South Africa

PR Political Rights 32 40
CL Civil Liberties 46 60
Last Year's Score & Status
78 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

South Africa is a constitutional democracy. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, it has been regarded globally as a proponent of human rights and a leader on the African continent. However, in recent years, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been accused of undermining state institutions in order to protect corrupt officials and preserve its power as its support base begins to wane.

header2 Key Developments in 2017

  • Corruption and influence-peddling scandals continued to plague President Jacob Zuma. A series of leaked emails in May revealed additional details about the extent of “state capture”—or influence held over Zuma’s administration—by the Guptas, a wealthy family with close ties to the president. In October, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) upheld a High Court ruling to reinstate 783 corruption charges that had been brought against Zuma before he became president.
  • In August, Zuma narrowly survived the fourth no-confidence vote of his presidency. It was the first such vote to be conducted by secret ballot.
  • In October, Sy Mamabolo—a highly regarded official—was appointed chief electoral officer at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Mamabolo would lead the IEC in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.
  • In December, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president of the ANC, defeating Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma—President Zuma’s ex-wife and his preferred candidate—by a narrow margin.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The National Assembly, the lower house of South Africa’s bicameral Parliament, elects the president to serve concurrently with its five-year term, and can vote to replace him or her at any time. Presidents can serve a maximum of two terms. The most recent national elections, held in 2014, were declared free and fair by domestic and international observers. The ANC won with 62.2 percent of the national vote, and the party’s president, Jacob Zuma, was elected to a second term as the nation’s president.

In August 2017, Zuma survived the fourth no-confidence vote of his presidency. The August vote, unlike the others, was conducted by secret ballot, allowing legislators freedom to vote their conscience. A total of 198 legislators voted against Zuma’s removal from office, while 177 voted in favor; there were 9 abstentions.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The 400-seat National Assembly is elected by party-list proportional representation. The 90 members of the upper chamber, the National Council of Provinces, are selected by provincial legislatures. In the 2014 national elections, the ANC’s 62.2 percent of the vote translated into 249 of 400 seats in the National Assembly, and clear majorities in eight of nine provinces. The Democratic Alliance (DA) remained the largest opposition party, winning 89 seats with 22.2 percent of the vote, up from 16.7 percent in the previous election, and maintained control over the Western Cape. The newly formed leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won 25 seats; the Inkhatha Freedom Party (IFP) took 10 seats; and nine smaller parties shared the remainder.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4.004 4.004

The IEC is largely considered independent and the electoral framework fair. However, in recent years there have been questions raised concerning the integrity of the commission’s leadership. The October 2017 appointment of Mamabolo to the position of chief electoral officer has given new hope that the IEC will be able to reinvigorate its perception of integrity. Mamabolo is well respected and has an excellent track record in his more than two decades of work with the IEC.

Mamabolo’s first task will be to ensure that the IEC complies with a 2016 Constitutional Court directive that it accurately records the addresses of all voters on the roll. In October 2017, the IEC launched an online campaign to encourage South Africa’s 26 million registered voters to check their details and update them accordingly.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3.003 4.004

The ANC, which is part of a tripartite governing alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), has won every election since 1994. Nevertheless, opposition parties are able to compete in elections and have gained significant ground, especially in recent elections.

In 2017, there was increasing strain between COSATU and the ANC over political issues. In October, the tripartite alliance met at ANC headquarters, and both COSATU and the SACP called for Zuma to step down.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3.003 4.004

The ANC won by a comfortable margin in the 2014 elections but with a smaller majority than in previous elections—a trend that has persisted for three consecutive elections. In the 2016 municipal elections, the ANC’s support declined to its lowest level—53.9 percent—since it took power. The party also lost control of major municipalities, including Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes Pretoria, the national capital. Opposition gains in local elections in South Africa are especially significant because of the taxation powers and autonomy afforded to municipalities, presenting opposition parties with an opportunity to demonstrate governance capacity.

