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, reports of corruption among government officials often emerge, and in recent years, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been accused of undermining state institutions to protect corrupt officials and preserve its power as its support base has begun to wane. Gender-based violence is a severe challenge.

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • In July, former president Jacob Zuma was arrested on contempt charges and given a 15-month prison sentence, after he refused to present himself before a corruption inquiry hearing. He was released in September on medical parole after an undisclosed medical procedure, and a judge in December allowed him to remain on medical parole while he appealed his initial arrest.
  • Also in July, riots and looting broke out in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, sparked by the jailing of former president Zuma. Though security forces were largely restrained in their actions, more than 350 people were killed in the violence.
  • In February, the Constitutional Court declared that provisions of the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (RICA) regarding the bulk interception of data for surveillance purposes are unlawful and invalid. The court challenge was originally launched by the amaBhungane Centre in 2017, and in September 2019, the Gauteng High Court had ruled that several sections of the act were unconstitutional.

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 main legislative house of South Africa’s bicameral Parliament, elects the president to serve concurrently with its five-year terms, and can vote to replace him or her at any time. Presidents can serve a maximum of two terms of five years each.

In 2018, the National Assembly selected Cyril Ramaphosa, who had replaced former president Zuma as head of the ANC, to serve as acting president. In the most recent national elections, held in May 2019, 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.

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 20.8 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.

Municipal elections are held separately from the national and provincial elections. The November 2021 municipal elections were declared credible by independent observer missions. The ANC recorded its worst outcome since the end of apartheid, taking only 46 percent of the vote.

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 is considered fair. Long-term problems with missing addresses of registered voters were resolved in 2019.

In recent years concerns have been raised around the integrity of the IEC’s leadership and internal biases. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IEC proposed that the November 2021 municipal elections be postponed to 2022. The ruling ANC agreed to the postponement, as they had not yet submitted their list of candidates. However, the Constitutional Court upheld a court challenge by the opposition requiring the elections to be held by the originally scheduled date. The DA also initiated an unsuccessful court challenge to prevent the ANC from fielding candidates after the deadline, which they claimed was only allowed because of bias within the IEC.

The IEC was entangled in another court case initiated by a new far-right political party, ActionSA, which complained about its name being omitted from the ballot paper prepared for the municipal elections.

In September 2021, individual donations of 100,000 rand (nearly $7,000) or more were made public for the first time under the Political Party Funding Act. In addition to disclosure of private funding, the law, enacted in April, requires registered political parties to submit audited financial statements to the IEC by the end of each fiscal year.

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, including newer political groups, have gained ground in recent elections.

Violent incidents in some parts of the country affected the process of choosing candidates for the ANC list in the 2021 municipal elections. In September, an ANC incumbent candidate in Pretoria, Tshepo Motaung, was shot and killed by unknown gunmen suspected to be linked to a rival faction. Three ANC supporters were shot and killed during a meeting to nominate candidates in KwaZulu-Natal. Previous killings have been linked to corruption and intraparty factional battles to access state contracts. There are strong indications that the August 2021 murder of whistleblowing civil servant Babita Deokoran was linked to corruption within the party.

In June 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled that individuals are entitled to contest national and provincial elections. Parliament was given until June 2022 to enact electoral reforms that would enable individuals to contest seats in the National Assembly. Such legislation fulfilling this obligation has yet to be passed.

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

Though the ANC has won every national election since 1994, it recorded its poorest performances since the end of apartheid in the May 2019 national elections and the November 2021 municipal elections.

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 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 to hold full control of specific branches of the party.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

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. In 2018, Zuma was forced by the High Court to appoint a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into state capture (external influence held over an administration)—namely by the Gupta family. When he came into power, President Ramaphosa amended the terms of the state capture inquiry to enable the evidence gathered by the Commission 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. Zuma was arrested in July 2021 for failing to appear before Commission meetings.

President Ramaphosa testified twice at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry, first in his capacity as ANC president and secondly as president and former deputy president of the republic. He admitted in his testimony that there had been significant state capture during Zuma’s presidency.

