Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Women in Lesotho should be celebrating another step towards true equality this week. And some of them should be preparing for Chieftainship. But they’re not. Instead the cause of women’s rights has suffered a severe blow – thanks to the reactionary ruling of the country’s Constitutional Court in the Masupha chieftainship case.
Arguing as only lawyers can that preventing women from becoming chiefs solely because of their gender was merely ‘differentiation’ rather than discrimination, the justices ruled that the archaic (and clearly discriminatory and unconstitutional) male-only-chieftaincy system must remain in place.
Sadly, the country’s highest court sided with the patriarchal dictates of ‘customary law’ rather than the constitutional right to equality – in complete contrast to a recent ruling in Botswana that made it clear that the constitution trumps custom when it comes to issues of (in)equality.
And what makes the decision worse is that this ruling runs contrary to the trend in recent years. Not only has Lesotho taken some significant steps towards greater equality, but courts across the region have also made progressive judgements on similar issues. Indeed, the South African Constitutional Court ruled that women could become chiefs in a landmark 2008 case.
It is unclear whether Senate Masupha will pursue the case any further. But what is crystal clear is that gender equality in Lesotho is still a long way from being realised. The hope was that the country’s top judges would show the way – and that the society would then follow. But clearly the judges aren’t convinced that women are really equal, despite what the country’s supreme law might say about equality.
There is still an awfully long way to go but sex workers in South Africa can now start to imagine a time when they will not be arrested for simply doing their job. When they will not be beaten, robbed and raped because they sell sex. When they will not be routinely abused by police and ignored by health professionals – the very people who are meant to help and protect them.
When they will be able to enjoy the same basic human rights as everyone else.
And it’s thanks to the Commission for Gender Equality in South Africa, which has finally called for the repeal of all laws against sex work because it believes that criminalisation of the profession violates the Constitutional rights to human dignity, freedom of security of the person, and freedom of trade, occupation and profession. "We believe it is the only viable approach to promoting and protecting the dignity and rights of sex workers,” said CGE commissioner Janine Hicks.
And that is the point. Criminalisation does not stop sex work. All it does is stop sex workers from being able to exercise their rights. All it does is leave them vulnerable to the long list of abuses catalogued in the Open Society Foundations Rights Not Rescue report – and particularly to sexual and physical abuse from law enforcement officials.
Unsurprisingly, the backlash has already started. And even more unsurprisingly, it has been led by the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), which does not seem to care that criminalisation of sex work leads to serious human rights abuses, encourages cops to turn criminal with impunity and does not stop people from selling or buying sex.
The ACDP believes that the majority of South Africans are opposed to decriminalisation. Maybe they are. But views change. And the decision of the Commission – along with a similar call from the ANC Women’s League last year – will help to foster that change.
Suddenly Swaziland is in the news - from South Africa to the UK. But as per usual, it is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The latest weird and wacky story from the country concerns an apparent ban on witches flying on broomsticks above 150 metres. Cue a host of cut and pasted reports in newspapers and online sites far and wide about the quaint customs of the world's favourite crazy Kingdom.
Did you know that broomsticks are considered similar to any heavier-than-air transportation device in Swaziland? Ha! ha! ha! Did you know that no penalties exist for witches flying below 150 metres? Ha! ha! ha! Did you know that Swazi brooms are short bundles of sticks that don't have handles? Ha! ha! ha!
Needless to say Swazis aren't laughing. Just like they don't laugh when the international media descends on the kingdom to 'report' on the reed dance and all those 'bare-breasted maidens'. Just like they don't laugh when the international media writes about the King's latest bride. Whether it's number 14 or 15 or 16 is no laughing matter to Swazis.
And instead of laughing, they wonder why the world's media doesn't scratch the surface of Africa's last absolute monarchy to see the horror of acute poverty and human rights abuses that lurks just below. Of course, a few journalists do. But most don't. Where, for example, is the coverage of the recent start of registration for the ludicrously undemocratic elections - or 'selections' as everyone in Swaziland refers to them? Or reports on 40 years of absolute rule on April 12th - four decades without political parties; four decades during which 1 million people have been ruled absolutely by 2 men - King Sobhuza II and his son King Mswati III?
