South Africa | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Africa

South Africa

Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Various controversies surrounding the ruling African National Congress (ANC)-including the ongoing corruption trial of former deputy president and ANC stalwart Jacob Zuma-dominated South Africa's political landscape in 2005. After being charged with corruption in June, Zuma was sacked by President Thabo Mbeki, a move that incited strong opposition and allegations of political conspiracy from Zuma's supporters in the party. The year also saw escalating challenges to the ANC's economic policies and demonstrations of public discontent with the pace and extent of service delivery in South Africa.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa-including the British colonies of the Cape and Natal and the two Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State-was created as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. All political and most civil rights were limited to South Africa's minority white population; the majority black population, as well as the colored (mixed-race) and Asian (primarily Indian) minorities, were effectively disenfranchised. In 1948, the Afrikaner-dominated National Party (NP) came to power on a platform of comprehensive, institutionalized racial separation, or "apartheid." Partly as a result, South Africa declared formal independence in 1961 and withdrew from the British Commonwealth. The NP continued to govern South Africa under the apartheid system for decades. Eventually, mounting domestic and international pressure prompted President F. W. de Klerk to legalize the previously banned African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress and, in 1990, to release ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison. Between then and 1994, when the first nonracial general elections were held, almost all apart-heid-related legislation was abolished and an interim, democratic constitution was negotiated and enacted.

The April 1994 elections-judged free and fair by international observers despite significant political violence-resulted in a landslide victory for the ANC and the election of Mandela as president. As required by the interim constitution, a national unity government was formed, including the ANC, the NP, and the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Negotiations within a Constitutional Assembly produced a permanent constitution, which was signed into law by Mandela in December 1996. In 1999, general elections saw the ANC claim almost two-thirds of the national vote; Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's successor as head of the ANC, won the presidency.

National elections in April 2004 demonstrated the continuing political dominance of the ANC. The party won 70 percent of the vote-its best showing yet-and claimed 279 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly; Mbeki was sworn in for a second five-year term. The ANC also secured outright majorities in seven of the nine South African provincial legislatures. The liberal (and primarily white-based) Democratic Alliance (DA) won 12.4 percent of the vote (50 seats in the National Assembly), while the IFP won almost 7 percent (28 seats). Several small opposition parties captured the remaining votes.

The ANC's rise to power has been accompanied by increasing tensions within the party's governing alliance, including the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), as well as with its core constituents-trends that continued in 2005. In May, large and recurring demonstrations in and around Cape Town and Port Elizabeth saw hundreds of people demanding better housing and public service delivery, promised by the government in numerous election campaigns but not yet provided; similar protests took place in Free State Province in late 2004. Both the demonstrators and police employed violence during the protests. In August, COSATU organized the Western Province Coalition for Jobs and Against Poverty, an alliance of more than 70 religious and civic groups aimed at challenging the Mbeki administration's "neo-liberal" economic development policies.

The most contentious issue concerning the ANC, however, is the Jacob Zuma corruption scandal. In June, Schabir Shaik-Zuma's financial adviser and ANC ally- was found guilty by the Durban High Court of corruption and fraud charges related to government arms contracts (the 1999 "arms-deal" scandal) and sentenced to 15 years in prison; Shaik's trial included accusations that Zuma had accepted bribes from Shaik on behalf of a French arms manufacturer. Later that month, Mbeki sacked Zuma, and Zuma appeared in court to face corruption charges. Zuma's support-ers-primarily from the ANC's left wing, including the ANC Youth League, the ANC Women's League, COSATU, and the SACP-claimed that the scandal was the product of a political conspiracy spurred by Mbeki's allies in the ANC and the media, a charge that became more vociferous after anticorruption investigators raided Zuma's Johannesburg home in August. As a result, Mbeki was forced to challenge the ANC alliance to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate whether Zuma's prosecution was motivated by Mbeki's desire to sideline his former deputy (and thenlikely successor). The controversy became even more heated in November, when Zuma was accused of raping a family friend. In November, the ANC's National Executive Committee issued a statement reiterating its faith in the country's justice system and rejecting the supposition that Zuma was a victim of a political conspiracy.

Some six million South Africans are infected with HIV/AIDS; South Africa has the largest number of people living with the disease of any country in the world. Mbeki's government, arguing that the HIV virus did not necessarily cause AIDS, has resisted making antiretroviral drugs available to the public health system. In 2003, the government yielded to substantial international and domestic pressure to provide universal antiretroviral drug treatment, a process that began in 2004. Shortly thereafter, however, Mbeki reappointed controversial health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has publicly recommended traditional remedies such as garlic, lemon, olive oil, and beetroot as superior to antiretroviral drugs in combating HIV/AIDS. In May, the South Africa-based Medical Research Council estimated that AIDS caused one in three deaths in the country.

