South Africa

PR Political Rights 33 40
CL Civil Liberties 46 60
Last Year's Score & Status
79 100 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 began to wane. In 2018, a widely respected anticorruption commission began hearing testimony about high-level corruption allegations.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • The ruling ANC won the May parliamentary election, though its share of the vote fell below 60 percent for the first time in a national contest since the end of apartheid. Later that month, the National Assembly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa to serve a full term.
  • The anticorruption commission continued its work throughout the year. In January, a former executive of logistics firm African Global Operations, formerly known as Bosasa, testified that it received preferential treatment from the government and had bribed dozens of politicians and officials since 2004.
  • Foreign workers were targeted by xenophobic violence in two major incidents during the year. In March, at least 3 people were killed in the city of Durban, while 12 were killed in attacks in Gauteng Province in September.
  • In September, President Ramaphosa pledged to bolster the government’s efforts against gender-based violence after several high-profile incidents of femicide, including the August rape and murder of a university student in Cape Town, prompted nationwide protests.

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.

Former president and ANC leader Jacob Zuma survived four parliamentary no-confidence votes before ANC delegates elected Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to become party leader at a 2017 conference. Ramaphosa defeated former African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, President Zuma’s ex-wife and preferred candidate for the leadership. This defeat made it difficult for Zuma to remain as South Africa’s president, and the ANC executive committee forced his resignation in early 2018. The National Assembly then selected Ramaphosa to serve as acting president.

The most recent national election, held in May 2019, was declared free and fair by domestic and international observers. The ANC won 57.5 percent of the vote, and the National Assembly selected Ramaphosa to serve a full term as president later that month. Ramaphosa is eligible for reelection in 2024.

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. Parliamentary and provincial elections were concurrently held in May 2019. The ANC won 230 National Assembly seats with 57.5 percent of the vote. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) won 84 seats with 20.77 percent of the vote and maintained control over Western Cape Province. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won 44 seats, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) won 14, Freedom Front Plus (FF+) won 10, and smaller parties won the remaining 18 seats.

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 Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is largely considered independent, and the electoral framework fair, though recent years have seen questions raised concerning the integrity of the commission’s leadership. In 2018, deputy chairman Terry Tselane, a former ANC anti-apartheid activist, revealed that after the ANC lost control of major metropolitan municipalities such as Johannesburg and Pretoria in the 2016 municipal elections, party leaders accused him of contributing to their electoral misfortunes. Tselane stepped down later that year, saying he was asked to do so ahead of schedule.

The IEC has been working to comply with a 2016 Constitutional Court directive to accurately record the addresses of all registered voters. In 2017, it launched an online campaign to encourage South Africa’s voters to update their details. In 2018, the IEC received an extension to comply with the order after citing logistical difficulties, and was given a new deadline of November 2019. By September, as the process neared its conclusion, the IEC reported that only five percent of all registered voters had no address on file.

The IEC is also responsible for enforcing the Political Party Funding Act, which was passed by the National Assembly in 2018 and signed into law by President Ramaphosa in January 2019. The legislation requires political parties to disclose donations worth at least 100,000 rand ($7,100), and prohibits funders from donating more than 15 million rand ($1 million) annually; foreign donations were also prohibited. The legislation took effect in April 2019, but the IEC warned that full implementation would not take place in time for the May elections. Internal party contests remain relatively opaque; in August 2019, President Ramaphosa declined to name the backers of his successful 2017 ANC leadership campaign, saying that no rules were in place to mandate this reporting.

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 national election since 1994. Nevertheless, the political environment is generally free from formal constraints, and opposition parties have gained ground in recent elections.

Several new groups have recently emerged, as well. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, which largely represents private-sector workers, sponsored the formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party, which launched in April 2019. Patricia de Lille, the former DA mayor of Cape Town, launched the GOOD party after her split from the opposition in 2018. GOOD won two National Assembly seats in May 2019, and de Lille was subsequently named public works minister.

Independent candidates may not run for national office, though a group of smaller parties called on the Western Cape High Court to end this restriction in a March 2019 court filing. The court declined, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Constitutional Court; their appeal was heard in August, but no ruling was made public at year’s end.

Nontransparent mechanisms for the funding of political parties have benefited the ANC, though reforms to party financing laws were partially implemented in 2019.

Over two dozen political murders have taken place in KwaZulu-Natal Province since 2016. In 2017, the ANC deputy chairperson of Harry Gwala region, Khaya Thobela, and a former ANC Youth Leader, Sindiso Magaqa, were killed in separate incidents. In May 2019, ANC councilor Martin Sithole was shot and killed; Sithole was expected to serve as a witness in the murder trial of another ANC member before his own death. In August, IFP councilor Mthembeni Majola was murdered; a second IFP councilor, Khayelihle Sithole, was killed in October.

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 has won every national election since 1994, but its performance in the May 2019 contest was its poorest since end of apartheid. Meanwhile, opposition parties have made local and regional gains; in the 2016 municipal elections, the ANC lost its majorities in municipalities of Johannesburg and Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes the national capital city of Pretoria. Opposition gains in local elections are especially significant because of the taxation powers and autonomy afforded to municipalities, presenting opposition parties with an opportunity to demonstrate governance capacity.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 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.

A 2016 report on state capture, issued by a former public prosecutor, and other investigations revealed that the Gupta business family’s close relationship with former president Zuma enabled it to exercise influence over a wide range of political and economic activities. President Ramaphosa was implicated in similar behavior when South African logistics firm African Global Operations, formerly known as Bosasa, directed a 500,000 rand ($38,000) donation to his 2017 leadership campaign. The president originally claimed that the funds were meant for a foundation managed by his son, Andile Ramaphosa, but he retracted the statement when his son denied involvement.

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 47 percent of National Assembly and 2 of 9 provincial premierships. South Africa has one of the world’s most liberal legal environments for LGBT+ people. However, discrimination and the threat of violence can discourage LGBT+ people from political participation in practice.

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? 3.003 4.004

Pervasive corruption and apparent interference by nonelected actors have hampered the proper functioning of government, particularly during the Zuma administration, which the Gupta family heavily influenced. Ramaphosa appointed a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into state capture, or external influence held over an administration—namely that of the Gupta family over Zuma’s—in 2018. Ramaphosa also amended the terms of the state capture inquiry to pave the way for evidence gathered to be used in prosecutions.

Testimony offered at the commission, as well as media reports, suggest that the Gupta family influenced selections to the cabinet and to the boards of state-owned companies. At the end of 2018, the Gupta brothers were living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), having left South Africa to avoid prosecution. In October 2019, the South African government began discussions with the UAE to finalize an extradition treaty in an effort to secure the Guptas’ return.

The state capture commission continued its hearings in 2019. In sessions held in January and March, it heard the testimony of former Bosasa executive Angelo Agrizzi; Agrizzi claimed that Bosasa received preferential government contracts since 2004, and that the firm bribed as many as 38 officials and politicians during the course of business. Former president Zuma appeared in front of the commission in July 2019, and denied wrongdoing during his term in office.

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 has historically been inadequate. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was hobbled by political interference during the Zuma administration; before Zuma became president, a money-laundering investigation stemming from a $2.5 billion arms deal in the 1990s was effectively set aside by the NPA. In 2018, the NPA announced that it would prosecute Zuma over these allegations, but the former president launched an appeal in October 2019; Zuma’s trial is expected to commence in 2020 should the appeal fail.

President Ramaphosa has come under scrutiny after the Bosasa donation was revealed in 2018. In July 2019, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane claimed that Ramaphosa deliberately misled the parliament about the donation and called for remedial action against him. The president denied the allegation, which was still under consideration at year’s end.

Mkhwebane has been criticized for her own performance in 2019, after her office saw several high-profile reports and recommendations rejected or stayed by the judiciary. In July, the opposition DA tried to launch a parliamentary debate to force Mkhwebane’s removal, but the public protector threatened to sue, saying that no procedure legally existed to govern her dismissal in such a fashion. In December, the National Assembly instituted a procedure to remove the heads of institutions defined by Chapter 9 of the constitution, including Mkhwebane’s office, but she remained in her post at year’s end.

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 release 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 has affected the awarding of other government contracts.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 3.003 4.004

Freedom of expression and the press are constitutionally protected and generally respected in practice. South Africa features a vibrant and 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. However, journalists face harassment for critical reporting and occasional attack, with government and opposition parties exerting pressure on both state-run and independent outlets. In September 2019, EFF leader Julius Malema banned the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, news website Daily Maverick, and Scorpio, the Daily Maverick’s investigative arm, from attending party events or briefings. Malema claimed that the outlets were working at the behest of public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan.

