South Africa | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Africa

South Africa

Freedom in the World 2007

2007 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

South Africa’s political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to the ruling ANC’s growing monopoly on policy making and its increasingly technocratic nature.

After several trial delays, former deputy president and ruling African National Congress (ANC) party stalwart Jacob Zuma was acquitted of rape charges in May 2006 and resumed his duties as deputy president of the ANC, resurrecting his prospects of succeeding President Thabo Mbeki in 2009. Zuma’s chances were further bolstered in September by a High Court decision to withdraw the state prosecutor’s landmark corruption case against him. Local elections in March led to another decisive victory for the ANC, confirming the party’s unrivaled hold on political power in the country. However, the elections were preceded by violent demonstrations of public discontent with redistricting plans and the pace and extent of service delivery in South Africa. In addition, in September provincial ANC leaders employed antidemocratic means in a failed attempt to remove the opposition mayor of Cape Town from office. Meanwhile, South Africa’s vibrant independent media came under increasing pressure from the government in 2006.

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. Most political and 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 the Pan-Africanist Congress and, in 1990, to release ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison. Between then and 1994, when the first multiracial general elections were held, almost all apartheid-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). A Constitutional Assembly produced a permanent constitution that 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 provincial legislatures. The liberal (and primarily white-based) Democratic Alliance (DA) won 12.4 percent of the vote and 50 seats in the National Assembly, while the IFP won almost 7 percent and 28 seats. Several small opposition parties captured the remainder.

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. These trends were exacerbated in 2006 by the increasingly vocal opposition of the SACP and COSATU to the Mbeki government’s economic policies, approach to land reform, record of public service delivery, and, most importantly, its alleged role in the controversies surrounding Jacob Zuma. In 2005, Mbeki had sacked then-deputy president Zuma after he was implicated in the corruption trial of his financial advisor, Schabir Shaik. Zuma’s supporters—primarily from the ANC-led coalition’s left wing, including the ANC Youth League, COSATU, and the SACP, as well as ethnic Zulus—claimed that the scandal was the product of a political conspiracy spurred by Mbeki’s allies in the ANC and the media, and redoubled the accusations after Zuma was accused of raping a family friend.

Two Johannesburg High Court judges recused themselves in February 2006 from Zuma’s rape trial, but Judge Willem van de Merwe acquitted him in May. The trial was marked by regular pro-Zuma demonstrations outside the courtroom, with many of the protesters espousing Zulu nationalist rhetoric and expressing violent disdain for both Zuma’s accuser and Mbeki. Zuma’s testimony was itself a source of controversy. He admitted to knowingly having unprotected sex with his HIV-positive accuser and attributed his allegedly nonconsensual sexual behavior to Zulu cultural mores. Later in May, Zuma officially resumed his duties as deputy president of the ANC and unofficially reclaimed his status as a prime candidate to succeed Mbeki in 2009. In September, Zuma’s long-awaited corruption trial began. Soon thereafter, the Pietermaritzburg High Court struck the National Prosecuting Authority’s case against Zuma from the roll, citing procedural missteps. Though the case was not dismissed, the move rendered Zuma eligible to be president of South Africa, a development greeted with much enthusiasm by COSATU, the SACP, and Zuma’s Zulu supporters. COSATU called for Zuma’s reinstatement as the country’s deputy president.

Municipal elections held in March 2006 were preceded by a series of violent protests over the pace and extent of public service delivery and the government’s plan to redistrict a number of municipalities into different provinces. Nevertheless, the ANC captured 66.6 percent of the overall vote and 194 city councils, including the mayoralties of five of the country’s six major cities. The DA won 14.9 percent and 10 city councils, including—after extended negotiations—the mayoralty of Cape Town, marking the first time the ANC had lost control of a major municipality in the democratic era. However, in September the ANC-controlled Western Cape provincial government attempted to alter the city’s governance system and replace Mayor Helen Zille of the DA with a 10-member committee, claiming that Zille’s city council coalition was not sufficiently representative of the city’s population. The effort failed, largely because of the intervention of President Mbeki; however, the controversy spurred opposition and civic leaders to question the ANC’s tolerance for political competition.

