Leaders in South Africa need to focus on delivering fundamental human rights to all living in the country and put this above the politicking, Amnesty International South Africa said ahead of International Human Rights Day.
“Whatever is happening within the country’s political context should not stop government officials and politicians from doing the job they were elected to do,” Amnesty International South Africa Executive Director Shenilla Mohamed said.
“While politicians fight for power and jostle for positions, it is clear that the right to life, safety and dignity of people has taken a back seat and there is no accountability.”
Women and girls continue to live in fear because of the high rate of gender-based violence, while the high crime rate in general in South Africa continues unabated. Yet there is very little action from the police all the way through the justice system.
Whistleblowers and human rights defenders also continue to be treated with disdain and are either being killed or intimidated for doing the right thing, while attacks on civil society organisations, especially by government officials, continues. This goes against South Africa’s constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and undermines our democracy.
“Earlier this year when President Cyril Ramaphosa gave his state of the nation address, we called on him to show that he and his government take accountability seriously, but we have seen very little of this,” Shenilla Mohamed said.
“We cannot allow the mechanisms which ensure accountability in this country to fall away and call on all who live in South Africa to speak out and ensure that this does not happen.”
We are still sitting in a situation where women and girls’ rights to safety, dignity and life are not being taken seriously.
The gang rape of eight women in Krugersdorp early this year is an example where justice was pushed away from the victims. The rape charges against 14 men arrested in connection with the rape were dropped in October. At the time it was reported that the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence, including some DNA results that could not link the suspects to the crime.
Failures in the criminal justice system means that victims of these crimes will continue to be robbed of the justice they deserve
“We might sound like a broken record, but we will not keep quiet on this issue,” Shenilla Mohamed said.
“There are no words to describe this frightening reality and the fear so many live under. It is not enough that every quarter when the crime statistics are released, the government comes out and says it is ‘shocked’ and ‘more must be done’. This is the broken record we must not accept.”
Human Rights Day marks the end of 16 Days of Activism against GBV, and once again all we have heard are platitudes and empty promises.
The lack of reporting of these serious matters, coupled with the poor investigation of cases and collection of evidence, means that very few victims experience any sort of justice for the heinous crimes perpetrated against them.
It falls on the state to ensure that these accountability mechanisms are working and that people in South Africa feel safe.
“The reality is that the government continues to fail people, especially women and children, who face horrendous crimes against them, with little to no action from the country’s duty bearers. The state has an obligation to protect people’s rights to life and security and we are not seeing this obligation realised,” Shenilla Mohamed said.
Human rights defenders and whistleblowers
Many human rights defenders in South Africa are left with little to no protection from the state.
“These people, who are risking their lives in order to protect people living in South Africa and combat corruption, advocate for human rights, or better the lives of others, are treated with such disdain by the state,” Shenilla Mohamed said.
Human rights defenders and whistleblowers are critical to any democracy because they are a warning sign that lets us know as society, as authorities, that something is going wrong. They expose acts of criminality and abuse by governments, corporations, organisations, and individuals. Without whistleblowers, evidence of large-scale human rights violations would never surface.
Human Rights Day is also the start of Amnesty International’s largest global campaign, Write for Rights. This year Write for Rights is speaking up for those who have paid a heavy price for speaking out. This is why Amnesty International South Africa this year is fighting for justice for environmental activist and human rights defender, Fikile Ntshangase, who was silenced with six bullets in 2020.
“It was because Fikile was a vocal opponent of the expansion of mining operations in her community that she received threats, was intimidated, and eventually silenced,” Shenilla Mohamed said.
“It is alleged that the three hitmen who took Fikile’s life are known to the police in the area, but yet there have been no arrests. This lack of accountability means that activists like Fikile continue to be at risk.”
“We are lucky that there are still people out there who are prepared to put their lives on the line to do the right thing, but the concern is that because of this lack of protection and disdain for their lives, this could also be a deterrent for some who might want to come forward and speak out or stand up for what is right.”
Shrinking civic space
While we continue to fight for accountability there is a worrying trend of shrinking civic space in South Africa and worldwide.
Throughout the year, we have seen politicians openly attempting to smear civil society organisations, making the important work they do difficult.
“The increasing resistance civil society is facing is deeply troubling. Moreover, these attacks tend to occur when the government is challenged, irrespective of how lawful the challenge is,” Shenilla Mohamed said.
“Civil society plays an important role in the country’s accountability mechanism, and if President Ramaphosa and his government are serious about accountability, they will not allow these organisations to be scapegoated and made to live in fear because of the failings of government.”
Accountability starts at the top. We have seen what happens when the government is not held accountable, it is the people who suffer, and it is usually the poor that bear the brunt of this.
Next year South Africa will be sitting on the United Nations Human Rights Council, and while it strives to hold others accountable to human rights abuses, it also needs to look inwards and ensure human rights are being upheld in its own country.
Around the world mass movements, civil society and front-line responders have been rising to combat some of the world’s biggest challenges – from the climate crisis to poor governance, corruption, and a shrinking civil space. But are our tactics leading to systemic and sustainable change? It’s time to step into a new era of people power, where people’s voices are heard and where they are empowered to step up and fight for their rights.
Human Rights Day is observed globally on 10 December. It is the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948.
The UDHR proclaims the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being - regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
For more information or to request an interview, please contact:
Genevieve Quintal, Media and Communications Officer, Amnesty International South Africa: +27 (0)64 890 9224; email@example.com
Amnesty International South Africa office, 97 Oxford Road, Saxonwold, Johannesburg, 2196