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Life of community activist under threat

- Lee-Anne Bruce

Vuyo Sibulali, one of our clients who fights for his community's rights and speaks out against corruption, has received a tip that his life is in danger

Human rights defender and CALS client, Vuyo Sibulali, has this week received a tip that his life is in imminent danger. The threat on his life is the culmination of years spent facing victimisation for his work fighting to promote the rights of his community in Ndakeni and speaking out against corruption in the Eastern Cape.

Vuyo Sibulali is a community activist and father of three from Ndakeni village in Mbizana in the Eastern Cape, who has dedicated his life to promoting the rights of his community. People living in the village, primarily elderly men and women as well as children, have never been provided with proper access to water and sanitation. Instead, they are forced to walk some distance to collect water from various polluted ground water sources, which they share with cattle, pigs and other animals. These water sources – essentially muddy puddles – are expected to service all of the community’s needs, including for hygiene, cooking and cleaning purposes, and even serve as the only water source for the nearby primary school. This necessarily impacts the community’s health, sanitation, education and dignity.

Leaders like Vuyo have been working tirelessly to change this. Over the last few years, he has organised protest after protest and spoken out at every opportunity about the lack of basic services in the village and the possible reasons for the local government’s failures. Unfortunately, Vuyo’s activism has not received a warm welcome. Instead, he has faced everything from arrest to death threats to physical violence and has been forced to leave the village and go into hiding. In January this year, for example, he was badly injured after speaking at a protest which was reportedly broken up through force by police. He later laid a complaint with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and the investigation is still ongoing.

Recently, Vuyo approached CALS for assistance. Since April this year, we have been representing the Ndakeni community and four neighbouring villages in engaging with all levels of government about their lack of access to water. CALS has, on multiple occasions, requested that government provide a timeline for supplying the villages with the basic services to which they are entitled, and asked that urgent measures be put in place to at least provide access to water in the interim. The communities, led by Vuyo, are prepared to move forward with litigation if government continues in its failure to act.

Earlier this week, Vuyo received a tip that his life was in imminent danger, with a number of powerful people in the province reportedly planning an assassination attempt. CALS is deeply concerned about the threat posed to our client and partner and strongly condemns all attempts to harm, silence and intimidate activists in this manner. We have witnessed increasing threats to client activists in the last year, especially those working in rural areas and from mining-affected communities. 

“No-one should be made to live in fear because they want a better life for the people in their community,” says Ariella Scher, attorney at CALS. “All Vuyo and the people of Ndakeni are asking for are the basic needs many of us take for granted, and which government is constitutionally mandated to provide.”

"We are heartened by the response from our donors at Open Society Foundation for South Africa," says Tshepo Madlingozi, CALS Director. "OSF-SA recently announced the launch of the South African Human Rights Defenders Fund, which is intended to provide support services to activists, including for legal representation and emergency relocation, as well as psychosocial and medical support. This is absolutely crucial for activists like Vuyo and others whose lives are under threat."

Read more about the current threat and victimisation of activists in the Eastern Cape.

Read more about the South African Human Rights Defenders Fund

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