Thousands participate in the Women's march, while LGBTIQ group loses observer status with the ACHPR

Peaceful Assembly

On 1st August 2018, thousands of women thronged the streets across different cities to march against gender-based violence. The march which was dubbed #totalshutdown called for a complete shutdown of all economic activity across the country.

The month of August is commemorated as the women’s month in South Africa, where issues such as gender-based violence are highlighted.

Soon after the march, on 6th August, the conveners were charged for alleged offences relating to the march. Specifically, they were charged with violating the permit, intimidating the president and violence at the Union Buildings. The protestors had convened at the union buildings, where the offices of the President of South Africa are housed, to deliver a memorandum of demands to the president. However, the South African Police Service later issued a statement saying that the charges against the conveners had all been dropped.

According to the Gatherings Act of 1993, in addition to issuing a notice to protest to authorities, convening a protest at the union buildings requires protest conveners to also secure permission from the director-general of the presidency. Civil society organisations such as Right2Know have criticized these additional requirements as restrictions on the right to free assembly as they expect protestors to seek permission from the same institutions they are demonstrating against.

In other developments, on 20th April, chaos erupted in North West province as police and protestors clashed during protests. The demonstrations, were held to demand jobs, housing and an end to corruption. Clashes ensued when the police used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds of protestors who stoned vehicles and blocked roads with burning tyres. Shops were also looted, and vehicles set ablaze. At least 9 protestors were arrested during the protests.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was away in London attending the Commonwealth summit, cut short his trip to deal with the violent protests. These were the worst protests the country has seen since the president assumed office in December 2017. He called on the public to remain calm and asked the security forces to exercise restraint.

On 20th April, bus workers entered into a nationwide strike to demand pay increments. Over 17000 workers participated in the three week strike that left thousands of passengers stranded. Among the unions’ demands were a pay rise of 12% and a minimum wage of 8000 ZAR ($540). On 15th May, however, services resumed after the unions and employers finally reached an agreement, after several failed attempted negotiations. 

On 1st May 2018, the Congress Of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) held a march in Cape town to demand accountability on a number of issues. Walking down the streets of Cape Town, the protestors made a first stop at the headquarters of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) where they read out a memorandum demanding safer public transportation, reliable transportation services, and the reinstatement of the bus systems. The march then continued and made a final stop outside Parliament buildings where speakers from COSATU read out a memorandum demanding an end to corruption by government and improved workers’ rights including adoption of a minimum wage.

On 2nd May 2018, about 50 members of the Social Justice Coalition gathered at the Cape Town Civic Centre with mattresses, braving the winter rain to protest what they call the illegal evictions in the Kraaifontein and Khayelitsha areas. The protest followed legal actions that had recently been initiated against the city of Cape Town. On 11th April, 217 former residents of Island Informal Settlement in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, with support from Social Justice Coalition (SJC), filed a court application against the City of Cape Town, seeking to challenge the evictions that had been undertaken in the settlement between 3rd March and 3rd April 2018.

On 25th May 2018, a community group, Marikana Youth Development (MYD) finally reached a mutual agreement with the police which enabled the community to hold a peaceful protest against Tharisa Mine company. The community had tried several times to hold peaceful protests, but had faced restrictions from the company and the authorities. It is alleged that the management has been using a court order that was issued in 2017 barring four members of the group from undertaking protests for supposedly being violent. However, the authorities and the management have been using this order to apply to MYD as a whole

Reports related to this incident indicate that workers in small mining towns such as Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga, Free State and Northern Cape faced restrictions on their right to peaceful assembly from state authorities, their employers and the municipalities. 

Association

In July 2018, at the African Union Summit, the Executive Council adopted a binding decision that severely weakens the African Commission on Human and People’s rights (ACHPR), and by extension, severely restricts access for civil society to the ACHPR.

Among others, the AU decision directed the commission to withdraw observer status of the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL), a South African based network of 14 organisations in 10 countries in Sub-Sahara, which works to advance the freedom, justice and bodily autonomy of African women. The AU posits that their work is an affront to ‘African values’. 

Donna A. M. Smith, CAL’s Director of Development, noted:

“The withdrawal of CAL’s observer status also exemplifies the backlash that women and LGBTQI movements are facing on the continent in their work for the recognition of issues of autonomy, sexuality and gender in the human rights framework, as well as persistent attacks on their rights to freedom of expression and association”.

This action  by the ACHPR, which was made under instructions from the AU, is a big blow to CAL and other African organizations that fight for inclusion of women and LGBTIQ persons.

The overall decision by the AU has other serious implications on the general civic space of civil society in Africa at the regional level, and indeed the space of the commission to undertake its human rights work in an independent and objective manner. The decision also requires that;

  • The policy organs of the AU will now have more regular oversight of the ACHPR;
  • The commission is in danger of losing its ability to interpret the Charter (due to a supposed overlap in mandates with the African Court);
  • The commission will require prior approval from the country concerned before reporting violations against that country; and
  • The commission will have to revise its criteria for observer status to be in line with the AU one.

Stripping the commission of its interpretative mandate and requiring the commission to seek approval from states before reporting violations of that particular state only works to tighten the reigns of the African Union (AU) over the ACHPR, and severely undermines the work and role of the commission in protecting the rights and freedoms under the African Charter.

Further, the directive to the ACHPR to align its criteria for granting observer status with that of the AU criteria is a clear indication of efforts by member states to dictate which NGOs the ACHPR interacts with. This is indeed evidently seen in the AU’s directive to the ACHPR to withdraw the observer status of the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL). It also serves to restrict the space for CSO engagement at the regional level by placing restrictive requirements for NGO’s in obtaining observer status. One of these requirements for observer status with the AU is that two thirds of an organisation’s funding be sourced from contributions from its members. This is an overly restrictive requirement for NGOs wishing to engage with the ACHPR, considering that most NGOs in the region rely on foreign funding for their work.

In separate developments, during the recent months, Thabiso Zulu, a well known independent human rights defender and former African National Congress (ANC) youth leader has been receiving threats and intimidation related to his work and vocal stance on corruption in various South African municipalities and government departments. The threats have especially increased since late last year after he spoke at the memorial service of Sindiso Magaqawho had been brutally murdered for exposing corruption in Umzimkhulu Municipality, and after he gave evidence to the Moerane Commission of Inquiry, which had been tasked with investigating political killings in KwaZulu-Natal province. On 6th May 2018, Thabiso reported an attempted attack by unknown assailants who allegedly lay in wait outside his compound waiting for his arrival. Their plans were however foiled after he used a different entry into his home. Previously, in February, he had received a phone call from a police officer who cautioned him against attending a wedding event which he had planned to attend. According to the officer, they had received information that Thabiso would be killed at the event if he attended.

Expression

On 4th July 2018, Right2Know (R2K) released a report titled Spooked: Surveillance of journalists in SA, which focuses on surveillance of journalists in the country. The report documents several cases of surveillance on journalists, and reveals that journalists who expose corruption are especially targeted by state and private sector spies.

Other incidents on surveillance of journalists continue to be documented in other sources. On 9th March, it was reported that an official of the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) illegally obtained a journalist’s private cellphone records after she investigated the organisation’s now-suspended chief executive for corruption. Separately, but also related to this, AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, filed a case in court, to challenge the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA), South Africa’s main surveillance law because — [it] “serves as the basis for the lawful interception of citizens’ communications and has major flaws.” The organisation challenged this law after learning that the State Security Agency had been listening in on private discussions of one of its journalists for several months.