The assassination of Human Rights Defenders in South Africa is increasing, our civic space is shrinking and threats and intimidation against activists and whistle-blowers are becoming commonplace. This needs urgent action and attention from the government.
We plead with you as the President of South Africa, to honour the commitment that South Africa made in November 2022, when the state agreed to protect Human Rights Defenders as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. At that time, South Africa acknowledged and accepted the recommendations made by other states in the United Nations’ UPR that the government should develop and implement legislation to protect Human Rights Defenders.
Human Rights Defenders, activists and whistle-blowers are agents of justice: they sacrifice their lives for the wellbeing of their fellow community members, while performing a responsibility which should be borne by the government, which has a Constitutional obligation to protect the rights of its citizens.
Human Rights Defenders play an integral role in our democracy. Their safety and wellbeing should be protected. Instead, Human Rights Defenders are being killed in increasing numbers with impunity. Activists working in all sectors of civil society are being subjected to threats of violence and intimidation by both state and non-state actors. Women, land rights activists and environmental rights defenders are at particular risk.
Here are just a few of the deplorable incidents which have occurred recently in South Africa:
- Abahlali BaseMjondolo – a community organisation dealing with land, housing and other social justice issues which affect shack dwellers throughout the country has lost 25 of its members since 2009. Only three of the twenty-four activists have received justice through the arrest and sentencing of their killers.
- In August 2021, Babita Deokaran,the former Chief Director: Financial accounting at the Gauteng Health Department was killed in front of her own home for exposing corruption within the department. Six perpetrators were prosecuted and sentenced to jail terms, but the masterminds behind the killing remain unknown.
- In October 2020, in the north KwaZulu-Natal community of Somkhele, activist Mam Fikile Ntshangase was shot and killed, execution-style, by four men in her home in front of her 11-year-old nephew for having opposed the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine. Mam Fikile was one of 227 people around the world who lost their lives in 2020 defending their homes, their land and livelihoods, and the ecosystems we all depend on. No one has been arrested for her murder.
- In 2016 Bazooka Radebe, an activist opposing a proposed titanium mine in Xolobeni, in the Eastern Cape, was shot eight times in his own house in front of his family, by two men posing as police officers. He was protecting his family’s farming and grazing land which the proposed mine was set to take away, depriving them of their livelihoods. Bazooka’s killers are still at large.
- This year, on August 15, land activist Jomo Keromeng was shot 16 times by two men in his own home in front of his mother and child, while fighting for rights of the poor and the vulnerable people in the Sefikile village in the Bakgatla Ba Kgafela area of the North West.
- In July 2023, Dorothy Mmushi, a former Eskom employee, received numerous death threats for exposing corruption in Eskom.
These are only a few of the hundreds of people in South Africa who have been subjected to violence or who are facing death threats and intimidation for protecting the rights of poor and vulnerable communities.
Our government must keep its word and takes action to protect Human Rights Defenders by:
- publicly condemning the killing of Human Rights Defenders
- developing legislation that recognises the significant contribution of Human Rights Defenders and ensures their protection, in collaboration with affected groups
- taking urgent action to investigate and arrest the killers of Human Rights Defenders
South Africa is a country that commands respect in the global community for upholding human rights, and for living and practising the principles of democracy. While Human Rights Defenders are increasingly targeted around the world (between January 2015 and May 2021, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre recorded more than 3,100 attacks worldwide against community leaders, farmers, workers, unions, journalists, civil society groups who raised the alarm about irresponsible business practices), if you take action now, South Africa will not become known as a state where such violence is tolerated.
We must ensure that the Human Rights Defenders who are risking their lives to protect the rights of all those who call South Africa home are protected.