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South Africa Human Rights Defenders Fund aims to provide holistic support and solidarity to community based human rights defenders working on land, housing and environmental rights

Whilst the crackdown against civil society and human rights defenders in Mozambique and Zimbabwe this year received widespread international attention and press coverage, less is known about the steady increase in harassment, intimidation and violence being unleashed against community-based activists in South Africa. Boasting the continent’s second largest economy and a largely peaceful democratic transition following the end of apartheid, South Africa is rightly commended for its vibrant civil society, robust institutions and progressive constitution, which enshrines the fundamental rights of expression and assembly. However, joint research conducted by Human Rights Watch, Earth Justice, GroundWork and the Center for Environmental Rights released in April this year reveals that communities who are exercising these fundamental rights to advocate for the government and companies to respect and protect community members’ rights from potentially serious environmental, social and health-related harms of mining have faced serious reprisals for their activism. The research indicates that there is an ongoing pattern of police misconduct during peaceful protests, that local municipalities often impose extra-legal restrictions on protest in mining affected communities, and that an environment of fear has been created among community activists who have experienced threats, physical attacks and damage to their property, which they believe is a consequence of their activism. It also emphasizes that women are often the first to experience the harms of mining, and are playing a leading role in voicing these concerns, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks. Impunity is widespread, and perpetrators of attacks on activists are seldom brought to justice. For instance, to date, there has been no progress in identifying those responsible for the 2016 murder of leading environmental activist Sikhosiphi Radebe, who was killed for advocating against the harmful effects of an Australian titanium mine in the Eastern Cape.

Community-based activists challenging mining activities are not alone in bearing the brunt of attacks from state and non-state actors. Since its inception in 2005, the Abahalali baseMjondolo shack-dwellers movement calling for housing rights for the poor has faced violence and repression from state authorities. And the nation known for being the protest capital of the world has seen increased intolerance and criminalization of protesters calling for improved government delivery of basic services. Though activists based in South Africa’s major cities are well connected to the international infrastructure of protection of human rights defenders, many attacks against community-based activists located in rural and isolated parts of the country have gone unreported and unnoticed. The newly established South Africa Human Rights Defenders Fund aims to provide holistic support and solidarity to these very activists at the front lines, who are every day challenging state and corporate power to have a say in participating in decisions that will affect their communities and livelihoods.

The Fund, which was launched in Johannesburg on November 28, aims to provide a suite of support services to activists depending on their needs, including providing legal representation, trial monitoring, emergency relocation of defenders and their families, physical, psychosocial, medical and wellness support. It will also work to increase the resilience of activists by building their capacity in the areas of risk management and digital security. The Fund will be housed in the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) based in Johannesburg, and will be guided in its work and decisions by a panel of grass roots activists, environmental and human rights lawyers and academics. While all South African human rights defenders at risk will be able to approach the fund for support, it will prioritize and place a special focus on women human rights defenders and community based activists working to protect and promote the ride of adequate housing and shelter, and the right to a clean, safe and healthy environment.

In his State of the Nation address in June 2019, President Ramaphosa has made it clear that bolstering the mining industry is a priority of his government. This new fund will not be the panacea to the deep-rooted challenges to activism and activists in South Africa, which require concerted upstream interventions to address questions of corporate accountability for human rights violations, strengthen police reform efforts, and shifting of the public discourse to characterize peaceful protesters as engaged citizens, and not as violent mobs. The aspiration, however, is for the Fund to serve as a vehicle of solidarity and strengthen the resilience of front line community activists who work to secure and defend their constitutionally guaranteed rights at great personal risk. Open Society Foundations will be providing the seed funding for this initiative, and it is hoped that the Fund will secure additional financial support from other international and domestic actors who are seeking a mechanism to demonstrate solidarity with South Africa’s activists at a time when an increasingly violent contestation over land and natural resources is occurring between the State, companies and communities across the country.

Sharan Srinivas is a Program Officer at Open Society Foundations’ Human Rights Initiative working on expanding civic space and protection of human rights defenders at risk. Views expressed are my own.


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