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 led by a judge began hearing testimony about high-level corruption allegations. The commission will conclude its hearings in 2021.
- In August, allegations of corruption were brought against high-ranking officials, including in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government, for purchases that were a part of the $26 billion COVID-19 relief package. Private companies charged the government in some cases more than five times the price the national treasury had advised for personal protective equipment.
- At least 10 Black South Africans were killed by police officers and military personnel who enforced COVID-19 lockdowns with violence. In April, Collins Khosa died after he was assaulted in his yard by soldiers and police officers who had accused him of breaking COVID-19 restrictions. A leaked report from the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) claimed the soldiers involved in the incident were not liable for Khosa’s death, which caused public outrage. Khosa’s family sued the government, and a judge issued a landmark ruling forcing the SANDF to implement codes of conduct around the use of force.
- In November, the secretary general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, was arrested on 21 counts of corruption. In 2014, as premier of the Free State Province, Magashule awarded a 255 million rand ($14 million) asbestos removal contract to close business associates from whom he allegedly received undue benefits.
- Rates of femicide and gender-based violence continued to rise. In April, police minister Bheki Cele reported that the police had received more than 2,300 complaints of gender-based violence in the first week that COVID-19 restrictions were implemented. In September, President Ramaphosa introduced three bills to the National Assembly to combat gender-based violence.
|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 main legislative 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 of five years each.
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.
|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.
|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 is considered fair. However, in recent years concerns have been raised around the integrity of the commission’s leadership.
The IEC has been working to comply with a 2016 Constitutional Court directive to accurately record the addresses of all registered voters. In 2018, the IEC received an extension to comply with the court order after citing logistical difficulties, and was given a new deadline of November 2019. By September 2019, 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. However, the IEC warned that full implementation would not take place in time for the May 2019 elections. Funding for internal party contests remains relatively opaque; in August 2019, President Ramaphosa declined to name the backers of his successful 2017 ANC leadership campaign, saying no rules were in place to mandate this reporting.
|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 political 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.
Nontransparent mechanisms for the funding of political parties have benefited the ANC, though reforms to party financing laws were passed by the National Assembly in 2018.
Over 90 political murders have taken place in KwaZulu-Natal Province since 2015. In 2017, the ANC deputy chairperson of the 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 of that year, IFP councilor Mthembeni Majola was murdered; a second IFP councilor, Khayelihle Sithole, was killed two months later.
In June 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled that individuals are entitled to contest national and provincial elections. Parliament was given 24 months to enact electoral reforms to enable individuals to contest seats in the National Assembly. Since 1994, only political parties were entitled to contest National Assembly seats in a system of proportional representation.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
Despite the ANC’s political dominance, the party recorded its poorest performance since the end of apartheid in the May 2019 contest. Meanwhile, opposition parties have made local and regional gains; in the 2016 municipal elections, the ANC lost its majorities in the Johannesburg and Tshwane municipalities, 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.
|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; party officials have been accused of buying delegates’ votes to the party conference and paying 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 Gupta family’s close relationship with and influence over former president Zuma remains a pressing political topic, as well as the subject of an ongoing state capture inquiry. President Ramaphosa has come under scrutiny since revelations emerged in 2018 that 500,000 rands ($38,000) were directed by the South African logistics firm African Global Operations, formerly known as Bosasa, to Ramaphosa’s 2017 leadership campaign.
The arrest of ANC secretary general Ace Magashule for corruption could suggest that internal party decisions are influenced by corrupt actors.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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 seats in the 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.
|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. In 2018, Zuma was forced by the High Court to appoint a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into state capture, or external influence held over an administration—namely that of the Gupta family and others. When he came into power, Ramaphosa amended the terms of the state capture inquiry to pave the way for evidence gathered to be used in prosecutions. Zuma has since been waging a legal fight to fend off the commission’s demands after he had been implicated by over 30 witnesses in several instances of wrongdoing.
Testimony offered at the commission, as well as media reports, suggest that the Gupta family influenced selections to the cabinet and to the board 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.
In January and March 2019, the state capture commission, which primarily focuses on the Zuma administration’s dealings with the Gupta family, heard the testimony of former Bosasa executive Angelo Agrizzi, who claimed the company had received preferential government contracts since 2004, and that the firm had bribed as many as 38 officials and politicians during the course of business.
In November 2020, Zuma walked out of a commission meeting to which he had been summoned after a failed attempt to secure the recusal of the presiding judge, the country’s deputy chief justice. The following month, the Constitutional Court heard an application to compel Zuma to appear and answer questions regarding his involvement in state capture. Zuma has appeared in front of the commission multiple times and denied the allegations against him.
|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, and in December 2020 the case was postponed until at least February 2021.
Since the-late 2018 appointment of Shamila Batohi as the head of the NPA and the May 2019 installation of Hermione Cronje as the head of the investigative directorate within the NPA, a series of high-profile businesspeople linked to the ANC have been arrested on corruption charges. In November 2020, ANC secretary general Ace Magashule was charged with 21 counts of corruption linked to a 255-million-rand ($14 million) asbestos removal contract he awarded to close business associates as premier of the Free State Province in 2014, and from which he allegedly received undue personal benefits.
In July 2019, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane claimed that Ramaphosa deliberately misled the parliament about the Bosasa donation and called for remedial action against him. The president denied the allegations. In March 2020, the High Court in Pretoria found that Ramaphosa did not intentionally mislead Parliament and Mkwhebane’s claims had fundamental problems, including a misapplication of the law. In October, Parliament attempted to remove Mkhwebane from office after the Constitutional Court found her to have been dishonest in her investigations.
