African governments crack down on ‘free speech’

Written by Staff Writer by Martin Brinkmann, CNN

Last week’s crackdown on civil society groups by government forces in southern Africa has provoked a bitter debate about the region’s free speech and the role of the “community of conscience” that strongly opposes oppression.

The failure of the southern African electoral pact, known as Omazu, to protect civic groups following a long period of dictatorship has created further frustration among activists.

One of the government’s early acts since returning to power in March elections was to issue a travel ban against more than 250 members of civil society groups, which include media and labor groups, as well as the legal aid organization Renovate Nelson Mandela.

In May a vote to enforce the travel ban was blocked by the Zambian Supreme Court, but a further 12 members were sanctioned when the government decided last week to introduce new security requirements for individuals who wish to attend a ROTF conference.

A demonstrator at a peaceful protest in protest against the travel ban on Southern African government loyalists in May this year in Zimbabwe. Credit: CEDRIC GORONS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Guzelian business journalist-turned-activist Esimien Kashakula was unable to attend because she wanted to voice support for the banning of alleged journalist Zekesela Mapeno from going to the conference.

“Organizing the conference and ensuring attendance were clearly the purposes of the conference which is now not possible,” Kashakula said in a statement.

“As citizens of South Africa, we shall not accept another civil society organization being censored and blocked from meaningful participation in the democratic processes of our region,” she added.

The broader context

In May an editorial to “the interior of my country” condemned the travel ban as “abhorrent and undemocratic.

“It runs contrary to freedoms in every aspect.”

“The ban does not only affect the members of the organization — but also the broader context,” said Post, writing for the South African English-language newspaper the Daily Maverick.

Under the new security measures, many civil society activists have been forced to cancel their conference attendance. Credit: JOSEPH KARO/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Blogger and writer Frendi Ndakolo-Kodhembo, whose organization Students from Stekelenburg Mentor opened their annual student conference in Durban — and were denied permission to host it — told CNN they had “already been forced to cancel” their meeting due to the travel ban.

“Police officials chased us out and totally disrupting our visitors as they questioned them and our staff who we had just invited,” she said.

The “kidnapping” of Kashakula has triggered widespread anger and support among Southern African observers.

“What happened is a terrible violation of our right to freedom of expression,” said Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, via the state broadcaster SABC in June.

“I hope very much this government will reverse this decision and reverse it quickly so this kind of closed-door approach to democracy does not continue,” he added.

In a statement released on Monday the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) said the decision to extend the travel ban was an attempt to ensure national security “in a climate of uncertainty after the elections.”

“Currently there is a low level of activism and no threat to national security,” DIRCO added.

Protests in Australia and US

Southern African analysts argue that the travel ban — and the wider nature of the ongoing crackdown — is politically motivated, aimed at muzzling dissent and intimidating groups that want to get involved in campaigns to expose corruption and the mismanagement of public resources.

The mood on the ground in Southern Africa has been sharply divided over the next 12 months.

South African anger over the travel ban is being mirrored in Australia, where politicians and prominent artists have spoken out against an order by the country’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton which demands that anyone wishing to enter the country get approval from security officers.

Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has been severely criticized by an increasing number of politicians and artists. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Sulu King, one of Zimbabwe’s most prominent opposition leaders, has also launched an “Australian Redemption” appeal for funds to ensure the creation of a fund to permanently house Zimbabwean “artists and activists that fled political persecution.”

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has fired many senior officials in his ZANU-PF party, including vice president Constantino Chiwenga, who had accused Mnangagwa’s predecessor Robert Mugabe of rigging the 2017 elections.

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