South Africa: threats and attacks against civil society actors continue

Statement at the 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council 

UPR Outcomes Adoption – South Africa

Delivered by Nicola Paccamiccio

Thank you, Mr President.

Mr. President, Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA), the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and CIVICUS welcome the government of South Africa's engagement with the UPR process.

We also welcome the decisions by the High Court and Constitutional Court in 2019 and 2021 respectively, declaring as unconstitutional the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act (RICA), which was subjected to misuse by the authorities who sometimes used it to spy on journalists. Furthermore, we welcome the 2018 Constitutional Court’ judgement reinstating the High Court constitutional invalidity of section 12(1)(a) of the Regulation of Gatherings Act 205 of 1993 for considering a criminal offence the failure to give notice or inadequate notice. We further appreciate the President Ramaphosa’s decision to return ‘The Protection of State Information Bill’, also known as the ‘Secrecy Bill’, which disproportionately infringes on the rights to the freedom of expression and access to information, to the National Assembly for consideration of his reservations about its constitutionality.

Since its last review, South Africa partially implemented one of the five recommendations relating to civic space. We welcome that South Africa accepted all 19 of the 19 recommendations it received during this cycle.

Despite these improvements, threats, intimidation and attacks against HRDs, in particular women HRDs (WHRDs) and those defending land and environmental rights, housing rights and whistleblowers, and the impunity thereof, remain a grave concern. The killing of Mama Fikile Ntshangase, the repeated attacks and killings of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), of trade unionist Malibongwe Mdazo, of whistleblower Babita Deokaran and the fleeing into exile of whistleblower Athol Williams highlight the dangerous context in which all activists and human rights defenders operate.

Journalists who expose deep-rooted corruption in the security and law enforcement agencies are increasingly targeted by State and private sector spies, as seen in the bugging of journalist Jeff Wicks by officials from Crime Intelligence after his reporting about the police force and Crime Intelligence unit.

South Africa has continued to undermine the freedoms of expression and opinion through restrictive legal framework. The amended Film and Publications Act commenced in 2022 leaves the Film and Publications Board with wide discretion to decide what content is acceptable online, raising concerns that it could be used as a means of censorship for online content. Separately, the Non-profit Organisation Amendment Bill 2021, poses a big risk that the law may be used to control international funding of organisations or media that could be seen as critical of the government. We call on the government to withdraw this Bill as its compulsory registration of foreign CSOs that intend to operate in South Africa represent a threat to the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of association.

The continued use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests by security forces in response to protests is another cause for concern. Peaceful protests have been met with excessive force by police officers, including through the use of rubber bullets and teargas, which at times have led to the killing and injury of protesters and bystanders.

HURISA, CSVR and CIVICUS call on the Government of South Africa to take concrete steps to address these concerns by developing a legislative framework to protect human rights defenders in the exercise of their work, including taking urgent measures to establish a commission of inquiry into the killings, and by bringing the Non-profit Organisation Amendment Bill in line with standards on freedom of association.

We thank you.

Civic space in South Africa is rated as "Obstructed" by the CIVICUS Monitor