It's fine to write quirky stories every now and then. But the real story of Swaziland needs to be told as well. And the real story is not at all funny.
The ‘conflict minerals’ campaign has been hugely influential, particularly in relation to the DRC. It has focussed attention on how the illicit trade in all sorts of minerals – such as coltan, cassiterite and tantalum – has fomented conflict and facilitated mass human rights violations. However, it has also helped to divert attention away from other mining-related abuses and from the reality that conflict minerals are everywhere – because everywhere you go, mining companies and their paid-up protectors in government are in conflict with local communities.
Just take the case of Kawama – a village on the outskirts of Lubumbashi. In 2009, the police bulldozed 500 houses without warning in retaliation for the activities of a few illegal miners at the CMSK copper mine, which towers over the village. 500 families lost their homes and all their possessions – even though none of them were involved in illegal mining. Needless to say, no one has been brought to book for this crime. No individual compensation has been paid. And no government minister has even bothered to set foot in the town to talk to the community, which is now planning to 'take the fight to court'. Sounds like conflict to me.
Or drive deeper into Katanga to the massive Tenke Fungurume copper mine. Freeport McMoRan has invested US$3 billion into the mine – the biggest mining investment ever in DRC – and claims to have carried out all sorts of corporate social responsibility projects. But talk to community members from Tenke and Fungurume and the picture is very different. They talk – angrily – about a company that does not put its money where its mouth is; a company that has done next to nothing to promote socio-economic development; a company that has no real desire to partner with the communities even though it be mining copper next to them (and under them) for the next 50 years. Sounds like conflict to me. Minus the shooting – but conflict nevertheless.
And sadly, it’s not just DRC. Copper mines in Zambia pollute the air and the rivers. Coal mines in Mozambique dump villagers in the middle of nowhere with few – if any – basic services. Police shoot dead 34 striking workers at a platinum mine in South Africa. Sounds to me like conflict minerals are everywhere.
And so it came to pass. After weeks of hate speech and ‘gay-bashing’ by homophobic politicians and religious leaders, two men have been arrested in Zambia for the ‘sin’ of being gay. Ever since Home Affairs Minister Edgar Lungu launched into his latest anti-homosexual tirade a few weeks ago, it was only a matter of time before the police – and public – took action. And now they have.
According to the central police chief, Standwell Lungu, two men from the town of Kapiri Mposhi have been charged with the “offence of sodomy or having sex against the order of nature contrary to the laws of Zambia.” And it seems as if it were the men’s relatives who reported them to the police.
It is a shocking turn of events – but sadly not surprising. Zambia’s record on human rights has taken a hammering in recent months as Sata's government has cracked down on opposition politicians and civil society activists. And in this atmosphere, it was always likely that the anti-gay rhetoric spewing forth from political podiums and priestly pulpits would end in public attacks or (as in this case) public spying and finger-pointing – and that the police would jump at the chance to put some gays behind bars.
What is also extremely sad is that the arrests will be met with widespread popular support. But that does not alter the fact that they are wrong in every way. Locking people up purely because of who they love is a blatant infringement of their universal human rights – whatever the ‘law of Zambia’ or the so-called ‘order of nature’ might say.
It is also another sign – a big flashing neon sign – that Zambia is rapidly sliding down the path marked ‘Malawi under Bingu’, where an increasingly authoritarian government supported by a repressive police force trampled over human rights, democracy, good governance and the rule of law.
Back then, key donors were quick to criticise the Bingu regime for its attacks on gay rights (which always precedes attacks on the rights of other groups) and to suspend support when the extent of Malawi’s descent into authoritarianism became clear. Hopefully, they will take a similarly firm position with Sata – before it is too late.
And hopefully, the Zambian authorities will release the two men immediately. But that would be a truly surprising turn of events.