Human Rights Watch has issued a “warning” to the South African government, that human rights are “taking a turn for the worst” in the country, citing attacks on the free press and escalating police violence as the main reasons for the regression.
At the launch of its 2014 World Report in Johannesburg on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch’s Southern Africa director, Tiseke Kasambala, said South Africa remained a “beacon of hope” on the continent, but its human rights legacy was gradually being eroded.
South Africa had a critical and vibrant press, Kasambala said, but Human Rights Watch called on President Jacob Zuma not to sign into law the Protection of State Information Bill until a public interest defence clause and sufficient whistle-blower protections were inserted.
Human Rights Watch’s report also cited serious concerns with the police’s use of excessive force, especially in an election year, during which the organisation expects to see more community protests.
“There is an increasingly violent reaction to peaceful protests in South Africa. It seems that every time there are protests in South Africa, the police are heavy-handed, and use excessive force.
We want to see President Zuma and his government make clear that the police must abide by international standards, and use proportionate force,” Kasambala said.
She said these protests were often motivated by financial mismanagement, corruption and a lack of basic services, especially at local government level, citing the death of four people during protests at Mothotlung in the North West as an example.
‘The use of lethal weapons’
“The use of lethal weapons by police must be considered very carefully. We would also like to see better training of the police, and a swifter response by the government in cases where the police have violated the law, and used excessive force,” Kasambala said.
The World Report noted: “Serious concerns remain about the ongoing conduct and capacity of the South African Police Service, both in terms of the use of force in general, as well as the ability to deal with riots in a rights-respecting manner.”
Kasambala added that government had failed to adequately protect immigrants and refugees from xenophobic attacks; in most cases, the government had flatly denied that attacks were motivated by xenophobia.
Human Rights Watch said it was “seriously concerned” that the police had failed to deal with xenophobic violence.
“In May and June , xenophobic attacks on the businesses and homes of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants displaced hundreds of people in Gauteng. More than 60 foreign-owned shops were forced to close following the violent looting and destruction by community members in the Orange Farm and Diepsloot areas of Gauteng.”
Similar attacks against Somali nationals had occured in Port Elizabeth, yet no one had been arrested and charged with xenophobic violence, Human Rights Watch noted.
Instead, the police arrested people on charges of public violence, while local and national government officials denied that the violence was xenophobic.
“Such statements have undermined the development of an effective, long-term strategy by the police to prevent xenophobic crimes by dealing with its root causes,” Human Rights Watch said.