Executive Director of SADC-CNGOs of 15 countries, Mr. Abie Ditlhake, opening the solidarity workshop; Eritrean delegation was at hand to tell the sad story from inside Eritrea and in diaspora.
By Member of Joint Eritrean Delegation
It was a visit unique of its kind: this joint Eritrean delegation to Nelson Mandela’s South Africa just a year after the passing away of modern Africa’s topmost statesman. The delegation consisted not only of representatives of three political and civic organizations but also an independent activist Eritrean lady from the Arab Gulf states. When the 3 to 9 December 2014 mission of the delegation was wound up, its members were reassured that strenuous efforts will be underway very soon to put Eritrea on the African agenda.
Africa was not that good to Eritrea during its long struggle for national liberation. Now, the continent appears to be moving up from the bottom to see to it that Eritreans enjoy what they rightly deserved as of 1991: peace, democracy, human dignity and prosperity that eluded them for too long. This quick reportage will highlight
- The main issues raised and decided at the 3-4 December workshop of the Southern African Development Community’s Council of Non-Governmental Organizations (SADC-CNGO);
- The Eritrean delegation’s press conference and its live interview with the S. African Broadcasting Corporation; and
- The individual, limited and larger group meetings with important personalities, friends of Eritrea and Eritrean community members in Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria.
Workshop of SADC-CNGO Solidarity Task Team
The workshop of the regional Civil Society Solidarity Task Team held in Johannesburg between 3 and 4 December 2014 was attended by the SADC-CNGO Executive Director himself and support staff, as well as senior representatives of umbrella organizations of member movements like the Southern African Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC); South African Trade Unions (COSATU); Fellowships of Christian Councils in 12 Southern Africa states (FOCCISA) and the Botswana-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). Invited civil society and political activists from Eritrea and Swaziland were availed to give adequate updates on the political and human rights situations in their respective countries. Technical hiccups prevented the expected Palestinian delegation from taking part.
The workshop was an outcome of decisions taken by the 10th Civil Society Forum of SADC-CNGOs held last July in Harare, Zimbabwe. Eritrea was one of the four countries identified for support and solidarity by the SADC Council of NGOs from 15 African countries whose main objectives include support for democratization, conflict resolution and good governance. Regarding Eritrea, the July declaration partly stated as follows:
“We are deeply concerned with the political situation in Eritrea and the oppressive conditions facing the people as a result of absence of respect of human rights and democratic governance. We are alarmed by the widespread and systematic human rights violations perpetrated by the government of Eritrea against its own people. …. (10th SADC Civil Society Forum) is concerned especially about the continued implementation of unlimited military service under which the Eritrean youth are kept under slave-like conditions rendering them futureless; indeed, the policy is forcing tens of thousands of young Eritreans to leave their country in search of safety and better future risking inhuman treatment at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers, death in the high seas and deserts, rape and illicit organ harvesting....”
It was based on this understanding that the Harare Forum mandated senior SADC-CNGO leaders to further explore the situation in Eritrea and other affected countries in a workshop and see what can be done in the near future.
The four Eritreans attending the workshop were given the opportunity to present in great detail the ever worsening situation in their country. They also listed what the Eritrean opposition forces would like SADC-CNGO do for Eritreans inside the country and those in diaspora.
The invited delegation members were, as noted earlier, Ms Salwa Nour, a woman activist from the UAE, Ambassador Andebrehan Weldegiorgis of the Eritrean Forum for National Dialogue (Medrek), Mr. Woldeyesus Ammar from the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), and Mr. Kulubrehan Abraham of the South Africa-based Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR). Dr. Adane Ghebremeskel, the SADC-CNGO programme advisor also at times joined his compatriots in telling the appalling situation in today’s Eritrea.
Eritrean delegation with senior representatives of SADC-CNGO, SATUCC, COSATU, FOCCISA, MISA and Swaziland NGOs
The Johannesburg workshop thus decided, among others things:
- To establish a solidarity body dedicated to follow up the situation in Eritrea and the other three affected countries singled out for increased solidarity and support of SADC-CNGO and others beyond the region;
- To take action towards putting Eritrea in the African agenda so that it could be reviewed at the upcoming summit conference of SADC member states in February 2015;
- Make approaches to civil society movements in eastern, western and northern Africa and promote solidarity for Eritreans struggling for peace and democratic governance;
- Cognizant of the fact that Eritreans being forced to leave their country are not economic refugees or migrants but genuine refugees, the workshop believed that they deserve to obtain appropriate documentation in South Africa and rest of the SADC region and beyond until Eritrea transits from dictatorship to democratic rule.
Press Conference and SABC Interview
On 5 December, the SADC-CNGO organized a press conference to give further opportunity to the Eritrean delegation further explain the ever worsening political and human rights situation in the country. The Executive Director of SADC Council of NGO formations in all the 15 southern African countries opened the press conference with comprehensive explanation of what was discussed and decided at the workshop regarding Eritrea, Swaziland, Palestine and Western Sahara.
On their part, members of the Eritrean delegation expressed satisfaction with the historic solidarity and further pledges for support by the civil society in southern African countries and explained in more detail the distress facing Eritrea and its people under an extremely dictatorial regime. The outcome of the workshop was also disclosed to the attending members of the press, diplomats and civil society movements who came to the meeting in spite of the 5 December celebrations in Johannesburg marking the first anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela. Among the participants were diplomats from the Ethiopian embassy in South Africa.
Delegation members were also given the opportunity for a live radio interview with Channel Africa at the headquarters of South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) which enjoys big audience all over Africa. Questions asked to and responded by two delegation members included the political, economic and human rights situation inside Eritrea, the plight of its refugees, the border issue, decisions of the UN Human Rights Commission and the Eritrean regime’s isolation from the rest of the world.
Meetings in Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria
Ms Salwa Nour had to depart after the 5 December press conference, but the rest of the delegation members took the opportunity of meeting with Eritrean community members, mostly in smaller numbers, in three South African cities. Most of the estimated 5,000 Eritrean community members in South Africa have no valid residence permits and are held as literal hostages of the Eritrean embassy.
Many of them are self-employed (owning small shops) and are nowadays extremely busy to earn year’s income this Christmas/summer season. It was learned that many have distanced themselves from the regime but they cannot manifest this position by attending opposition meetings or, if they do attend, by letting their pictures taken in such occasions.
On 6 December, three members of the delegation held an extensive discussion with members of the Eritrean community in Durban. Problems explained by the delegation members and later raised for comprehensive discussion in the question and answer session included the situation inside the homeland, the changing attitude of external powers towards the regime in Asmara, the disquieting situation of Eritrean refugees in many parts of the world, the fragmentation of the forces opposed to the regime and new initiatives for dialogue and realigning of the struggling forces to create a viable alternative force or forces for change and democratization in the country.
On 7 December, a similar get-together was held with members of the Eritrean community in the Johannesburg region.
A memorial picture of the ‘willing’ in Johannesburg
Members of the delegation also took the opportunity of meeting old friends and acquaintances individually and/or in smaller groups for exchange of notes on how the mobilization of the silent majority can be tackled and the forces in the opposition coalesced in an effective manner.