In August 2020, allegations of corruption were brought against high-ranking officials, including some affiliated with the ANC and in the Ramaphosa government, for purchases that were a part of the $26 billion coronavirus pandemic relief package. Private companies charged the government in some cases more than five times the price the national treasury had advised for personal protective equipment. Provincial governments were implicated as well: The Eastern Cape provincial health department purchased 100 “emergency scooters,” allegedly to combat COVID-19, for $5,993 per unit, though their retail price per unit is $2,337. A report from the auditor general flagged over 30,000 relief grants that required investigation. By August, the government’s Special Investigating Unit was investigating more than 20 cases of corruption related to COVID-19 relief money.
|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 have been awarded to companies linked to the Gupta family and other politically connected businesspeople without following proper procedures. A similar lack of transparency and competitive bidding has affected the awarding of other government contracts.
In August 2020, the Ramaphosa administration promised to overhaul the government’s procurement system after evidence of wide-scale corruption in the allotment of the $26 billion COVID-19 relief package.
|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 attacks, with government and opposition parties exerting pressure on both state-run and independent outlets. In March 2020, the government passed new regulations under the 2002 Disaster Management Act, including some that criminalized disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent watchdog for freedom of the press issues, warned that the regulations could be used to further censor legitimate press outlets. In May, police harassed, assaulted, and detained journalist Paul Nthoba, editor of the weekly Mohokare News, who photographed four officers while on patrol enforcing coronavirus lockdown measures. Nthoba was charged under a COVID-19 regulation of the Disaster Management Act.
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 in September 2019 ruled that several sections of the act were unconstitutional. The amaBhungane Centre then applied to the Constitutional Court to uphold the ruling, but police minister Bheki Cele opposed their application; no court ruling had been made by the end of 2020.
|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.
|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.
|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 United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the government’s use of surveillance and about RICA, the law governing surveillance. In September 2019, the High Court found that parts of the RICA law were unconstitutional because it did not, among other things, have sufficient safeguards against state organs abusing intercepted private communication between citizens. The National Assembly was given two years to rectify the defects. The state’s legal challenge against the court ruling was ongoing at the close of 2020.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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 the amaBhungane Center’s successful challenge of the RICA legislation. 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.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Prosecutorial independence in South Africa has been undermined in recent years, with the National Prosecuting Authority (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 a lack of financial resources undermine defendants’ due process 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.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||2.002 4.004|
During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, security forces were responsible for the death of at least 10 Black South Africans. In one high-profile case in April, Collins Khosa died following an altercation in his yard with security forces who had accused him of drinking alcohol in public, which was illegal under the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Soldiers and police beat Khosa, and a medical examination found blunt force head injury to have caused his death. However, a leaked report on the matter by the military board of inquiry of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) claimed the soldiers involved in the incident were not liable for Khosa’s death. The report caused public outrage and Khosa’s family sued the government. In May, a North Gauteng High Court judge ruled the soldiers should be suspended. The judge was critical of the SANDF and its failure to ensure the rights of citizens. In a landmark move, the judge ordered the creation of a code of conduct on the use of force.
According to the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) 2018–19 annual report, the most recent report available as of this writing, there was severe overcrowding in some prisons—in part due to delays in holding trials and minimum sentencing guidelines. During this period, 103 unnatural deaths were reported in prisons, and there were 155 complaints of officials assaulting inmates.
Despite constitutional prohibitions, police torture and excessive force during arrest, interrogation, and detention are commonly reported. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) is legally required to investigate allegations of police offenses or misconduct. In its annual report for 2019–20, the IPID reported 629 deaths either in police custody or as a result of police action, 120 rapes by police officers, 216 incidents of torture, and 3,820 assaults.
Official statistics released in 2020 continue to show a high rate of violent crimes in some parts of the country.
|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 and 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 that September, resulting in the deaths of at least ten South Africans and two foreign nationals. The government’s 2019 National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (NAP), though a positive step, has largely failed to improve accountability for perpetrators of xenophobic abuse and provide justice for their victims. Beyond the creation of the NAP, 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 hampered by delays and administrative errors, leading to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of 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.
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.
|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.
|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, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, was reestablished in July 2020 and finished its hearings in November.
|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, gender-based violence remains a grave challenge in South Africa. The South Africa Police Service (SAPS) reported 42,289 rapes during the agency’s 2019–20 reporting period. 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. Sexual harassment is common, and reports of forced marriages persist.
Femicide is also a severe problem, with nearly 2,700 women being murdered during the government’s 2019–20 reporting period; many were raped or sexually assaulted before their deaths. In April 2020, police minister Bheki Cele reported that the police had received more than 2,300 complaints of gender-based violence in the first week that COVID-19 restrictions were implemented. Several high-profile acts of violence against women occurred in 2020, including the brutal murder of Tshegofatso Pule in June in a Johannesburg suburb. Pule was eight months pregnant at the time, and her murder sparked nationwide protests. President Ramaphosa has pledged to review legislation on sexual offenses, publish a national sexual offenders list, and launch a public education program on gender-based violence; in September 2020, Ramaphosa introduced three bills to the National Assembly to fight gender-based violence.
Same-sex couples have the same adoption rights as heterosexual married couples, and same-sex marriage is legal.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
South Africa’s deteriorating economic position has triggered some politicians to consider limiting the involvement of foreigners in some business sectors. In September 2020, the country’s wealthiest province of Gauteng published a draft provincial ordinance, the Gauteng Township Economic Development Bill, to curtail foreigners from establishing certain types of businesses that locals are capable of establishing. The bill has triggered intense public debate, and its constitutionality will likely be challenged in court.
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 of that year, 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. According to the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, the government has increased its efforts to combat this issue, prosecuting and convicting traffickers and identifying and referring victims for care. Organized criminal syndicates are responsible for the bulk of trafficking.
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