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Symposium on activist repression in South Africa

- Lee-Anne Bruce

Civil society organisations are this week partnering to host the first annual Activist Symposium from 10 - 11 May at Wits University

This week, the Right2Protest Project, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network host the first annual Symposium on Activist Repression in South Africa. From 10 – 11 May 2023, this event brings together human rights defenders, academics, students and representatives from various civil society organisations to discuss strategies for supporting activists facing threats and attacks.

Human rights defenders and other activists around the world face various forms of repression in an attempt to silence them: from meritless law suits, unlawful arrest and detention, to harassment, death threats and physical violence. Activists in South Africa are no exception. Since 2018, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) has worked to document the experience of activists in South Africa to draw attention to this injustice. Our latest report, launched in December last year, unpacks the impact of victimisation felt by human rights defenders in a range of areas, from community activists to whistleblowers.

CALS, the Right2Protest Project (R2P) and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (Southern Defenders) are partnering to host the first annual Symposium on Activist Repression in South Africa this week. The symposium will bring together activists and other stakeholders to critically analyse the situation of human rights defenders in South Africa, and find practical solutions to the widespread repression of activists and the restriction of their rights to protest and freedom of expression.

The symposium takes place on 10 and 11 May 2023 at the Origins Centre at Wits University, with a closed session on day one and an open session on day two. A panel discussion on day two will focus on key regional and international responses to repression and strategies to counter a shrinking civic space, including accountability mechanisms.

“Activism and protest are a means for marginalised communities to voice their concerns and uphold the rights of their communities,” says Omhle Ntshingila from R2P. “Yet, activists are often treated as instigators who should be criminalised and silenced. The threats they face, often at the hands of police and private security, are contributing to a rapidly shrinking civic space for everyone.”

“This symposium is taking place at a time when South Africa is at a political crossroad and facing multiple crises,” says Busisiwe-Kamolane-Kgadima from CALS. “Through this event, we will hear from activists about their needs and also formulate key partnerships with stakeholders able to support activists, hold perpetrators of victimisation accountable, and promote civil and political rights.”

“2023 marks a momentous occasion in the human rights space,” says Bongani Ngwenya of Southern Defenders. “This year, we are not only commemorating 75 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but we are also celebrating 25 years since the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was passed. Both instruments are a cornerstone of safeguarding the protection and commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In practice however, we have witnessed unprecedented risks to human rights defending and the operation of civic space. In response to the complex challenges we continue to experience, we believe that participating in platforms such as this Symposium will provide us all with the opportunity to develop strategies to push back against rising repression and inequalities.”

  • Event: Symposium on Activist Repression in South Africa
  • Date: 10 – 11 May 2023
  • Venue for the open session: Tapestry room, Origins Centre, Wits University

Read the full report on victimisation experiences of activists in South Africa.

For inquiries, please contact:

From the Centre for Applied Legal Studies:

From the Right2Protest Project:

From the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network: