Democracy Under Threat: Shrinking of Democratic Space in SADC

Coordinator’s Brief

The SADC region is now emerging as one of the hotspots in the continent despite it witnessing transitions and change of leaders in the previous years. Though the region has seen a change of leaders in Botswana, Zambia, Angola, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique and recently Zimbabwe in the last quarter of 2017, democratic space has been shrinking as witnessed by the increase in human rights violations.

The increasing levels and alarming consistency with which governments in Southern Africa are muzzling democratic governance, violating human rights, manipulating elections and suppressing people’s democratic aspirations through brute force of various other political chicanery has been appalling.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, DR Congo, Madagascar and Mozambique whose elections were riddled with contestation, violence and brutality in the recent past are a testimony to the urgent need for reclaiming the democratic space in the region. In Zimbabwe the state has become more brutal and vicious since the departure of Robert Mugabe and to date the country has had the largest number of activists charged with treason since the military takeover by Emmerson Mnangagwa in November 2017. Swaziland remains a problem child under the absolute monarchy of King Mswati with scores of activists either being jailed or having to skip the border for their safety. Zambia under President Edgar Lungu has regressed and worsened from being a free and open society to an increasing authoritarian as the government has been on a relentless campaign to clampdown on civil society activists. The DRC, Malawi and Mozambique have witnessed electoral malpractices that have led to the elections being disputed as a true representation of the “people’s will”.

Essentially, civic work is becoming dangerous in most countries across the region with some (countries) adopting laws aimed at constraining the operations of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) as part of what is described as a broader strategy by African governments to narrow space for democratic activity. Consequently, countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique have lined up such laws to control and monitor the operations of NGOs deemed political. Ruling elites in Tanzania, Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Swaziland, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho are thus alleged to be authoring and presiding over the death of the promise of liberation: Democracy; which they were once epitomized. In fact, the ‘Liberators’ have turned ‘Oppressors’.

The current situation in Southern Africa flies in the face of the postindependence wave of ‘democratic transitions’, particularly in the context of what has been largely referred to as the ‘third wave of democratization’ that swept across Africa with the introduction of multi-party electoral democracy. Beginning in 1989, After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the region underwent a transition from one party-state/dominion to multpartyism. This led to new governments ascending to power in Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi with great promise of transparency, good governance and economic transformation. Two decades later, the results have been rather disappointing as witnessed by increased corruption, poor service delivery and undemocratic electoral processes that continue to produce heavily contested electoral outcomes.

Of late, there are increasing attempts and a shift in strategies and tactics by governments in Southern Africa to close the little available democratic
space. Southern African governments have adopted subtle and deft control and suppression means hinged on ‘strict legalism’ and ‘rule by law rather than rule of law’. In simple terms, governments have found it prudent to pay lip service to democratic norms whilst, practising authoritarianism informed by benign politics, hence giving rise to the discourse of competitive authoritarian regimes.

Instead of using primitive and crude tactics of violence and naked brutality, they are now moving to annihilate civic space through the enactment of draconian laws that seek to curtail the operating space of civil society organisations (CSOs). Countries such as Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia and Swaziland have thus, taken the lead in criminalizing human rights and development work in their respective countries. The same period has also seen increased arrests, abductions and surveillance on human rights defenders and activists.

This compendium gives a kaleidoscopic view of the SADC region’s hotspots giving a snapshot overview of the prevailing situation.

It gives an outline of the various human rights violations in specific countries, then moves on to articulate proposals of what needs to be done particularly by the regional body (SADC) and finally, proposes possible action points by social and solidarity movements in the region that may assist in restoring democracy in the region. This publication is a collective of country positions as presented by various civil society leaders at the Crisis in Zimbabwe Regional Conference on ‘Shrinking Democratic Space’ held in South Africa on the 27th of June 2019. The conference brought together representatives from social movements, churches, labour and other non-state actors drawn from at least 9 SADC countries:

Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, South Africa and DRC. Other participants included representatives of key South African, Southern African and International NGOs and think tanks as well as research institutions based in South Africa.

Inputs and discussions allowed more detailed engagements on the status of the state of democracy and human rights in the region, in particular, the challenges being faced by human rights defenders (common and country-specific), zooming in on the practical opportunities for civil society and how it may organise to address these challenges. The country positions, herein contained in this compendium answered critical questions on what needs to be done to address these challenges and who should civil society engage and how?

The conference sought to fulfil the following objectives:

  • Share, Learn and Review country level positions on the state of democracy and human rights, and together consolidate regional positions and a strategy for a coordinated regional level democracy campaign targeting hot-spot countries as a way of defending and deepening democracy in Southern Africa,
  • Review, kick start and strengthen action-oriented processes that connect people’s ongoing daily struggles against environmental, social and economic injustices to interventions against political injustices.
  • Create space for continuous dialogue with policy-makers on key issues identified.

Equally, the compendium comes against a background of activities and work done by the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition with its civil society partners in SADC over the years in contribution to the restoration of democracy in the region. Ever since, the CiZC convened the first-ever regional conference on ‘The Shrinking of Democratic Space’ from 21 – 22 November 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Pursuant to that, the Zimbabwean civil society under the leadership of the Coalition made inroads in engaging the regional body SADC organs, namely the SADC Secretariat in Botswana in 2018 and also the historic meeting with then SADC Chairperson President Hage Geingob of Namibia on the 30th of October 2018. These actions are part of the coalition’s work regionally in trying to bring to attention the democratic deficits which need the urgent attention of SADC.

The compendium also proved to be a useful discussion document at this year’s SADC Peoples Conference held in Tanzania in August 2019 and it helped broaden conversations during the sessions on Shrinking Democratic Space, convened by Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. Therefore, this publication is an important step and part of the many efforts aimed at building and strengthening agency of civic organisations working on democratisation and liberalizing civic space. It works on the development hypothesis that a coordinated and stronger than ever civil society voice will, in turn, sustain pressure on governments to respect and uphold human rights as well as begin to make solid commitments to democratisation.

Download full document here (3.8MB PDF)

Source: Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition