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Why Africa Needs a Strong Community of Activists

ICE Graveyard 26/04/2016 Kumi Naidoo
AFRICA © Peter Stuckings via Getty Images AFRICA

For the last ten years we have been told an 'Africa rising' story in which continued economic growth is offered as the only measure of progress that seems to matter. It is a woefully inadequate way to understand the health of our societies at a time when we still face a number of stubborn development challenges that governments and business alone cannot solve. What we have witnessed is largely jobless growth and growth without equity.
 
Inequality plagues us. For too many people across our continent the daily reality remains a struggle for jobs and better access to land and water, healthcare and education. Women are the backbone of many communities and could make a far greater contribution to our economies but often progress on gender equality is slow. Then there is climate change which even the Pentagon sees as the biggest threat to global security. For example, the tragedy of Darfur is now being understood as probably the worst resource war brought about by climate impacts.
 
The scientific consensus is clear: our continent and its people will face the worst of its impacts. Those who have done the least to cause the climate crisis are already facing higher temperatures, more drought in some places and more flooding in others. Amplified by climate change the recent El Nino weather pattern has destroyed crops and livelihoods of millions of people in Ethiopia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Food prices have risen for everyone.
 
Climate change is deepening historical inequality that has long denied people living in poverty access to services, resources and wealth. If our economies are driven by the exploitation of natural resources the proceeds often seem to benefit a few people in power which in turn further entrenches the inequalities of a neo-liberal economic system. Only occasionally do droplets of wealth ever 'trickle down'.
 
Wealth concentrated in the hands of the few seems to fuel a psychological condition we might call 'affluenza' that afflicts far too many politicians and business leaders. They can be shameless. It is indefensible to vote for a double-digit salary increase or award yourself big bonuses when public and private sector workers alike must struggle to get an extra one or two percent.
 
Certain leaders have developed a sense of entitlement clinging on to power for decades by tinkering with constitutions and elections to secure another term. Blood is still being spilt over this is Burundi and the threat of violence hangs over the postponed elections in the DRC. At the continental level the African Union may pass admirable resolutions on human rights and good governance but in practice serious and widespread violations are being committed without sanction.
 
If ever our continent needed a strong, unified civil society it is now. From activists to social movements, lawyers to media we are a tremendous, collective force for good. We protect our communities, our environment and our human rights. Some of us deliver services in times of humanitarian crisis others over the long term where governments cannot.
 
We also hold those in power to account and that is something that can be dangerous. Across Africa and indeed globally a backlash against those who speak truth to power is underway.
 
Civil society is facing a crisis. To silence dissenting voices the right to free speech and to freedom of assembly and association are all coming under attack. Governments in over 100 countries globally and in more than half the countries in Africa have committed serious human rights violations in the last year.  More governments are adopting tactics such as making foreign funding of NGOs illegal and state surveillance of online activities is on the rise as authorities fear the power of civil society to mobilise citizens and protest.
 
Worst of all we are losing courageous activists on the frontline. Globally 156 human rights defenders were killed in 2015 and in the last few weeks the activists Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe in South African and John Waweru in Kenya have both been murdered defending their communities' rights.
 
The terrible irony is that governments know they alone cannot meet the development challenges we face and yet the response by many is brutal repression, and many behind the scenes actions to close democratic space, of the very people, organizations and social justice movements that can offer alternative solutions.
Closing the space for civil society deprives us not only of human rights defenders but also great policy thinkers and organizations that know how to get things done. We in civil society are good at testing and innovating, sharing and learning from our successes and failures and these have been lessons that governments have often drawn upon in the past. Governments must answer a simple question: why would they want to deprive themselves of a reservoir of free policy intelligence that resides in the successes and failures of civil society activists?
 
Confronted by hostility, solidarity is our greatest source of strength. Activists need to support each other in our struggles, as neighbors across country borders and by joining in solidarity with people mobilizing in other parts of the world.
 
To better defend ourselves and our rights we also need to get better organized so this week 900 leading activists and thinkers gathered at International Civil Society Week 2016 (#ICSW2016) in Bogota to share experiences and plan new ways to resist these attacks. This event organized by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and CCONG is a chance to celebrate the many efforts of civil society globally. Colombia is tantalizingly close to a peace accord that will help end 50 years of conflict and there is much to learn from the role that civil society has played. It is a fitting time and place to celebrate the power of people and movements to fight human rights, democracy and development struggles.  
 
We meet mindful that daily struggles against repression must continue.  To some the interests of a mining company and the people who make money from it can be worth more than the rights of a community. Those interests are never worth more than the life of a community leader who defends their rights.
 
It is a critical moment for African civil society. Our collective strength remains clear and if we come together and learn together we can adapt and stand strong.
 
Kumi Naidoo is the Director of the Africa Civil Society Initiative.

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