Since January 2016, approximately 30 political murders have taken place in KwaZulu-Natal province. In April 2017, ANC deputy chairperson of Harry Gwala region, Khaya Thobela, died after being shot in his home. In July, former ANC Youth League leader Sindiso Magaqa was shot and later died in the hospital.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3.003 4.004

People’s political choices in South Africa are largely free from domination from external actors, and the military is professional and generally stays out of politics. However, there is widespread corruption within the ANC, including vote buying from delegates to the party conference and bribes to influence political appointments. There have also been reports of individuals buying party membership cards in bulk in order to hold full control of specific branches of the party. The 2016 report on state capture and other investigations revealed that the Gupta family’s close relationship with Zuma enabled it to exercise influence over a wide range of political and economic activities.

Despite fears that Zuma, and the Guptas, would use vote-buying tactics to engineer the election of their favored candidate as party president at the December 2017 ANC congress, Ramaphosa—a figure perceived to be opposed to the Zuma faction—nonetheless emerged victorious. Ramaphosa narrowly defeated Dlamini-Zuma, a former chair of the African Union Commission, after the results were delayed by almost 24 hours due to internal party disputes.

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the influence of wealthy outside interests on the ruling African National Congress, including on the party leadership race and political appointments.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4.004 4.004

The constitution prohibits discrimination and provides full political rights for all adult citizens. Women are well-represented in government, holding 42 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and two of nine provincial premierships. South Africa has one of the world’s most liberal legal environments for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2.002 4.004

Pervasive corruption and apparent interference by non-elected actors hampers the proper functioning of government. In 2017, details of the scope the Guptas’ influence continued to emerge. A series of leaked emails revealed the extent to which the Gupta family and their companies have controlled affairs of the state. Among the revelations in the emails, it was shown that the Gupta family and its affiliates helped draft media responses for ANC Youth League president Collen Maine; received confidential information on cabinet meetings from Communications Minister Faith Muthambi; assisted with securing high-level appointments for their allies in state-owned companies such as Transnet; and helped Zuma and his family apply for residency in Dubai.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2.002 4.004

Comprehensive anticorruption laws and several agencies tasked with combating corruption exist, but enforcement remains inadequate. Despite the former public protector’s findings of massive corruption in the 2016 “state capture” report, no corrective legal action was taken in 2017 and Zuma continued to disparage the report’s findings.

In October, the SCA upheld a 2016 High Court ruling to reinstate 783 corruption charges that had been brought against Zuma before he became president.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3.003 4.004

Section 32(1) of the South African constitution states that everyone has the right to access “any information held by the state” and requires that private bodies must release any information necessary for the exercise and protection of rights. The 2000 Promotion of Access to Information Act created a framework for access to information procedures in both public and private entities. However, in practice the procedure of accessing information is laborious and bureaucratic.

State contracts worth hundreds of millions of rand were awarded to companies linked to the Gupta family without following proper procedures. A similar lack of transparency and competitive bidding affects the awarding of other government contracts.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4

Freedoms of expression and the press are protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice. South Africa features a vibrant and often adversarial media landscape, including independent civic groups that help counter government efforts to encroach on freedom of expression. In 2017, the media played a crucial role in exposing the corruption linked to the Gupta family and the involvement of British public relations firm Bell Pottinger in stirring up racial tensions in the country. Nonetheless, concerns about press freedom have grown in recent years amid increasing government pressure on both state-run and independent outlets.

In 2016, eight journalists at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the national broadcaster, were dismissed and subsequently reinstated for speaking out against the policies of then SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng. In June 2017, one of the eight journalists, Suna Venter, died of a condition caused by prolonged and unnatural stress. Prior to her death, Venter had been harassed incessantly; the brakes on her car were cut, and she was shot in the face with a pellet gun.

In August 2017, Mzwanele Manyi, a Zuma ally, purchased the New Age newspaper and the television channel ANN7 from the Gupta-owned Oakbay Investments. The move was viewed as a cosmetic effort to distance the news outlets from the Gupta family.

In November 2017, the State Security Agency (SSA) attempted to block the publication of journalist Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers. The SSA served the publisher and author with cease and desist letters, demanding that they withdraw the book from stores and revise its content. The book was ultimately published in October 2017. Among other charges, it asserts that the SSA is actively protecting Zuma from prosecution.

Internet access is unrestricted and growing rapidly, reaching around 54 percent penetration in 2016. However, many South Africans cannot afford connectivity.

D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and actively protected by the government. Religious leaders are largely free to engage in discussions of a political nature without fear of adverse consequences.

D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom in South Africa is constitutionally guaranteed and actively protected by the government.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4.004 4.004

South Africans are generally free to engage in private conversations of a political nature without harassment. However, a 2016 report from the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the government’s use of surveillance and the law governing it, the 2002 Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act. In April 2017, the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism launched a constitutional challenge to the act.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4.004 4.004

The constitution guarantees freedoms of association and peaceful assembly. Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and South Africa has a vibrant protest culture. Demonstrators must notify police ahead of time but are rarely prohibited from gathering. Protests over the government’s shortcomings in the provision of public services are common in South Africa, and sometimes turn violent. Police have faced accusations of provoking some protest violence.

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the police response to student protests improved in 2017 in comparison to 2016.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4.004 4.004

South Africa hosts a vibrant civil society. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can register and operate freely, and lawmakers regularly accept input from NGOs on pending legislation. In October 2017, ANC legislator Bongani Bongo was sworn in as the new state security minister, amid concerns that he would continue the anti–civil society rhetoric used by his predecessor, David Mahlobo. In parliamentary hearings to appoint a new public protector, Bongo raised concerns about NGOs acting against the state.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4.004 4.004

South African workers are generally free to form, join, and participate in independent trade unions, and the country’s labor laws offer unionized workers a litany of protections. Contract workers and those in the informal sector enjoy fewer safeguards. Strike activity is very common, and unionized workers often secure above-inflation wage increases. COSATU dominates the labor landscape but faces growing challenges from factionalism as well as independent unions. Union rivalries, especially in mining, sometimes result in the use of violent tactics to recruit and retain members and to attack opponents; violent and illegal strikes have also increased in recent years.

In March 2017, former COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi registered a new labor organization under the banner South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU). Unlike COSATU, Vavi has explicitly stated that SAFTU will remain unaligned politically.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 3.003 4.004

The constitution guarantees judicial independence, and courts operate with substantial autonomy. The Judicial Services Commission appoints Constitutional Court judges based on both merit and efforts to racially diversify the judiciary. A number of recent court judgments held the executive and legislative branches to account in such a manner as to suggest that the judiciary commands significant independence. In July 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that the vote of no confidence for Zuma could be held by secret ballot, and left the decision on whether to use this method to the speaker of the national assembly. The SCA’s October ruling allowing corruption charges against Zuma to be reinstated also demonstrated the independence of the judiciary.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2.002 4.004

Prosecutorial independence in South Africa has been undermined in recent years. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has experienced a string of politically motivated appointments and ousters. In December 2017, the High Court ruled that the appointment of the Shaun Abrahams, the director of public prosecutions, was invalid and should be set aside due to his lack of independence in cases involving Zuma. The court ordered that Ramaphosa, the deputy president, appoint a new director within 60 days.

Shortages of judicial staff and financial resources undermine defendants’ procedural rights, including the right to a timely trial and state-funded legal counsel. According to the 2015–16 Department of Correctional Services report, detainees wait an average of nearly six months before trial, and some are held beyond the legal maximum of two years.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2.002 4.004

According to a Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) 2015–16 annual report, there is severe overcrowding in some prisons—in part due to delays in holding trials. During this period, 62 unnatural deaths were reported in prisons and there were 811 complaints of assault by prison officials on inmates.