Some 5.5 million South Africans are infected with HIV/AIDS, about 12 percent of the population; 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 does not necessarily cause AIDS, has resisted making antiretroviral drugs available to the public health system and has clashed with increasingly vocal HIV/AIDS activist groups. In 2003, the government yielded to substantial international and domestic pressure to provide universal antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment, and the process began in 2004. (By September 2006, only 194,000 people—less than half of the targeted population—were using ARVs; of these, only 58 percent were obtaining them from the public health system.) 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. Calls for Tshabalala-Msimang’s resignation were voiced throughout 2006, though she received vocal support from a coalition of traditional healers. In September, 60 international HIV/AIDS experts wrote to Mbeki requesting her dismissal, and the request was echoed by the head of the influential Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Zackie Achmat, at a COSATU conference later that month. However, in a significant policy reversal, the government coordinated closely with the TAC in formulating a new five-year plan to halve infection rates and extend ARV treatment to 80 percent of the infected population; the new plan was introduced in December 2006.

While a significant black middle class has emerged in recent years amid an economic boom and aggressive affirmative action policies in the corporate sector, substantial wealth remains concentrated in a small segment of the population. Officially reported at 25.6 percent, real unemployment is estimated at 30 to 40 percent. In February 2006, the government announced the launching of the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative, aimed at producing a 6 percent economic growth rate accompanied by significant job creation.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

South Africa is an electoral democracy. Three successful national elections have taken place since 1994, the last in April 2004. The Parliament is bicameral; elections for the 400-seat National Assembly are determined by proportional representation based on party lists, and the 90 members of the National Council of Provinces are selected by the provincial legislatures. The National Assembly elects the president to serve concurrently with the five-year parliamentary term. 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 with each 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. However, policy disputes and the controversy surrounding ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma controversies have produced significant splits in the party’s governing alliance with COSATU and the SACP. In May 2006, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi warned that the country was “drifting toward dictatorship,” and in October, Mbeki and SACP leader Blade Nzimande engaged in a public dispute over economic policy. The DA is South Africa’s main opposition party, with 50 seats in the National Assembly. The IFP, no longer a significant force outside of KwaZulu-Natal province, holds 28 seats.

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 are inadequate. In addition to the ongoing corruption scandals—including the Zuma-Shaik affair—connected with a series of government arms contracts from the late 1990s, several other major corruption stories emerged in 2006. In January, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was accused of using a state aircraft to travel to a holiday junket in the United Arab Emirates; she claimed that the trip combined leisure and state business. In March, Auditor General Shauket Fakie reported that more that 14 executive cabinet ministers and deputies, along with 50,000 other public servants, had failed to publicly declare their business interests as required by law. In August, former member of Parliament and major ANC figure Tony Yengeni began serving a prison sentence stemming from his 2003 corruption conviction in the 1999 arms deal scandal. South Africa was ranked 51 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression and the press is protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice. A number of private newspapers and magazines are sharply critical of the government, political parties, and other powerful figures and institutions. 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, but the country’s two commercial television stations, and Mnet, are reaching growing proportions of the population.

Press freedom in South Africa deteriorated in 2006, as the government continued to act on its sensitivity to criticism by restricting private media and compromising the editorial independence of the SABC. In June, the SABC—apparently under pressure from the government—opted not to air a commissioned documentary about President Thabo Mbeki because it contained allegedly defamatory statements about him. Two months later, press freedom and civil society organizations protested the introduction of the government’s Film and Publication Amendment Bill to Parliament. The measure would subject print and broadcast media to the same prepublication screening for “indecent content” currently required of films, computer games, and magazines. The legislation was pending at year’s end. In the year’s most worrying development, the website of the independent and adversarial Mail & Guardian newspaper in October leaked excerpts from an internal SABC report that found several outspoken government critics had been barred from SABC airwaves. The leaked report accused head of news Snuki Zikalala of repeated and inappropriate interventions in the SABC’s news programs. The SABC then attempted to interdict the Mail & Guardian Online’s publication of the full “blacklist” report, but the interdiction request was struck down by the Johannesburg High Court. In an unrelated development, the Johannesburg High Court in February did enforce an interdiction request from a Muslim religious organization to prevent the country’s largest newspaper, the Sunday Times , from reprinting allegedly offensive cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. The move was decried by press freedom organizations.

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 hosts a vibrant civil society and an embedded protest culture. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely, and citizens are able to easily form NGOs and obtain the required certificates of registration. NGOs regularly testify before and submit presentations to parliamentary committees regarding pending legislation. In April 2006, however, the exclusion of the TAC from the South African delegation to a UN-sponsored AIDS conference highlighted the adversarial relationship between the government and the country’s most prominent advocacy organization. Vocal and sometimes violent protests have mounted in recent years amid dissatisfaction with public service delivery, disease treatments, and, in 2006, the planned redistricting of a number of municipalities into different provinces. In February, a series of protests broke out in the Khutsong township, resulting in dozens of arrests, significant property damage, and peacemaking visits from several high-ranking ANC officials. Currently in Guateng province, Khutsong’s move to the North-West province is being challenged in court.

