Rui Lopes, Managing Director at Lopes Attorneys, discusses the legislative environment for animal rights in South Africa. Does the law truly view animals as sentient beings, or is there room for improvement?
“The difficult circumstances during lockdown for COVID-19 in South Africa saw many animals being surrendered, neglected or abused. And beyond domestic animals who could not be cared for adequately, there was also pressure experienced in many industries, including agriculture, causing animal welfare to fall by the wayside in many instances.
“We are in a position where South Africa’s Constitution does not specifically cater for animal rights in the same way some other countries do. For example, in Germany and India, there are sets of constitutional standards that are far more stringent about safeguarding animal welfare. In South Africa, particularly during lockdown, the neglect of animal welfare is a major concern, especially in light of the judiciary’s attitude towards considering animals as sentient beings capable of suffering.
“Canned hunting is also prevalent in South Africa. The canned hunting trade is very lucrative for those involved, not only due to revenue generated by hunters but also from the illicit trade that occurs concerning lion bone. But we are faced with a declining lion population and animals being kept and hunted in completely inhumane conditions. The sad reality is that often financial gain has given way to compassion and animal welfare.
“In the domestic context, there is a large amount of statistical data showing that where there are instances of domestic violence in households, there is also often violence towards animals within those households. Lockdown saw an increase in domestic violence, and by association, an increase in animal abuse and neglect and an increase in domestic animals being left with the NSPCA (National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).
“Under the Animals Protection Act (APA), which is a criminal piece of legislation, animals are supposed to be afforded rights and protected. Contraventions of the APA can see perpetrators fined, imprisoned or both. Under the APA, enforcement is overseen by the NPSCA.
The NSPCA investigates and refers cases to the National Prosecuting Authority for prosecution and the case is then taken over by the State. That being said, there is a low success rate in prosecuting animal welfare offenders compared to other countries, which may be due to several factors, including under-resourcing and the antiquated nature of the APA.
A similar issue arises when comparing the African legislative framework, within which it is evident that the APA has, in most instances, been employed as the guiding document for the drafting of other African countries’ animal welfare legislation. This, in turn, results in a set of antiquated animal welfare legislation, which has not kept pace with the changing times.
“Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, animals are still considered property in South Africa. We need to start making a shift, both as a society and in the legislature, to view animals as sentient beings worthy of protection, just as humans are. That begins with community engagement and community outreach initiatives that educate and advocate the protection and care of animals. These factors are also contained in the environmental management principles outlined in the National Environmental Management Act.