South Africa | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Africa

South Africa

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores

Status

Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

1.5

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

2

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

1
Overview: 


South Africa's remarkable experiment in democratic consolidation continued in 2002. The Constitutional Court issued a groundbreaking ruling on the Treatment Action Campaign, stating that the government would have to provide treatment for women with HIV infections or AIDS. President Thabo Mbeki played a key leadership role in promoting the continent-wide New Economic Partnership for Africa (NEPAD), which places considerable emphasis on improved democracy and governance; the initiative has proven controversial in the early going.

Domestically, heightened protests have taken place regarding governmental social policy and the pace of essential service delivery. Tension within the alliance of the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party (SACP) continued. A five-year ANC policy conference took place in December, staking out a position for the party between the perceived excesses of "neoliberalism" and ultra-leftism."

President Mbeki maintained controversial positions on a number of issues, including his support for authoritarian President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mbeki had only muted criticism of Mugabe's reelection, preferring quiet diplomacy to seek resolution of Zimbabwe's ongoing political crisis. Mbeki also spent considerable political capital arguing that AIDS is not necessarily caused by HIV, although he adopted a lower profile on this issue in 2002.

South Africa's apartheid government, which came to power in 1948, reserved political power for the white minority while seeking to balkanize the black, Indian, and mixed-race, or colored, communities. Increasing international ostracism, civil unrest, and the growing strength of the ANC eventually forced the South African government to negotiate with its adversaries. Momentum for change accelerated with the accession to power of Frederick de Klerk and global and regional moves towards greater democratization in the late 1980s. In 1990 De Klerk freed ANC leader Nelson Mandela from 27 years imprisonment, and a negotiation process that resulted in legitimate multiparty elections in 1994 was initiated. These elections brought Mandela and the ANC to power at the national level. The ANC's electoral primacy was again demonstrated at the second round of national elections in 1999.

In recent years tension has increased between the ruling ANC and various groups, including trade unions, elements of the press, traditional leaders, and the white minority. Key areas of disagreement between the ANC and the COSATU have included the government's approach to dealing with key problems such as the AIDS epidemic and its conservative economic policies. In 2001 the ANC reached a cooperation agreement with the New National Party (NNP), the successor party to the apartheid-era ruling party. The agreement gave the ANC a foothold in the Western Cape, a key province where it previously had had no governing role.

The ANC leadership has focused blame for the country's problems on the former white-supremacist regime. This argument has begun to lose some of its potency with the passage of time and with the growing economic empowerment of a minority of black South Africans.

Serious challenges regarding democratic consolidation, economic and social development, health, and group relations exist. Concerns about rising corruption, as in the case of the Strategic Defense Procurement Package government arms purchase, led to the introduction into parliament of the 2002 Prevention of Corruption bill. The durability of the new democratic structures is uncertain since South Africa remains deeply divided by ethnicity and class. AIDS is rampant throughout the country, which is also plagued by crime levels that have reached endemic proportions.

South Africa's regional relations are highly sensitive and complicated. In addition to Zimbabwe's increasing instability, the specter of famine now haunts the region. Strife in the Great Lakes area, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has also impeded economic and political progress. In 2001, long-running negotiations to achieve a possible resolution of Burundi's civil conflict, led by former president Mandela, resulted in the installation of a coalition government. As part of this agreement, South Africa sent troops to Burundi as peacekeepers and continued to act as a mediator.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


South Africa continues to provide a remarkable, powerful example of a positive democratic transition in an extremely diverse country. Consolidation of South Africa's democratic transition proceeded under the new constitution that took effect in February 1997. The country's independent judiciary continues to function, on balance, very well. Elections at all levels of government have taken place repeatedly. The press, trade unions, and other independent institutions play important roles in articulating a wide variety of interests.

South Africans have the right, in theory and practice, to change their government. Two successful national elections have taken place since 1994. Elections for the 400-seat National Assembly and 90-seat National Council of Provinces are by proportional representation based on party lists. The National Assembly elects the president to serve concurrently with their five-year term. Local and municipal elections were held in 1995, 1996, and early December, 2000.

In general, the electoral process, including extensive civic and voter education, balanced state-media coverage, and reliable balloting and vote counting, has worked properly. An exception is in KwaZulu/Natal, where political violence and credible allegations of vote rigging have devalued the process. Another controversial topic receiving increasing attention is the relationship of traditional leadership to the governing institutions. In particular, the Communal Land Rights bill would reform the administrative structure of local governments.

The South African constitution is one of the most liberal in the world, and includes a sweeping bill of rights. In early 2000 the parliament approved legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex. Parliament has passed more than 500 laws relating to the constitution, revamping the apartheid-era legal system. This legislation is now being implemented: for example, some lower courts have been designated "equality courts," with a particular mandate to review instances of unfair discrimination. In 2000 the cabinet also endorsed a code of ethics requiring the president and national and provincial cabinet ministers to abide by certain standards of behavior regarding potential and real conflicts of interest, and to disclose financial assets and gifts valued above a determined amount.

