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

(Johannesburg) – New leadership in key Southern Africa countries renewed hope for greater respect for human rights, but the region’s leaders failed to live up to expectations in 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.  

South Africa’s poor human rights record remained unchanged after Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, the former labor leader, replaced Jacob Zuma as president in February. In Zimbabwe, post-election violence and a military crackdown on opponents marred the relatively peaceful national elections in July, the first in 30 years without Robert Mugabe on the ballot. Angola, under President João Lourenço, presented a mixed picture: the political and civil rights environment became less restrictive and the courts functioned without apparent political interference, but impunity for abuses continued. Other Southern African countries with checkered human rights records in 2018 include Mozambique and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

“The new crop of leaders across Southern Africa should recognize that their citizens are expecting genuine improvements in human rights,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The people of Southern Africa, like people everywhere, should fully enjoy the basic rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in international law.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.


Lourenço opened an anti-corruption campaign that led to the arrest of some former government and ruling party officials, including relatives of former President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. State security forces were implicated in extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects. The police arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters and activists, and forcibly evicted people without due process, alternative housing, or adequate compensation.


President Filipe Nyusi’s government struggled to protect people’s rights. State security forces failed to protect local populations and committed serious human rights violations in their response to attacks by suspected Islamist armed groups in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. Thousands of people were displaced as armed men attacked villages, burning houses and killing villagers. Authorities also failed to investigate or hold anyone to account for serious abuses, including threats and intimidation against activists and human rights defenders. The government imposed high registration fees on media organizations, threatening their operations.

South Africa

South Africa’s government has still not fulfilled its obligations regarding the right to education for many children and young adults with disabilities. The absence of a national strategy to combat high rates of violence against women and alleged underreporting of rape remained a problem. The government sent mixed signals about its position on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and international justice following a domestic court’s rejection of the government’s withdrawal notice to the ICC. In September, International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu indicated that the government would review its decision to withdraw.

In a notable foreign policy shift, Sisulu announced in November a review of guidelines on how the country casts its votes in international forums to ensure they are underpinned by South Africa’s values and constitutional principles.

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

Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)

King Mswati III, the absolute monarch who has ruled Swaziland since 1986, unilaterally changed the country’s name to Eswatini, but did little to change the government’s political repression and disregard for human rights. Eswatini held national elections in September, but the 1973 ban on political parties continued in place.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) disappointingly concluded that the elections were conducted successfully in a peaceful environment, in line with the country’s constitution and the SADC guiding legal framework.The government made some progress on women’s rights by amending the 1964 Marriage Act and passing the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Act of 2018, which provides the framework to curb sexual and gender-based violence in the country.


Relatively peaceful July elections were marred by political violence when on August 1, soldiers shot and killed at least six people during opposition protests in the capital, Harare. President Emmerson Mnangagwa later established a commission of inquiry, chaired by the former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe. The commission’s report, submitted to Mnangagwa in November, has not been published.

Despite promises for reforms, Mnangagwa, who has a long record of human rights abuses, called on Zimbabweans in December 2017 “to let bygones be bygones,” paving the way for continued widespread impunity for human rights violations by the military and state security agents.

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