A delegate attends the 37th Ordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government in Pretoria, South Africa, August 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Johannesburg) – Southern African governments clamped down on vocal journalists, activists, and opposition politicians in 2017, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018.

South Africa, which chairs the Southern African Development Community (SADC) between August 2017 and August 2018, should play a leadership role in placing human rights issues on the regional agenda. Southern African countries whose human rights records raised serious concern in 2017 include Angola, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.

“Southern Africa’s leaders should do more to uphold and protect human rights and meet the basic needs of all the people,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Improvements in fundamental freedoms are vital to the betterment of people’s lives across Southern Africa.

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

Angola

Angola elected a new president, João Lourenço, in September, ending almost four decades of José Eduardo Dos Santos’ repressive rule. Voting was peaceful, but marred by severe restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. President Lourenço has made significant changes in the state media, opening space for diversity of opinions and political views. However, freedom of the press and expression remains under threat after parliament approved and the president signed a problematic new media law despite opposition from the journalists’ union and other groups.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The year was marked by political violence and government repression as President Joseph Kabila held on to power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ended on December 19, 2016. As authorities stalled plans to organize elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, government officials and security forces systematically sought to silence, repress, and intimidate the political opposition, human rights and pro-democracy activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters.

A power-sharing agreement mediated by the Catholic Church and signed in late 2016 called for elections by the end of 2017 and for steps to de-escalate political tensions, including the release of political prisoners. Yet many of the main tenets of the so-called New Year’s Eve agreement were ignored, as government officials continued to delay elections and repression continued.

In November, the national electoral commission published a calendar setting presidential, legislative, and provincial elections for December 23, 2018. Opposition leaders and activists denounced the calendar as a new delaying tactic and called for Kabila to step down immediately and for a citizens’ transition to be organized to restore constitutional order and organize credible elections.

Security forces shot peaceful demonstrators, jailed activists and party leaders, and shut down media outlets as the government increasingly resorted to violent repression. On December 31, security forces fired live bullets and teargas within church grounds during mass and at crowds of worshippers in peaceful protest marches against the unfulfilled New Year’s Eve agreement. Priests and other church officials were among the dozens arrested or wounded in Kinshasa and other cities.

Security forces killed at least 90 people in a crackdown on the Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) political religious sect in Kinshasa and Kongo Central province between January and March, and in August. Some BDK members also used violence, killing at least five police officers.

Between August 2016 and September 2017, violence involving Congolese security forces, government-backed militias, and local armed groups left up to 5,000 people dead in the southern Kasai region.

In eastern Congo, the security situation remained volatile. Numerous armed groups carried out deadly attacks on civilians, while government security forces committed serious abuses. From June to November, at least 526 civilians were killed in North and South Kivu provinces, and at least 1,087 people were abducted or kidnapped for ransom.

Mozambique

A ceasefire in December 2016 ended armed clashes between the Mozambique government and the former rebel group, now a political party, Renamo. But there has been complete impunity for abuses by both sides since late 2014, including killings, enforced disappearances, kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, and destruction of property.

The authorities also failed to prosecute government officials implicated in the debt scandal, in which state-owned companies took out loans in 2013, ostensibly to set up a state-backed tuna fishing company, but did not disclose the debts to the IMF and donors. There was no accountability despite an international audit that detailed the transactions and identified the people involved.

South Africa

Despite having built a robust and independent judiciary essential to protect rule of law, in 2017, South Africa’s record on human rights and respect for the rule of law remained poor. Corruption; poverty, compounded by high unemployment and limited opportunities to generate income; and crime significantly restricted South Africans’ enjoyment of their rights.

On October 13, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) upheld a High Court decision to prosecute President Jacob Zuma on 18 charges and 783 counts of fraud, racketeering, and money laundering. Zuma called the SCA decision disappointing, and the National Prosecuting Authority has yet to reinstate the fraud and corruption charges against him.

The government still has significant progress to make to ensure that many of South Africa’s children and young adults with disabilities are not denied their right to education. The absence of a national strategy to combat the high rate of violence against women and the continued underreporting of rape remained a concern. The government sent mixed signals about its support for the International Criminal Court (ICC) and global justice following a decision by domestic courts that the government’s notice of withdrawal from the court was unconstitutional and invalid. At the end of the year, the government indicated it would pursue the withdrawal in the parliament.

In August, South Africa assumed the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for a year but has not used the role to promote and support human rights improvements in the region. The election in December of Cyril Ramaphosa as the new ruling ANC party president presents opportunities for South Africa to place human rights at the center of its domestic and foreign policy agenda.

Swaziland

Ruled by an absolute monarch, King Mswati III, since 1986, Swaziland represses political dissent and disregards human rights and rule of law. Political parties have been banned since 1973; the judiciary is severely compromised; and repressive laws are used against critics despite basic rights guarantees in Swaziland’s 2005 constitution. During 2017, Swaziland struggled to uphold the rights of its estimated 1.4 million people amid numerous political and socioeconomic challenges, including the highest HIV infection rate in the world, at 26 percent, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

In September, King Mswati told the UN General Assembly in New York that his government grants every citizen an opportunity to contribute to the country’s social, economic, cultural, and political development.

But recent amendments to the Public Order Act allow prosecution of critics, with fines and imprisonment for inciting “hatred or contempt” against cultural and traditional heritage. The amendments grant sweeping powers to the police commissioner to arbitrarily halt pro-democracy meetings and protests and crush any criticism of the government.

Zimbabwe

In November, the military ousted President Robert Mugabe and replaced him with his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a military leader with his own long record of bloodshed. Mugabe had presided over intensified repression of peaceful protests against human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation.

His administration disregarded the rights provisions in the country’s 2013 constitution and implemented no meaningful human rights reforms. Parliament passed a constitutional amendment to grant Mugabe powers to appoint senior members of the judiciary, further eroding the judiciary’s independence. Police used excessive force to crush dissent and harassed and arbitrarily arrested human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and government opponents. The police and state security agents have widespread impunity for abuses.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold national elections in 2018, but the authorities have not introduced any meaningful security sector, media, or electoral reforms to ensure that citizens can participate in credible, free, and fair elections. The new Mnangagwa government has yet to ensure the independence and enhance the professionalism of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and update the voters’ roll, which is under ZEC’s exclusive control.