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. Several former and current government officials accused of corruption have not been prosecuted. The Auditor General has outlined in past annual reports that accountability failures have not been addressed. The August 2021 murder of Babita Deokoran, a whistleblower who tipped off the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to corruption in the Gauteng health department, suggests that protection measures for whistleblowers are weak.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was hobbled by political interference during the Zuma administration. In November 2020, Zuma walked out of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry meeting into state capture and corruption to which he had been summoned. The next month the Constitutional Court heard an application to compel Zuma to appear. In July 2021, Zuma was arrested on contempt charges and given a 15-month prison sentence for refusing to present himself. He was released in September on medical parole after an undisclosed medical procedure, and a judge in December allowed him to remain on medical parole while he appealed his initial arrest.

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 also implicated in a report from the auditor general flagging over 30,000 relief grants that required investigation. That month, President Ramaphosa commissioned a series of investigations by the SIU into corruption involving the pandemic relief package. In September 2021, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize was forced to step down after the SIU found evidence that the ministry had awarded his associates with a 150-million-rand ($10.4 million) COVID-19 communications contract, money which in part went to members of Mkhize’s family.

However, the ANC has used its majority in Parliament to block crucial legislative oversight investigations, shielding its representatives from corruption inquiries. For example, in April 2021, ANC members of Parliament rejected a proposal to investigate a potentially irregular contract for a multi-billion-rand program with the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy that would expedite the building of new power production plants.

The ANC in May 2021 suspended its secretary-general, Ace Magashule, who was charged with 21 counts of corruption linked to his nearly decade-long tenure as head of the Free State provincial government. His attempt to appeal the suspension in court failed in September.

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. A lack of transparency and a lack of competitive bidding have affected the awarding of 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 coronavirus pandemic relief package.

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

Freedoms 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 expose government malpractice and efforts to encroach on freedom of expression.

However, journalists face harassment for critical reporting and occasional attacks, with ruling 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 press freedom watchdog, warned that the regulations could be used to further censor legitimate media outlets. In May 2020, 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.

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. In September 2019, the High Court found that parts of RICA, the law governing surveillance, 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. In February 2021, the Constitutional Court declared that the provisions of RICA regarding the bulk interception of data for surveillance purposes are unlawful and invalid.

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. 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, though they 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. Courts have ruled against the government in several high-profile cases, including in 2019 and again in 2021, when parts of RICA were declared unconstitutional.

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, 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.

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

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. Soldiers and police beat Khosa, and a medical examination found blunt force head injury to have caused his death. A leaked report on the matter by a 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; Khosa’s family subsequently sued the government. In May 2020, a North Gauteng High Court judge ruled the soldiers should be suspended.

Despite constitutional prohibitions, police torture and use 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 report for 2020–21, the IPID reported 570 cases of death either in police custody or as a result of police action, 80 cases of rape by police officers, 256 incidents of torture, and 4,228 cases of assault. Official statistics released in 2020 continued to show a high rate of violent crimes in some parts of the country.

In July 2021, riots and looting broke out in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, sparked by the jailing of former president Zuma. Though security forces were largely restrained in their response, more than 350 people were killed in the violence.

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 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 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. The government’s 2019 National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (NAP) has largely failed to improve accountability for perpetrators of xenophobic abuse and provide justice for their victims. 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. State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo announced in July 2021 that authorities were investigating attacks on foreign nationals during the violence in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal that month.

South Africa’s asylum system is hampered by delays and administrative errors, leading to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applications. 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.

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. Rising crime rates compromise citizen’s safety when traveling.

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 incidents of looting in July 2021 suggests that authorities lack the capacity to protect private property from violent responses to tense political moments. 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. A proposed constitutional amendment to address these issues failed to pass Parliament in December 2021.

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, gender-based violence remains a grave challenge in South Africa. The South Africa Police Service (SAPS) reported 36,330 rapes during the agency’s 2020–21 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 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.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 can establish. The bill has triggered intense public debate and had not been passed into law by the end of 2021.

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. According to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2021, the government has made significant efforts to combat this issue, though it had not increased its efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted its capacity to fight the issue.

On South Africa

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  • Global Freedom Score

    79 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    73 100 free