Activists in eSwatini went to court to challenge an internet shutdown they say impacts their freedom and livelihoods. Will similar legal challenges arise elsewhere in Africa?
No WhatsApp, Facebook or Twitter.
Cases of internet shutdowns in Africa are on the rise.
Uganda imposed a blackout in January, Nigeria banned Twitter in June and two weeks ago eSwatini – a tiny landlocked nation in Southern Africa where recent protests against the absolute monarch have turned violent – became the latest country to curtail internet access.
Unable to check in on his family and communicate with his clients, consultant and human rights activist Melusi Simelane decided to sue the government for the shutdown.
Simelane’s case, the first of its kind in eSwatini, was dropped on Thursday after the government lifted restrictions it said were imposed to maintain security.
30-year-old Simelane told the Thomson Reuters Foundation why he turned to the courts and what lessons his experience could hold for others impacted by enforced blackouts.
What is the current situation in eSwatini?
Over the weekend, pro-democracy protesters were attending memorial services all over the country. Police and military were present and some memorials turned violent. Internet is back up, but we do not know what will happen today. We are hoping for dialogue with government so that we can have a country that benefits all.
What was the impact of the internet shutdown for people in eSwatini?
We are a small country of 1.1 million people. We cannot afford to survive on big industries. Most of our small and medium businesses rely on WhatsApp and Facebook to make a living. A vendor selling airtime, for example, what happens to that person’s dinner or rent?
People could also not communicate with loved ones, to see if they were safe. It was impossible for people to study or work from home, and the economy was already suffering because of COVID-19.
It drastically impacted people’s access to information and right of expression in a sensitive time.
Why did you decide to take legal action?
Sometimes I tell other activists: “We allow this to happen”. We don’t know our Bill of Rights, we don’t even know we have courts and commissions to protect us, and this lack of knowledge enables the situation.
Sometimes, living in an absolute monarchy, it can feel pointless, but for me, as an activist, it is about making enough noise to expose human rights abuses. People need to know their rights and bring matters to the fore.
While some are protesting on the streets, others must also use the courts to challenge abuses. We need different strategies. There are mechanisms in place to protect our rights and we must make use of them.
Why was the case withdrawn?
In this specific case, we asked for the internet to be turned back on, and it was, so we withdrew the case. But now we are looking to the future. We want to be ready for anything that may happen.
What legal precedents could stop this from happening again? The rule of law must prevail over any political situation.
Companies must be empowered in the future when given an order by governments to shut down the internet to say, look, we cannot do that because courts have pronounced this an infringement on human rights.
What lessons were learnt from seeking legal action?
One needs patience. The struggle for political freedom and social justice is a long one. It might not be finished by me but eventually it will happen, patience is a virtue.
I understand that litigation can be expensive but there are organisations around the world dealing with this. I turned to the Southern Africa Litigation Centre for pro-bono legal support.