The 2023 Summit for Democracy has just ended. The Summit for Democracy is a virtual summit hosted by the United States ''to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad''. The first summit was held on December 9–10, 2021.

This year’s Summit was co-hosted with the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, and the Republic of Zambia. It assembled world leaders in a virtual, plenary format, followed by gatherings in various countries with representatives from government, civil society, and the private sector.

Among other issues, this year’s summit highlighted the imperative of gender equity and equality in democratic, rights-based societies and the universal importance of women's civic and political participation, as well as underscored one of the biggest barriers women and girls face: online harassment and abuse.

In the Summit’s Declaration, released on Wednesday 29th March 2023, its leaders reaffirmed their shared belief that democracy – government reflecting the effective participation and will of the people – is humanity’s most enduring means to advance peace, prosperity, equality, sustainable development, and security. Reads the Declaration, in part:

“We recognize that democracy can take many forms, but shares common characteristics, including free and fair elections that are inclusive and accessible; separation of powers; checks and balances; peaceful transitions of power; an independent media and safety of journalists; transparency; access to information; accountability; inclusion; gender equality; civic participation; equal protection of the law; and respect for human rights, including freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.”

Worth noting is that the Summit took place in the context of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) region engulfed by numerous threats to democracy. Indisputably, the democratic space in the region is shrinking, and the attack on human rights defenders is on the rise. One of the civil society players that have been active in raising youth voices in the governance matters of the region is the Southern African Youth Solidarity Network (SAYSN), which has openly called for SADC to address issues of shrinking democratic space and violation of human rights in the region.

A voluntary networking body of youth-focused organizations concerned with the social, economic, and political development of young people in the SADC region, SAYSN has expressed its deep concern about the shrinking civic space in the region, attack on human rights defenders in the region, with the recent assassination of Human Rights Lawyer and Political Activist in Eswatini, Thulani Maseko, slow progress on the proposed SADC mediated dialogue in Eswatini, as well as the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. To underscore its seriousness, the network put together a position paper and lobbied for its position during the Summit for Democracy.

“In particular, we note that all these are happening against the backdrop of a dire socio-economic situation in the region and the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality have led to serious migration in the region, among other things,” said the organization in its position paper.

SAYSN noted that these challenges undermine the efforts and the reputation of a region that has been relatively stable. In its view, these problems can be addressed, hence its appeal to SADC, governments in the region, businesses, civil society, and all stakeholders to join hands in giving attention to these issues as a matter of high priority.

Young people, together with the rest of the people of the SADC region, continue to engage in community struggles around socio-economic and political issues, amid a fast-shrinking democratic space in SADC. SAYSN has observed that there is growing authoritarianism in the region, something that undermines the involvement of youth in shaping a future that speaks to their realities and aspirations.

“The space in which people’s community struggles are waged is dangerous, as seen in the assassinations and arrests of civil society and opposition leaders. It is without a doubt that the work of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in our region is deeply constrained as more and more people are afraid of the consequences. The suffocation of democratic space by governments in SADC that are violating human rights, manipulating elections, and violently suppressing people’s democratic aspirations undermines the future of not just the youth but all the people of the region,” says SAYSN’s Regional Director Maxwell Dlamini who was part of the panel that discussed these matters during a panel in Zambia this past week.

SAYSN Director Maxwell Dlamini met with the SADC Parliamentary Forum Focal Person for Democracy, Governance, and Parliamentary Business, Sheuneni Kurahsa, in Zambia this past week.

The organization proposed that governments in the region should honour their obligations and hold each other accountable for the gross violation of human rights. It is only when there is accountability and respect for human rights that the region will begin to thrive because organizations and institutions that are supposed to hold the government accountable will begin to work in a conducive environment, argues SAYSN.

The start of 2023 has not been smooth for the region, with the devastating cold-blooded assassination of Eswatini’s Human Rights Lawyer Thulani Maseko. Maseko was shot dead at close range at his home in Luyengo in front of his wife and children on the 21st of January 2023. SAYSN strongly believes that the assassination of the Human Rights Lawyer was a deliberate and calculated effort to target and silence the lawyer and Human Rights Defender as a direct retaliation to his legitimate work of pursuing democratic reforms in Eswatini.

“It is a known fact that Thulani Maseko has been subjected to all forms of state terror in Eswatini, dating back to 2009 when he was arrested on unauthentic charges under draconian and repressive laws, including the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008 and the Sedition and Subversive Act of 1987. In 2014, he was detained by the repressive state for two years after an article he wrote in The Nation Magazine, together with the publication’s editor, Bheki Makhubu,” reads the network’s position paper.

It has also joined the many voices within and outside of the region, in calling for the appointment of an Independent and Internationally renowned expert to investigate the murder of Maseko. SAYSN says the Eswatini government should not be allowed to carry out this investigation on its own, especially given the circumstances and allegations so far.

“The proposed SADC-mediated National Political Dialogue in Eswatini has not been successful, largely due to the government’s lack of serious commitment to the process. Lives continue to be lost. SAYSN appeals to the leadership and stakeholders of the region to get the government to the dialogue table with the civil society’s Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) and all formations that are calling for freedoms, democracy, and human rights. The 2023 elections should not take place in the current environment. Political prisoners should be released, exiles allowed to return home and political parties unbanned, then the SADC-mediated dialogue should be all-inclusive and peaceful.

There is an opportunity for the next elections to be in line with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, whose objective is to promote the holding and observation of democratic elections based on the shared values and principles of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights enshrined in the SADC Treaty signed at Windhoek, Namibia in 1992. The region should unite in holding the Eswatini government accountable and get it to adhere to regional, continental, and global commitments around democracy and human rights,” continues the regional youth network.

SAYSN also raised its concern about what it refers to as “a worsening state of human rights in Zimbabwe, where the state has continued with random detention of opposition leaders, as seen in the arrest of Member of Parliament Job Sikhala and MP Godfrey Sithole who have been in jail since 14 June 2022 and both are senior members of the country’s main opposition party, the Citizen’s Coalition for Change.”

For over two decades now, the political and security situation in Zimbabwe has not been stable, with continuous repression and suppression of dissenting voices, including the opposition. SAYSN has made an appeal to the people of Zimbabwe to solve this problem and return to normalcy.

“The government has to take practical steps towards the full implementation of the Motlanthe Commission report which aims at addressing issues of electoral reforms, accountability, nation-building and reconciliation, law enforcement, and peace. Our position is that the region, led by SADC, has to support Zimbabwe as it implements this historic report. If the leaders of the region can prioritize this matter, there could be a democratic, free, fair, and peaceful election this year. SAYSN views the 2023 election as an opportunity to introduce the necessary reforms and allow the country to hold an election of the required standard,” says the fast-growing regional youth network.