While recent years have seen the emergence of a significant African middle class amid an economic boom, South Africa's substantial wealth remains concentrated in a small segment of the population. Forty-percent of South Africans live in poverty.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of South Africa 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 March 2006.

In general, the electoral process-including voter registration, voter education, and reliable balloting and vote counting-has functioned properly. However, the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been accused of pro-ANC election coverage. While political violence has decreased substantially in every election cycle, several people were killed in the run-up to the 2004 elections.

The ANC dominates the South African political landscape, as evidenced by its sweeping electoral victory in April 2004. The DA is South Africa's main opposition party, with 50 seats in parliament. The IFP, no longer a significant force outside of the KwaZulu-Natal Province, won 28 seats. The New National Party (NNP), descended from the National Party that created and ruled the South African apartheid state, has seen its share of the national vote shrink by 90 percent in 10 years. Allied with the ANC in the April 2004 elections, the NNP announced in August 2004 that it was officially merging with the ANC and then disbanded in April 2005.

While the country features a wide-ranging anticorruption framework, with several agencies and special bodies claiming a legal mandate to prevent, detect, and combat corruption among public officials, enforcement of these laws and related sanctions is a problem. In addition to the corruption trials of Shaik and Zuma, 2005 saw several other corruption scandals emerge. Beginning in January, 136 members of the National Assembly were investigated for illegally inflating their travel expenses to pay for luxury items; 5 members were convicted of corruption in March, and another 21 were charged with travel-related fraud in June. In August, opposition parties called for an investigation into an oil deal (labeled "oilgate") executed as part of the now defunct UN oil-for-food program in Iraq; allegedly, the deal served as a front for the diversion of state funds to the ANC. South Africa was ranked 46 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression and the press, protected in the constitution, is generally respected. A number of private newspapers and magazines are sharply critical of the government, political parties, and other societal actors. For primarily socioeconomic reasons, most South Africans receive the news via radio outlets, a majority of which are owned and controlled by the state broadcaster, the SABC. The SABC also dominates the television market with three stations; still, the country's two commercial television stations, and Mnet, are reaching increasingly greater proportions of the population. While editorially independent from the government, the SABC has come under fire for displaying progovernment and pro-ANC biases and for encouraging self-censorship.

The government continued to reveal a heightened sensitivity to media criticism- including accusing critical journalists of racism and betraying the state. Reporters are occasionally subject to threats and harassment, and are sometimes forcibly denied access to official proceedings. In May, the Johannesburg High Court issued a gag order against an article on the "oilgate" corruption scandal set to appear in the independent Mail & Guardian newspaper. The article was gagged because the newspaper refused to reveal its sources of (allegedly illegally obtained) information for the story. The gag order was lifted in June; however, in September, the government issued a subpoena to the Mail & Guardian's online host, requiring the M-Web company to deliver records of a bank statement related to "oilgate" published on the Mail & Guardian Online website. Also in May, officials in Limpopo Province barred SABC journalists from entering the provincial legislature; two weeks earlier, an adviser to Limpopo's premier accosted SABC employees about the broadcaster's coverage of local politicians. Internet access is unrestricted and growing rapidly, although many South Africans cannot afford the service fee.

Freedom of religion and academic freedom are constitutionally guaranteed and actively protected by the government in practice.

Freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are secured by the constitution, and South Africa features a vibrant civil society and an embedded protest culture. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely, and citizens are easily able to form NGOs and obtain the required certificate of registration. However, police used force to break up several protests in 2005, as well as other demonstrations over disease and housing issues. In July, some 40 people protesting the slow rollout of antiretroviral drugs in Eastern Cape were injured after police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the demonstration. Two months later, police fired rubber bullets at protesting residents of the typhoid-stricken town of Delmas in Mpumalanga Province.

South Africans are free to form, join, and participate in independent trade unions. Labor rights codified under the 1995 Labor Relations Act are respected, and more than 250 trade unions exist. Unions have been active since the early twentieth century and played a critical role in the antiapartheid movement; as a result, the country features a politically engaged and influential trade union movement. COSATU- which includes the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and claims over two million affiliate members-is part of a tripartite governing alliance with the ANC and the SACP. In September 2004, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers went on strike in the largest industrial action in the last decade. A number of strikes involving workers in the mining and textile sectors were peacefully conducted and resolved in the period under review.

