South Africa | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Africa

South Africa

Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In 2004, South Africa celebrated a decade of democracy with a third round of free and fair general elections. However, President Thabo Mbeki undermined the country's stature as a regional leader by refusing to publicly condemn growing repression in neighboring Zimbabwe. The government further damaged its credibility by failing to confront an HIV infection rate that is the world's highest.

South Africa's apartheid government, which came to power in 1948, reserved political power for the white minority. International economic sanctions and civil unrest 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 moves towards democratization in the late 1980s. In 1990, de Klerk freed from prison African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela after the latter had served 27 years of a life sentence. De Klerk initiated a negotiation process that resulted in legitimate multiparty elections in 1994. These elections brought Mandela and the ANC to power at the national level.

The ANC's electoral primacy was confirmed in elections in 1999 and then again on April 14, 2004. The party won 70 percent of the vote - its best showing yet - claiming 279 of the 400 seats in parliament; Mbeki was sworn in for a second five-year term.

Since the ANC has come to power, tension has increased with trade unions, independent media, traditional leaders, and the white minority. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers went on strike in September 2004 in the largest industrial action in the last decade. Key areas of disagreement between the ANC and labor have included the government's conservative economic policies and its approach to the AIDS epidemic.

The ANC leadership largely blames the country's problems on the former white-supremacist regime. However, this argument has begun to lose potency with the growing economic empowerment of a minority of black South Africans. Protests have taken place over the slow pace of essential-services delivery to disadvantaged people. Serious challenges exist regarding economic development, and although progress has been made, the government has not kept promises to vastly improve education, health care, and housing. The durability of the new democratic structures is uncertain, as South Africa remains deeply divided by ethnicity and class. Some 40 percent of South Africans live in poverty, which could eventually pose a risk to social stability.

More than one in nine South Africans is HIV-positive. The country has the highest infection rate in the world, which poses enormous political and social problems. Up to 360,000 South Africans die yearly from AIDS, which has orphaned more than 650,000 children. Besides overwhelming the health care system, the pandemic threatens the economy by depleting future generations of workers. After having spent considerable political capital trying to keep anti-HIV drugs from the public health system, arguing that the virus did not necessarily cause AIDS, Mbeki in 2003 yielded to international and domestic pressure to provide universal antiretroviral drug treatment. However, very little has been done to implement the program. In July 2004, in what AIDS campaigners saw as another obstacle, the government rejected giving pregnant HIV-positive women a single dose of the drug nevirapine, recommending instead a more complex 28-week regimen that would reach fewer people. Mbeki's slowness in tackling the epidemic and the country's astronomical crime rates have scared off much foreign investment.

South Africa is deemed a regional leader, but Mbeki lacks the moral authority of his predecessor, Mandela. Mbeki's pursuit of "quiet diplomacy" with the ANC's historic ally, Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, has been ineffectual in resolving authoritarianism and economic collapse in that country.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

South Africans can change their government democratically. Three successful national elections have taken place since 1994, the last in April 2004. 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 the five-year parliamentary term. The next local elections are scheduled for 2005. In general, the electoral process, including voter education, balanced state-media coverage, and reliable balloting and vote counting, has functioned properly.

The ANC dominates the South African political landscape, as evidenced by its sweeping electoral victory in April 2004. The Democratic Alliance, the party favored by most white South Africans, emerged as the main opposition group with 50 seats in parliament. The Inkatha Freedom Party came in third, with 28 seats, demonstrating that it is no longer a major force outside of the Kwa-Zulu Natal province. The New National Party, formerly the National Party that ruled during apartheid, has seen support erode dramatically to only six seats.

In 2000, the cabinet endorsed a code of ethics for politicians, covering items such as conflict of interest and disclosure of financial assets and large gifts. Corruption is not widespread, but concerns about increasing incidents led to the introduction into parliament of the 2002 Prevention of Corruption bill. South Africa was ranked 44 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is generally respected, although the government is sensitive to criticism. The state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) suffers from self-censorship. However, a variety of newspapers and magazines publish opinions sharply critical of the government and the ANC. Scores of small community radio stations operate, as well as one commercial television station, e-TV. Internet access is growing rapidly but remains elusive for disadvantaged people, particularly in rural areas, where computers and electricity are scarce.

The final version of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill passed by parliament in 2002 reflects the maturity of the democratic processes. Original draft legislation contained a clause requiring that the SABC report to the minister of communications regarding editorial content. The legislation was revised after considerable debate; the constitutionally mandated Independent Communications Authority of South Africa will ensure that the SABC fulfills its mission of broadcasting in the public interest.

Religious and academic freedom thrive.

The government generally respects the rights of freedom of assembly and association, and a lively protest scene prevails. Non-governmental organizations operate freely. In recent years, the ANC has seen increased tension with its traditional political allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party. Labor rights codified under the 1995 Labor Relations Act (LRA) are respected, and more than 250 trade unions exist. 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 trade union positions in bargaining for job security, wages, and other benefits.

The country's independent judiciary functions well. South Africa's new constitution, which took effect in February 1997, is one of the most liberal in the world and includes a sweeping bill of rights. 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.

The 11-member Constitutional Court, created to enforce the rules of the new democracy, has demonstrated considerable independence. In its Treatment Action Campaign ruling in 2002, the court challenged Mbeki by requiring the government to provide treatment to women with HIV or AIDS. Lower courts generally respect legal provisions regarding arrest and detention, although courts remain understaffed. The bill of rights prohibits detention without trial, but lengthy pretrial detentions are common as a result of an overwhelmed judiciary. The death penalty was abolished in 1995.

Efforts to end torture and other abuses by the national police force have been implemented, although incidents still occur. Deaths in police custody continue to be a problem. The constitutionally mandated Human Rights Commission was appointed by parliament to "promote the observance of, respect for, and the protection of fundamental rights." Prisons often do not meet international standards and are characterized by overcrowding, poor health conditions, and abuses of inmates by staff or other prisoners.

The now-concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to heal, through a series of open hearings, divisions created by the apartheid regime. 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 controversial issue of reparations for victims of apartheid is actively debated between civil society and the government.

The breakdown of law and order is a serious problem. An estimated four million illegal firearms circulate in South Africa, and in recent years, the country has ranked first in the world in the per capita number of rapes and armed robberies. Only 1 in 10 violent crimes results in conviction.

In response to the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the South African government drafted a terrorism bill, which alarmed many members of civil society who remembered the days when the ANC was persecuted as a terrorist organization. In particular, trade union groups were concerned about clauses which appeared to criminalize certain types of industrial action. The bill was withdrawn before the 2004 elections, but an amended version, excluding many of the offending clauses, was approved by the National Assembly in November.

In 2000, parliament approved legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex.

South African society is characterized by ample personal freedom, and a small black middle class is emerging. However, the white minority retains most economic power. Some three-quarters of South Africans are black, yet they enjoy less than a third of the country's total income. Unemployment stands at about 40 percent among blacks and 4 percent for whites. The quality of schooling differs for the two groups, and blacks living on farms often fail to receive formal education. The government seeks to lessen these disparities by improving, although slowly, housing and health care in disadvantaged areas. It has launched initiatives such as the Mining Charter, negotiated in 2002, which requires 25 percent of that industry to be black-owned in five years.

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. These laws, however, do not provide the infrastructure necessary for implementation. Discriminatory practices in customary law remain prevalent, as does sexual violence against women and minors. Forty percent of rape survivors are girls under 18. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Amendment Bill, introduced to parliament in 2003, seeks to widen protection for sex-crimes victims, but human rights groups say that it does not go far enough.