The now-concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to heal divisions created by the apartheid regime through a series of open hearings. From 1996 to 1998 the commission received more than 20,000 submissions from victims and nearly 8,000 applications for amnesty from perpetrators. In 1998 the commission released a report on human rights abuses during the apartheid years that largely focused on atrocities committed by the white-minority government, but which also criticized the ANC. The commission's amnesty committee remained in existence until June 2001 to complete the task of assessing thousands of applications for amnesty. A final report has yet to be submitted to parliament. The controversial issue of reparations for victims of apartheid is being actively debated within and between the civil society and government.

The 11-member Constitutional Court, created to enforce the rules of the new democracy, has demonstrated considerable independence. In its Treatment Action Campaign ruling, the court required the government to provide treatment to women with HIV or AIDS. In addition, the court handed down a judgment on the right to vote, validating legislative party switching in local councils. Lower courts generally respect legal provisions regarding arrest and detention, although courts remain understaffed. Efforts to end torture and other abuses by the national police force have been implemented. The constitutionally mandated Human Rights Commission was appointed by parliament to "promote the observance of, respect for, and the protection of fundamental rights."

Freedom of expression is generally respected. A variety of newspapers and magazines publish reporting, analysis, and opinion sharply critical of the government, political parties, and other societal actors. Radio broadcasting has been dramatically liberalized, with scores of small community radio stations now operating. Nevertheless, the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), although far more independent today than during apartheid, still suffers from self-censorship.

The final version of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill passed by parliament in October 2002 reflects the positive impact of civil society, the media, and parliament on the development of democratic processes. Original draft legislation contained a clause requiring that the SABC report to the minister of communications regarding editorial content. After considerable advocacy and debate, the legislation was revised; the constitutionally mandated Independent Communications Authority of South Africa will ensure that the SABC fulfills its mission of broadcasting in the public interest.

Equal rights for women are guaranteed by the constitution and promoted by the constitutionally mandated Commission on Gender Equality. Laws such as the Maintenance Act and the Domestic Violence Act are designed to protect women in financially inequitable and abusive relationships, as well as in other areas of social inequality. These laws, though a step in the right direction, nevertheless do not provide the infrastructure for their implementation. Discriminatory practices in customary law remain prevalent.

The breakdown of law and order is a serious problem. An estimated four million illegal firearms circulate in South Africa. Nationally, police make arrests in only 45 percent of murder cases and 12 percent of robberies, compared with 70 percent and 30 percent, respectively, in the United States. In recent years South Africa has ranked first in the world in the per capita number of rapes and armed robberies. Tension has also grown between elements of the nation's Muslim minority and the government. A number of self-styled vigilantes, some of them with links to criminals, have been charged with a string of violent actions, especially in the Cape Town area.

In response to this problem and to the September 11 attacks in the United States, the government has drafted a terrorism bill, which is due to be presented to parliament in 2003. Many clauses in the original version alarmed South Africans who remembered the days when groups such as the ANC were persecuted as terrorist organizations and anti-apartheid activists were detained for up to 90 days without trial. A revised text does away with many of the most objectionable clauses, and further amendments are possible as parliament reviews this legislation.

Prison conditions are characterized by overcrowding. The prison system has a capacity of 100,000 but has been holding as many as 170,000 individuals. In 2001 the government announced that spending on the integrated justice system--the police, courts, and correctional services--would increase by 7.2 percent per year to allow for infrastructural improvements and the hiring of 6,000 new police officers. The Jali Commission of Inquiry into corruption in prisons was established in 2002. It has shed light on this volatile issue, and as a result the Special Investigative Unit has been established with powers of prosecution.

Labor rights codified under the 1995 Labor Relations Act (LRA) are respected, and there are more than 250 trade unions. The right to strike can be exercised after reconciliation efforts. The LRA allows employers to hire replacement workers. The ANC government has introduced several labor laws designed to protect the rights of workers, although it has taken other actions that weaken labor union positions in bargaining for job security, wages, and other benefits.

South Africa faces other serious problems. It has one of the fastest-growing AIDS rates in the world. About 4.7 million people in South Africa are believed to be HIV-positive, higher than in any other country. Up to 250,000 deaths from AIDS occur each year, and the health crisis poses an extremely serious political and social problem.

The quality of schooling is extremely uneven. More than three-quarters of South Africa's people are black, but they share less than a third of the country's total income. The white minority retains most economic power. Unemployment stands at about 40 percent among blacks and 4 percent among whites; an estimated 500,000 private sector jobs have been lost since 1994. Attempts to redress these significant economic disparities include initiatives such as the Mining Charter, negotiated in 2002, which requires 25 percent of the mining industry to be black-owned in five years.