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Opinion

Liberators turned ruthless and insensitive oppressors

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FORMER Mozambican and South African First Lady Graca Machel — who was married to two illustrious African liberation struggle giants, Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela — raised one of the most troubling questions, ironies and betrayals of our times as she urged people to rise and fight authoritarian regimes oppressing them in the region, most of which are products of former liberation movements.

Machel, whose country, family and husband looked after Zimbabwean liberation struggle movement Zanu PF and its leaders at huge political, economic and personal sacrifice, said some liberators have now abandoned people in poverty in pursuit of personal aggrandisement and wealth.

She said this was an ironic betrayal as most governments in the region come from the tradition of anti-colonial and liberation struggles in which their leaders were prepared to die, although they are now terrorising their own people.

People, she added, must stop this. But then for this to happen though, people must first stop talking and come together to decisively act for change.

This came as human rights defenders at a summit in Maputo, Mozambique, which she addressed, said the southern African region is in a perilous state of democracy and freedom, as people battle to stop authoritarian repression and rampant abuses by post-colonial governments that ironically fought for liberty during liberation struggles.

The summit was organised by the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network in partnership with Mozambique Human Rights Defenders Network, Advancing Human Rights in Southern Africa, United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights regional office for southern Africa and Amnesty International.

Its theme was Defending Rights and Protecting Democracies In the Face of Rising Inequality and Authoritarianism. It reflected on the ominous reality facing people in the region and unprecedented risks of repression and persecution of defenders and activists by governments and private actors, who often work together in violating rights with impunity.

 Some of the key speakers involved included Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network director Washington Katema and its chairperson Arnold Tsunga, Amnesty International director for East and southern Africa Deprose Muchena, Open Society of Southern Africa director Siphosami Malunga, regional representative for southern Africa at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Abigail Noko, Accountability Lab Zimbabwe chief of party (director) Dr McDonald Lewanika, Advancing Rights in Southern Africa Programme, Freedom House, chief of party (director) Tiseke Kasambala, Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa from the University of Cape Town and former Mozambican, Accountability International programme manager Keikantse Phele, Professor Adriano Nuvunga, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development & Steering Committee of the Mozambique Human Rights Defenders Network and South Machel, among others.

The speakers painted a grim picture of the human rights situation in the region, widespread inequalities, rising social unrest and protests due to leadership, governance and policy failures, digital repression, and despotic regimes’ use of Covid-related restrictions to crack down on human rights defenders as some of the issues characterising authoritarian consolidation and democratic backsliding in the region.

There were constant references to countries such as Eswatini, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. But Zimbabwe and Eswatini were key references for countries reeling from democratic deficits and human rights crisis.

The beacons of hope were Zambia, Malawi and the Seychelles. South Africa remained a positive reference on many issues though. However, the overall trajectory was gravely concerning even though it has integrated the human security approach into its constructions of, and policy frameworks for, peace and security.

Southern Africa, a region defined by its anti-colonial and civil wars, is undoubtedly enjoying relative peace and stability, despite continued political tensions in Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.

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