Despite constitutional prohibitions, there are many reports of police torture and excessive force during arrest, interrogation, and detention. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) is required by law to investigate allegations of police offenses or misconduct. In its annual report for the 2016–17 fiscal year, the IPID recorded 696 reported deaths either in police custody or as a result of police action, 112 reported rapes by police officers, 173 reports of torture, and 3,827 reports of assault. Overall, there was a 27 percent increase in total reported incidents from the previous period.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. After a decline, murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery increased for the fifth consecutive fiscal year in 2016–17. In this period, an average of 52.1 people were murdered each day. Vigilantism and “community justice” remain problems in South Africa. In September 2017, 11 people were killed in Marikana, Western Cape, as a result of community vigilantism. The wave of killings is purportedly the result of community frustration toward a lack of policing and law enforcement in the area.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2.002 4.004

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on a range of categories, including race, sexual orientation, and culture. State bodies such as the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Office of the Public Protector are empowered to investigate and, in the case of SAHRC, prosecute discrimination cases. Affirmative-action legislation has benefited previously disadvantaged racial groups in public and private employment as well as in education but racial imbalances in the workforce persist. White people, constituting a small minority, still own a majority of the country’s business assets. The indigenous, nomadic Khoikhoi and Khomani San peoples suffer from social and legal discrimination.

The constitution guarantees equal rights for women, which are actively promoted by the Commission on Gender Equality. Nevertheless, women are subject to wage discrimination in the workplace and are not well represented in top management positions.

Xenophobic violence against immigrants from other African countries has broken out sporadically in recent years. In February 2017, South Africa experienced a resurgence of xenophobic violence in Johannesburg and Pretoria. South African citizens looted the homes and shops of foreign nationals, setting several buildings on fire. Political leadership on countering xenophobic violence has been lacking, and in some cases political leaders have blamed foreign nationals for their own failure to deliver on political promises.

There are frequent reports of physical attacks against LGBT people, including instances of so-called corrective rape, in which men rape lesbians, claiming that the action can change the victim’s sexual orientation.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3.003 4.004

While there are no official restrictions on housing, employment, or freedom of movement for most South Africans, travel and some other personal freedoms are inhibited by the country’s high crime rate. For many foreigners, the threat of xenophobic violence impedes freedom of movement as well. The legacy of apartheid continues to segregate the population and restrict nonwhite opportunity for employment and education.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3.003 4.004

The state generally protects citizens from arbitrary deprivation of property. However, the vast majority of farmland remains in the hands of white South Africans, who make up some 9 percent of the population. Illegal squatting on white-owned farms is common, as are attacks on white farm owners. The government has lagged far behind its own targets for land reform to address the legacy of apartheid. A bill tabled in Parliament in March 2017 would prevent foreigners from buying and owning land in South Africa. The bill, which had yet to pass by the end of 2017, proposed that land be leased on a long-term basis to prospective foreign buyers. Separately, an audit of the country’s agricultural land is currently underway.

Despite constitutional protections, women suffer de facto discrimination with regard to inheritance and property rights, particularly in rural areas.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

Despite a robust legal framework criminalizing domestic violence and rape, both are grave problems. Only a small percentage of rapes are reported. According to the 2016–17 South Africa Police Service report, an average of 109.1 rapes were recorded each day. Sexual harassment is common, and reports of forced marriages persist.

Same-sex couples have the same adoption rights as heterosexual married couples, and same-sex marriage is legal.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2.002 4.004

Inequality levels in South Africa are among the highest in the world. Only a small percentage of the population benefits from large state industries and the economy is controlled by a relatively small number of people belonging to the political and business elite.

South Africans, predominantly from rural regions, as well as foreign migrants are vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor. Organized criminal syndicates are responsible for the bulk of trafficking.

On South Africa

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  • Global Freedom Score

    79 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    73 100 free