Civil Society Organizations in Southern Africa Concerned about “shrinking civic space”

Credit; Caritas Zambia

Civil society organizations (CSOs) from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region have expressed concern about the decreasing civic space in member nations of the regional bloc. 

In a statement issued following the August 16-18 SADC People’s Summit, officials of the CSOs who include Caritas Zambia say human rights defenders and dissenting voices “have difficulty expressing their views holding leaders accountable and accessing fundamental freedoms amidst worsening human rights conditions and shrinking democratic space across the SADC region.”

“We share concern with the increasingly shrinking civic space characterized by violations of these rights, harassment of civil society actors, and enactment of repressive laws with unclear, overbearing, overstepping, or outright brutal enforcement parameters by state security agencies,” they say in the statement circulated Sunday, August 28.

The CSO officials from the regional economic community that brings together 16 member states, including Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, regret “the increased cases of state-sponsored harassment and abuse targeting student leaders and young Human Rights Defenders.”

They have also called on the 16 member states of SADC “to align legislative frameworks, policy and practice to constitutional provisions that guarantee civic and political rights.”


They further call for the inclusion of youth leaders and organizations in “SADC’s Non-State Actors Engagement mechanisms as well as in structures tasked with the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts.”

In their statement, the CSO officials say Eswatini, DRC, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, are nations with escalating human rights abuses, and underscore the need for an inclusive national dialogue “facilitated by a respectable neutral facilitator” as a way of addressing the challenge in Eswatini.

The people of God in Eswatini are awaiting the national dialogue that was promised by their government at the height of pro-democracy protests in July last year.

The CSO officials say the leadership of SADC needs to send a “special envoy authorized to engage with the King, that will include political parties as well as the government and civil society to find a long-lasting solution to the political crisis in Eswatini.”

They also demand the “immediate release of all political prisoners and credible guarantees for the safe return of all political exiles” and call upon King Mswati III to “lift all restrictions and laws that impede on the freedom of the media, civil society and dissenting voices.” 

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For DRC, the CSOs call upon SADC leadership to condemn the Rwandan military operation in the Eastern part of the country.

Rwandan troops have reportedly conducted military operations in Eastern DRC between November 2021 and July 2022.

According to Reuters, a United Nations Group of Experts has “gathered solid evidence of the presence of, and military operations conducted by, members of the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) in Rutshuru territory.”

The Rwandan government has denied having any operations in the DRC. 

In their statement, the CSO officials urge SADC to establish “a Regional Treaty to regulate peace missions and military interventions in response to conflict.”


“We call for a SADC led peace process in the Eastern DRC to be guided by local communities, and oriented towards addressing the root causes of the conflict and to ensure long term stability,” they say. 

They also demand that SADC takes the necessary measures to “address xenophobia and the ill-treatment of DRC nationals and other victims of military conflict, climate change and internal displacement in Southern Africa.”

In Zimbabwe, the CSO officials say the leadership of the Southern African regional bloc needs to intervene “to resolve the shrinking civic and democratic space, political violence and proposed restrictive legislation.”

“We urge SADC to deploy an observer mission to Zimbabwe to assess and monitor the human rights situation before the 2023 harmonized election,” they say. 

They also call on the Zimbabwean government to reverse the introduction into law of the Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Amendment Bill saying it is repressive as it threatens the existence of CSOs and other voices.  

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In their statement circulated August 28, the CSO officials have also called on SADC leaders to address climate justice, gender equality, and food security in the nations. 

“We urge SADC leaders to ensure the resilience of food systems in the SADC region by investing in sustainable agriculture and rural development, with an emphasis on agroecological initiatives, as anchors for improved food availability and household purchasing power,” they say. 

They add referencing gender equality, “We further reiterate our call for Governments in the SADC region to implement the ‘zebra principle’ of equal representation between men and women in decision making processes.” 

The CSO officials also call upon SADC member states to “provide financing for income generating projects to women and girls to curtail prostitution and Gender Based Violence (GBV).

On climate justice, the CSO officials say SADC leaders need to “commit to engendered, rights focused and people centered actions to help poor and vulnerable groups in the Region to address climate adaptation challenges and increasing losses and damages.”

They also urge governments in the SADC region to collectively engage global leaders “for increased loss damaging finance” at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) scheduled for November 6-18 in Egypt.

Magdalene Kahiu is a Kenyan journalist with passion in Church communication. She holds a Degree in Social Communications from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). Currently, she works as a journalist for ACI Africa.