as “inconsistent with its constitutional duties.”

Both of these instances raise worrying concerns among civil society in South Africa about the price of taking on the rich and powerful. A joint statement issued by 82 organisations after the assassination of Sikhosiphi Rhadebe points out, “For years, poor people’s movements in different parts of the country have experienced regular harassment, intimidation, detention and violence against their members. It is worst felt when the media are far away and when the victims are poor, black or rural, and when major industries stand to make billions in profit.” This sentiment is borne out of the fact that there have been no convictions for the pre-orchestrated massacre of 34 miners by police in Marikana over three years ago. Those who died in Marikana were seeking a wage increase from the profitable and politically well- connected Lonmin mine.

As the Helen Suzman Foundation case shows, it’s not just activists and organisations deep in South Africa’s hinterland who face intimidation. The Pretoria based Southern Africa Litigation Centre which is working with the Helen Suzman Foundation on the Al Bashir case has been subjected to derogatory rhetoric by several political figures who have questioned its sources of funding to insinuate that it is operating at the behest of foreign governments. A civil society statement following the not-so-ordinary robbery at the Helen Suzman Foundation, executed by well-dressed suspects who knew exactly what they were looking for, laments that the ‘raid’ happened in “a context of increasing hostility by some within the state towards civil society.”

Civil society organisations have urged South African authorities to thoroughly investigate Sikhosiphi Rhadebe’s murder as well as the attack on the Helen Suzman Foundation with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice. Positively, the murder case of Sikhosiphi Rhadebe has now been taken over by the Hawks but there are few indications that the Helen Suzman case will receive urgency.

While Sikhosiphi Rhadebe‘s murder and the Helen Suzman raid are serious setbacks for civil society, in a positive development South Africa voted in favour of a landmark resolution on the protection of defenders of economic, social and cultural rights at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In this instance, South Africa broke ranks with its BRICS partners, China and Russia, who sought to undermine the protection of rights defenders by proposing several hostile amendments to the text, which were overruled. The resolution supported by South Africa recognises the important and legitimate role of human rights defenders, expresses grave concerns at the risks faced by them and their families and calls upon states to take all necessary measures to ensure their rights and safety. It is now up to the country to reflect on what this means in reality, with the Rhadebe and Suzman incidents being cases in point.

With the country facing several tests in its nascent 21 year old democracy, the role of civil society in dealing with poverty and inequality while addressing gaps in governance and social cohesion is ever more relevant. So far, despite challenges, South Africa’s myriad – and vibrant – civil society groups have been more or less able to publicly express their concerns and get on with their work to advance human rights and social justice. But the events of this March could mark a turning point. Tellingly, there has been no public condemnation of the two shocking incidents by any senior government official.

United Nations Secretary General, Ban ki Moon has called civil society, the ‘oxygen of democracy’, lauding its role as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth. With its raging contemporary debates on corruption, economic downturn, racism and student protests, South Africa needs its civil society more than ever to come up with innovative solutions to complex national problems. Let’s hope the democratically elected leaders of the country are paying attention. Implementing the recent UN resolution could be a good start.


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