The independence of the South African judiciary is guaranteed by the constitution, and the courts-particularly the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court- operate with substantial autonomy. Although defendants are granted a range of procedural rights, in practice, staff and resource shortages undermine South Africans' (particularly poor South Africans') rights to a timely trial and state-funded legal counsel and have produced a significant backlog of cases. While corruption in the upper courts is not a significant concern, the lower (magistrates) courts have proven more susceptible. In addition, there have been reports of violent intimidation directed at judges and magistrates.

Despite constitutional prohibitions and government efforts to the contrary, there were reports of torture and the use of excessive force by police during interrogation, arrest, and detention. Deaths in police custody continue to be a problem. Excessive pretrial detention and negligent conditions for pretrial detainees were cited by a UN Working Group in 2005 as major shortcomings of the South Africa penal system. While most prisoners wait an average of three months before trial, some must wait up to two years. Prisons often do not meet international standards and are characterized by overcrowding, poor health conditions, and abuses of inmates by staff or other prisoners. High crime rates and concerns about police capabilities have fueled regular instances of vigilante justice and a burgeoning private security industry.

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC)-established in 1995 to both expose apartheid-era abuses and heal racial divisions through a series of open hear-ings-formally concluded its activities in 2001. By October 2004, more than 16,000 victims of abuses had received a one-time reparation payment of 30,000 rands (US$4,600), and some 850 had been granted amnesty by the TRC for perpetrating such abuses. The controversial issue of reparations for victims of apartheid is actively debated between civil society and the government. In October 2005, the last piece of apartheid legislation, the Black Administration Act, was repealed.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on "race. . .ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth." State entities, such as the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Office of the Public Prosecutor (OPP), are empowered to investigate and, with respect to the OPP, prosecute violations of antidiscrimination laws. Citing the legacy of the apartheid system, the government has passed a significant amount of legislation mandating affirmative action for previously disadvantaged groups (defined as "Africans," "Coloureds," and "Asians") in both public and private employment as well as education. However, racial imbalances in the workforce persist, and a majority of the country's business assets remain in the hands of white-owned businesses. The government has focused policy (with very mixed results) on reforming inequities in housing, health care, and land ownership, as well as instituting a Black Economic Empowerment program that aims to increase the black stake in the economy, mostly via aggressive preferences in employment and government tenders.

Increased illegal immigration, particularly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, has led to a rise in xenophobia and occasional attacks perpetrated by both police and nonstate actors. The nomadic Khoikhoi and Khomani San peoples, indigenous to South Africa, suffer from social and legal discrimination. In a March report, the SAHRC found ample evidence of police abuse of members of the Khomani San community, including police culpability in the widely publicized killing of Optel Rooi, a community leader and master tracker.

South Africa features one of the world's most liberal legal environments for homosexuals. In February 2004, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a lesbian couple who argued that the country's Marriage Act should include same-sex marriage; in 2002, the Constitutional Court ruled that homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children.

The protection of property rights is a subject of much controversy in South Africa. Some 80 percent of farmland is owned by white South Africans, who make up 14 percent of the population. As a result, thousands of black and colored farm workers suffer from insecure tenure rights, and illegal squatting on white-owned farms is a serious problem. In July, delegates to a state-sponsored national land summit advised the government to revise the "willing buyer, willing seller" land redistribution program in favor of a quicker, less market-based approach. New deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who attended the summit and supported the move away from market-friendly land reform, caused a major stir when she later stated that South Africa should "learn lessons" from and employ "the skills" of Zimbabwe in pursuing more rapid land reform. (Since 2000, Zimbabwe has seized thousands of white-owned farms and evicted both farm owners and laborers, precipitating a massive economic decline.)

Still, the state generally protects citizens from arbitrary deprivation of their property. In May, a farmer whose land had been invaded by some 40,000 squatters since 2000 (and allowed to do so by local police) was awarded compensation by the Constitutional Court. However, in a landmark development in October, the government issued the country's first expropriation order, forcing a white farmer to sell his land for redistribution after negotiations on a compensation price failed.

Equal rights for women are guaranteed by the constitution and promoted by the constitutionally mandated Commission on Gender Equality. While the constitution allows the option and practice of customary law, it does not allow such law to supercede the constitutional rights assured to women as South African citizens. Nevertheless, women suffer de facto discrimination with regard to issues surrounding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and property rights. Domestic violence and rape, both criminal offenses, are serious problems: South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of sexual abuse. Women are also subject to sexual harassment and wage discrimination in the workplace and are not well represented in top management positions. However, women hold 131 seats in the National Assembly and head 12 (of 28) ministries and 4 provinces; in June, Mbeki appointed Minerals and Energy Minister Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as deputy president.