Mandeep Tiwana
Mandeep Tiwana

A slippery slope in Southern Africa

The news from Southern Africa is certainly depressing. The region is experiencing a major backslide in democratic freedoms further damaging the reputation of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and its ability to bind its members to common values.

Recent restrictions on civil society in the region whether through regressive laws, policies or vigorous persecution of activists fly in face of the SADC treaty which calls upon its 14 members to uphold human rights and the rule of law and promote common political values through democratic, legitimate and effective institutions.

The current reality on the ground is major cause for human rights defenders to question whether it is time to write the obituary for SADC’s potential to be a body committed to progressive pro-human rights values.

Zimbabwe with its long standing political stalemate — an embarrassment to SADC sunk to a new low this March with six human rights activists being convicted for conspiracy to incite public violence for the mere act of watching televised recordings of the Arab Spring protests.

Civil society groups are interpreting the convictions as a clear message from the government that Zimbabweans are not even free to meet and discuss momentous global events even in private spaces.

In Malawi, the president’s office recently issued a lengthy public statement warning civil society organisations and media houses against criticising the president. The statement threatens dissenters that it carefully monitors social networks that it considers hostile and finds “unacceptable” phone in radio programmes that offer a “platform for callers to castigate or insult the Head of State”.

In July last year, 18 people were killed and scores injured in a government sponsored crackdown on demonstrators protesting against the poor state of the economy and poor governance.

In Swaziland, human rights continue to be trampled upon in the face of sustained demands for democratic freedoms as King Mswati III gets ready to cap 26 years of authoritarian iron fisted rule.

The government is in the process of drawing up a law that would make it illegal to insult the king on social networks. The country’s justice minister told the senate that “we will be tough on those who write bad things about the king on Twitter and Facebook. We want to set an example.”

The situation in Angola — which is fast degenerating into a police state — is taking a turn for the worse as government forces continue to brutalise protestors brave enough to demonstrate against the all-pervasive hold on power by President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, Africa’s second longest serving president who has occupied office since 1979.

The Congolese government which has been ruthless in its persecution of dissidents at home has now taken the fight abroad. Since February, raids and deportations are ongoing against opponents of President’s Kabila’s government living in South Africa. The message to the diaspora from the Democratic Republic of Congo is that is that the government is prepared to go to any length to silence critics.

Worryingly, South Africa, the region’s leading democracy has taken a number of regressive steps. Principal among these is the passing of the Protection of State Information Bill by the National Assembly which places a number of hurdles for civil society members seeking to uncover information about corruption and human rights violations. The government has also hinted that it wants to review the powers of the Constitutional Court. Whatever be the justification, any move to weaken the independence of the judiciary will be a serious blow to democracy in the country and the region.

The writing is on the wall. Once inspiring expectation as a region which could offer hope for a democratic blueprint for the rest of the continent, southern Africa appears to hurtling down an abyss as far as respect for human rights and democratic norms is concerned. The critical question is whether there’s enough political will in SADC as a regional institution to exercise much needed influence over member states to abide by shared values professed on paper.

Mandeep Tiwana is the policy and advocacy manager at Civicus.

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