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Civil society actors call on the State to Defend Our Defenders!

19 October 2023 at 8:50 am

Immediate Release
Date: 19th October 2023
Media Contact: Tsepang Molefe: +27 74 405 1257, [email protected]; Lerato Balendran: +27 79 071 7442, [email protected]

Civil society movements gather to call for the protection of human rights defenders and whistleblowers

In the wake of unprecedented threats, attacks and assassinations of community land and climate justice activists, and whistleblowers which continue to escalate with impunity, a group of civil society actors will gather outside the SAPS HQ in Pretoria on Thursday. The group of community-based organisations, climate justice activists, whistleblowers and Human Rights Defenders are acting in solidarity with their communities and those in their movements who have lost their lives in a recent spate of assassinations.

The gathering intends to commemorate and honour the lives of those who have been assassinated, and to call on government actors, particularly the President of the Republic of South Africa, the Minister of Police, and the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services to acknowledge the significant role played by Human Rights Defenders in ensuring that the Constitutional rights of the poor and vulnerable are protected.

“Human rights defenders’ solidarity day of action is very important because it highlights how our system works – by defending profits over human life. This action of action is an important call to government to act with urgency and ensure that ordinary people realise their constitutional right to a safe environment” Thoko Nkosi, member of Sukumani Environmental Justice.

Here are just a few of the deplorable incidents that have occurred recently in South Africa:

Abahlali BaseMjondolo – a community organisation dealing with land, housing and other social justice issues which affect shack dwellers throughout the country has lost 25 of its members since 2009. Only three of the twenty-four activists have received justice through the arrest and sentencing of their killers.

In August 2021, Babita Deokaran, the former Chief Director: Financial accounting at the Gauteng Health Department was killed in front of her own home for exposing corruption within the department. Six perpetrators were prosecuted and sentenced to jail terms, but the masterminds behind the killing remain unknown.

In October 2020, in the north KwaZulu-Natal community of Somkhele, activist Mam Fikile Ntshangase was shot and killed, execution-style, by four men in her home in front of her 11-year-old nephew for having opposed the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine. Mam Fikile was one of 227 people around the world who lost their lives in 2020 defending their homes, their land and livelihoods, and the ecosystems we all depend on. No one has been arrested for her murder.

In 2016 Bazooka Radebe, an activist opposing a proposed titanium mine in Xolobeni, in the Eastern Cape, was shot eight times in his own house in front of his family, by two men posing as police officers. He was protecting his family’s farming and grazing land which the proposed mine was set to take away, depriving them of their livelihoods. Bazooka’s killers are still at large.

This year, on August 15, land activist Jomo Keromeng was shot 16 times by two men in his own home in front of his mother and child, while fighting for rights of the poor and the vulnerable people in the Sefikile village in the Bakgatla Ba Kgafela area of the North West.

In July 2023, Dorothy Mmushi, a former Eskom employee, received numerous death threats for exposing corruption in Eskom.

“Government has a responsibility to take action to protect our Human Rights Defenders from threats of violence and intimidation. Our Human Rights Defenders, including land activists and whistleblowers are agents of justice sacrifice their lives for the wellbeing of their fellow community members, while performing a responsibility that should be borne by the government,” said Robby Mokgalaka, a groundWork Coal Campaigner from KwaZulu Natal.

The November 2022 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council recommended that the South African State take steps to protect Human Rights Defenders and whistle-blowers, a number of whom have been assassinated or are receiving death threats for protecting the rights of poor and vulnerable communities. Our government acknowledged and accepted these UPR recommendations and undertook to implement legislation to protect Human Rights Defenders.

“The wheels of justice are slow and in many instances the police do not take criminal cases reported by Human Rights Defenders seriously. Government’s silence on the killings and abuse of community members fighting to hold on to their basic constitutional rights is also unacceptable, it creates a climate of impunity and lawlessness,” Nontobeko Msweli, member of MCEJO (Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation).

The affected communities call on the Government to publicly condemn the killings, threats and intimidation. They demand that the Minister of Police initiates special investigations to secure the arrest of assassins, and that he prioritises these cases. Finally, they urge Government to follow through on their commitment to develop legislation that recognises the contributions of our Human Rights Defenders and which protects them adequately as per the recommendations in the United Nations’ UPR process. These processes must include report backs on progress to the affected communities.


Relevant reports

SHRC Report on Mining-affected Communities & DMR response,impoverishment%20within%20mining%2Daffected%20communities

We know our lives are in danger

HRD Attacks

UNHCR Periodic Review: UPR41_South-Africa_Thematic_List_of_Recommendations

Women land rights activists
Women, land rights activists and environmental rights defenders are at particular risk.

LAC HRD Resources Repository


Organisations participating in the Solidarity Gathering and signatories to the Memorandum and Open letter:

Abahlali Basemjondol
All Rise Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA)
Alliance for Rural Democracy
Bench-Marks Foundation
Centre for Environmental Rights (CER)
Earthlife Africa
Human Rights Watch
Global Environmental Trust
groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa
Khutala Environmental Care Group
Life after Coal (LAC)
Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa (MEJCN )
MS projects
Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO)
Natural Justice
Right to Protest
South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA)
Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
Sukumani Environmental Justice (SEJ)
VEJA (Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance)
Vukani Environmental Movement (VEM)