Criminalization of human rights defenders in South Africa

Publish Date: 
Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) released a publication on the criminalization of human rights defenders in South Africa. The report, An Anatomy of Dissent and Repression: The Criminal Justice System and the 2011 Thembelihle Protest, by Michael Clark, highlights the growing trend of state repression of popular protests in poor urban areas and details how the state employs the criminal justice system to vilify, criminalise and suppress local communities advocating for socio-economic development.

Since 2004 South Africa has experienced a significant number of local protests in poor urban areas. These protests are often referred to as ‘service delivery’ protests as they are frequently related to the inadequate socio-economic conditions of poor communities. In many respects, these protests can be viewed as a claim for the realisation of socio-economic rights by poor communities.

The week-long protest in Thembelihle, near Lenasia, Johannesburg in September 2011, was such a case. Frustrated by an unaccountable and unresponsive local government that frequently disregarded the community’s on-going demands for access to adequate basic services, Thembelihle residents took to the streets. Their demands, however, were dismissed by local and provincial government and met with a forceful police clamp-down. In the aftermath of the protest, arrest and criminal prosecution (often on frivolous charges) was used to harass and intimidate community members and to target community leaders, marking an alarming trend in which the criminal justice system is used by the government to suppress popular dissent. 

This report seeks to understand the protest in Thembelihle specifically, and rising dissent in South Africa more generally.

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