South Africa: Urgent calls for the government to act against rising killings of HRDs

CIVICUS and Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA) call on the South African government to urgently denounce the ongoing killings of human rights defenders in the country and act decisively to identify the perpetrators of such heinous acts.

Increasing attacks and killings of human rights defenders amidst the silence of the South African government have created an environment of fear among human rights defenders and the people around them. Since 2016, about 30 activists have been victims of such attacks, including murder, forced disappearances, intimidation and harassment.  

Most recently, on 5 April 2022, human rights defender Nokuthula Mabaso, a leader of shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, advocates for residents' rights in informal settlements, was brutally assassinated. On 8 March 2022, Ayanda Ngila, a young leader in the Commune who had twice been jailed on ridiculous charges, was assassinated, while Siyabonga Manqele was gunned down on 15 March 2022.

In the Kwazulu Natal province, a mining activist Fikile Ntshangase was murdered in 2020. In 2016, Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, was shot dead at his home by unidentified assailants. He led a community initiative against Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC), an Australian-owned mining company, and its local subsidiary TEM to access the titanium-rich Xolobeni coastal dunes.

Similarly, fatal shootings have targeted whistleblowers, including Babita Deokaran – a senior health official at her home in Johannesburg, in September 2021. Babita was a witness to the Special Investigation Unit's contagious multimillion Covid-19 PPE tender. These fatal events continue to spotlight the safety and security of activists in South Africa.

“As violence against human rights defenders escalates, the South African government can no longer afford to be indifferent., We urge the government to carry out an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the killings of all the activists in recent years, intending to publish the results and bring those responsible to justice in accordance with South African laws and international standards,” said Corlet Letlojane, Executive Director, HURISA.

In 2018, a health rights activist, Nomawethu Kunene from the West Rand, disappeared from her home and her whereabouts remain unknown to date.  She was privy to the life Health Esidimeni scandal that exposed the removal of mentally ill patients from a well-functioning state health facility to homes of some NGOs. Reports highlight a rise in extrajudicial executions of activists promoting environmental rights.


South Africa has been lauded as a champion for protecting civic space and the rights of activists in the continent because of its progressive legal framework. However, the situation has been deteriorating, with activists, human rights defenders including LGBTQI+, migrant rights campaigners and individuals continuing to live and operate in a hostile environment characterised by hate speech, death threats and killings. The recent spate of violent attacks against HRDs and murders of activists reminisces the brutal regimes that the country went through. The South African government should urgently take steps to respect and protect the rights of these community rights defenders.

For more information on civic space violations, visit the South Africa country page on the CIVICUS Monitor.

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