South Africa rescues reputation as human rights champion in SOGI vote

Association

Events in November cast doubts over South Africa's reputation as an international chapion of human rights. Civil society organisations were heavily critical of an attempt by African states to destroy the mandate of a UN independent expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). Thanks to intensive civil society advocacy and a last-minute intervention by a group of Latin American states, the mandate was saved during a session on 21st November at the UN General Assembly in New York. South Africa, which had earlier attracted scorn for abstaining from the first vote to approve the expert's mandate in July, in the end South Africa voted against a bloc of nations predominantly from the African continent calling for the suspension of the post. 

Ahead of the vote, national and international human rights organisations had called on South Africa to make its stance clear. South Africa has been one of the leading champions of the promotion and protection of LGBTI rights, including through the enshrinement of such rights in the country's constitution. Arvind Narrain, the Geneva director for ARC International, a nongovernmental organisation that advocates for LGBTI rights at an international level said

'But to now say to our faces that sexual orientation and gender identity has no place in international law — when South Africa has contributed so much to the development of progressive jurisprudence around this — is shocking and very, very worrying.'

Peaceful Assembly

As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, South Africa has seen a wave of protests by students. Recently however, the 'Fees Must Fall' protests have lessened in intensity following the arrest of the student protest leaders. 

On 16th October, student leader Mcebo Dlamini was arrested by South African authorities in Johannesburg. Dlamini, a prominent student leader at the University of the Witwatersrand, spent 21 nights in a remand prison following his provocative activism. Despite his time in jail, Dlamini's release reinvigorated this drive for activism during a speech upon his release on 9th November. 

The arrest of opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema on 7th November, under the 1956 apartheid era's Riotous Assemblies Act, also raised concerns about peaceful assembly violations. This archaic piece of legislation was used during the apartheid era to undermine the black majority's freedom of assembly. The arrest followed Mr. Malema's speech at a political rally that implied black South Africans should invade unoccupied land in the country. Whilst his statements had the potential to cause mayhem in the country, observers are very worried that the government has fallen back on apartheid-era legislation which was originally developed to suppress citizens' fundamental rights and to 'protect Europeans against non-Europeans'. 

Expression

South Africa's new Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane was embroiled in a scandal when she ordered staff in her office to change the news from one television station (eNCA) to another (ANN7). ANN7 is perceived as sympathetic to government because it is owned by the Gupta family, who are embroiled in corruption allegations stemming from their relationship with president Jacob Zuma. The Public Protector argued that she wanted a variety in the channels that provided a news feed to the office in order to get different perspectives. However skeptics viewed her decision as politically motivated.