Journalists and rights groups have expressed concern that the misuse of surveillance laws, notably the 2002 Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA), can enable spying on reporters. In 2017, the amaBhungane Centre launched a constitutional challenge to RICA, and the Gauteng High Court ruled that several sections of the act were unconstitutional in September 2019. The amaBhungane Centre then applied to the Constitutional Court to uphold the ruling, but police minister Bheki Cele opposed their application in October; the Constitutional Court’s hearing on the matter was pending at year’s end.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4.004 4.004

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 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4.004 4.004

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 about RICA, the law governing surveillance. A legal challenge to RICA was ongoing at the end of 2019.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

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

Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected, and South Africa has a vibrant protest culture. Demonstrators must notify police of events ahead of time, but are rarely prohibited from gathering; in 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that a failure to notify authorities of intent to protest could not be classified as a crime. 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.

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.

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. Union rivalries, especially in mining, sometimes result in the use of violent tactics to recruit and retain members and to attack opponents.

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 in practice. The government lost several cases during 2019, notably including the amaBhungane Center’s ongoing challenge against RICA. The Judicial Services Commission recommends to the president the appointment of Constitutional Court judges based on both merit and efforts to racially diversify 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 was undermined in recent years, with the NPA experiencing a string of politically motivated appointments and ousters. However, President Ramaphosa appointed a new NPA head in 2018, who has worked to reform the institution. In October 2019, the NPA further bolstered its capacity when it hired several private lawyers to prosecute state capture cases.

Shortages of judicial staff and financial resources undermine defendants’ procedural rights, including the right to a timely trial and state-funded legal counsel. Many detainees wait months for their trials to begin, 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) 2017–18 annual report, the most recent report available as of this writing, there is severe overcrowding in some prisons—in part due to delays in holding trials. During this period, 82 unnatural deaths were reported in prisons, and there were 988 complaints of assault by prison officials on inmates.

Despite constitutional prohibitions, police torture and excessive force during arrest, interrogation, and detention are commonly reported. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) legally required to investigate allegations of police offenses or misconduct. In its annual report for the 2018–19 fiscal year, the IPID reported 607 deaths either in police custody or as a result of police action, 124 rapes by police officers, 270 incidents of torture, and 3,835 assaults. Overall, there was a 3 percent increase in total reported incidents over the previous fiscal year.

Official statistics released in 2019 continue to show high levels of violent crimes in some parts of the country.

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 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 poorly represented in top management positions.

Xenophobic violence against immigrants from other African countries has broken out in recent years. In late March and early April 2019, foreign-owned shops were targeted in the city of Durban; at least three people died in the ensuing violence, and dozens more sought shelter in a police station and local mosque. Xenophobic violence flared in Gauteng Province in September, resulting in the deaths of at least ten South Africans and two foreign nationals. 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.

South Africa’s asylum system is plagued by delays and administrative errors, leading to a backlog of as many as 190,000 applications according to an Amnesty International report issued in September 2019. Asylum seekers living in the country often lack official documentation that guarantees access to local services, and asylum applications are almost always rejected when they are processed.

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.

Services and accommodations for disabled people remain generally inadequate, especially in the education sector. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that disabled schoolchildren are often excluded from the mainstream education system and are instead enrolled in special schools that do not consistently support their developmental needs.

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.

In a 2017 party conference, the ANC resolved there was a need to expropriate land without compensation for redistribution purposes, on the condition that such expropriation should not negatively affect the economy or compromise food security. Since then, there has been intense public debate about the best way to effect meaningful land reform to address apartheid-era inequalities in property ownership. In July 2019, a presidential panel endorsed the limited use of land expropriation, and an ad-hoc parliamentary committee published a draft constitutional amendment on the matter in December. The committee is expected to continue its work through March 2020.

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. The South Africa Police Service (SAPS) reported 4,649 rapes during the 2018–19 reporting period. Sexual harassment is common, and reports of forced marriages persist.

Femicide is also a severe problem in South Africa, with nearly 3,000 women being murdered during the government’s 2018–2019 statistical reporting period; many were raped or sexually assaulted before their deaths. Several high-profile acts of violence against women occurred in 2019, including the August rape and murder of university student Uyinene Mrwetyana in Cape Town; these sparked nationwide protests in September. That same month, President Ramaphosa pledged to review legislation on sexual offenses, publish a national sexual offenders list, and launch a public education program on gender-based violence; this effort is scheduled to conclude in March 2020.

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. The government, businesses, and the biggest labor federation agreed to institute a minimum wage, which was implemented in January 2019. In October, finance minister Tito Mboweni proposed exempting small businesses from the law, but he encountered opposition from the COSATU and SACP, the ANC’s coalition partners, later that month. High levels of unemployment persist.

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