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S. Africa: The Human Rights Council highlights the risks faced by environmental defenders & the widespread attempts to silence their voices

‘Murders of environmental activists remain unsolved’ 14 March 2021

It is almost five months since environmental activist Mama Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down in her home in Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal, after raising concerns about a coal mine in the area. No arrests have been made. Ntshangase had received threats to her life but carried on with what she perceived to be the only way to protect her community’s health and livelihood. On March 3 the UN expert on human rights defenders used Ntshangase’s story to begin a new report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that highlights the risks under which many environmental defenders operate, and the widespread attempts to silence their voices.

… Beyond the individual tragedy and injustice, there is another reason UN expert Mary Lawlor highlighted the SA case in her global report. Killings of activists create an environment of fear and can have a chilling effect on the people around them. Or, as Lawlor framed it, “there is no more direct attack on civil society space than the killing of human rights defenders”. One of us has been living in fear for years due to regular threats related to his environmental activism. As a community rights defender opposing coal mining in Fuleni, a small rural village not far from the place where Ntshangase was killed, Billy Mnqondo heard gunshots at the gate of his house and was warned by community members that he and his family will be in trouble if he continues to oppose mining.

… SA’s courts are beginning to take a stance against these tactics. In February, the high court in Cape Town issued a ruling that strengthens the constitutional right to freedom of expression. The court held that a defamation suit brought by an Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities, and its local subsidiary against three attorneys, two activists and a social worker regarding their statements about its operations, is an abuse of legal process. The defamation trial may still proceed, but activists can now defend themselves by arguing that the court should assess the Slapp nature of the case. After this ruling it will be harder for corporations to use SA’s legal system against citizens and activists to silence and intimidate them when they raise human rights concerns or seek accountability for past abuses.

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