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 anti-apartheid movement; as a result, organized labor remains politically engaged and influential. 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 March 2006, about 90,000 private security guards began a strike to demand better wages and working conditions. The strike, resolved in June, led to violence in several cities, including clashes with police, the murder of strike-breakers, and attacks on bystanders. In May, COSATU called a general protest against the recent loss of some 100,000 jobs in the powerful mining and textile sectors.

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. In December 2005, the government introduced legislation intended to reorganize the judiciary by reforming apartheid-era structures and extending more executive control over judicial administration. The plan provoked wide opposition from legal professionals and civil society organizations, who saw it as a threat to judicial independence. In July 2006, the government stated that parliamentary debate on the measure would not continue until there had been widespread consultation and approval by the judicial branch.

Although defendants are granted a range of procedural rights, staff and resource shortages in practice 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. The recusal of the first two judges picked to try the Zuma rape case in the Johannesburg High Court—attributed to differing conflicts of interest—caused some concern about the ability of the judiciary to try high-level defendants. That concern was exacerbated by Zuma’s acquittal and the subsequent withdrawal of the separate corruption case against him.

Despite constitutional prohibitions and government efforts to curtail the practices, 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 poor conditions for pretrial detainees were cited by a UN Working Group in 2005 as major shortcomings of the South African penal system. While most prisoners wait an average of three months before trial, some wait up to two years. Prisons often do not meet international standards and are characterized by overcrowding, inadequate health care, and abuse of inmates by staff or other prisoners. In March 2006, more than 240 inmates at a prison in Durban called a hunger strike to protest their lack of access to HIV/AIDS drugs.

South Africa has one of the highest violent crimes rates in the world, and a murder rate that has hovered around 0.5 per 1,000 people since 2000. Such crime, along with concerns about police capabilities, has fueled regular instances of vigilante justice and a burgeoning private security industry. In June 2006, Security Minister Charles Nqakula caused a major controversy by telling opposition lawmakers that South Africans who “whine” about crime should leave the country. He later suggested that police officers complaining about the lack of cars in the national police fleet should ride donkeys to crime scenes. In November 2006, allegations of links between National Commissioner of the South African Police Service Jackie Selebi and organized crime figure Glen Agliott surfaced in the South African media, spurring calls from civic organizations.

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, in the OPP’s case, 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 companies. The government has focused its policies—with mixed results—on reforming inequities in housing, health care, and land ownership. It has also instituted a Black Economic Empowerment program that aims to increase the black stake in the economy, mostly through aggressive preferences in employment and government tenders.

The protection of property rights is a subject of great controversy in South Africa. The state generally protects citizens from arbitrary deprivation of their property. However, 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. The government has vowed to transfer 30 percent of land to black owners by 2014. In 2005, the government agreed to reconsider its “willing buyer, willing seller” land redistribution program in favor of a more expedient approach; Mlambo-Ngcuka 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 collapse.) In February 2006, Chief Land Claims Commissioner Tozi Gwanya stated that his agency would begin confiscating land in cases where negotiations with owners had lasted for more than three years; in April, a farm marked for the country’s first expropriation in 2005 was sold by mutual agreement. In August, Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Lulu Xingwana announced that white farmers engaged in current negotiations with the government had six months to agree to a selling price or face expropriation.

Increased illegal immigration, particularly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, has led to a rise in xenophobia and occasional attacks by both police and nonstate actors. In January 2006, the government announced plans to establish a facility—in coordination with the Zimbabwean government—to “regularize” undocumented immigrants from Zimbabwe in the northern province of Limpopo. Still, Human Rights Watch in June published a report accusing South African officials, including immigration and police forces, of mistreating Zimbabwean immigrants. There are an estimated three million to five million Zimbabweans in South Africa. The nomadic Khoikhoi and Khomani San peoples, indigenous to South Africa, suffer from social and legal discrimination.

South Africa has one of the world’s most liberal legal environments for homosexuals. In November 2006, the National Assembly passed—and Deputy President Mlambo-Ngcuka enacted—the Civil Unions Act, legalizing same-sex marriage in South Africa. The Act followed a February 2004 Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in favor of a lesbian couple who argued that the country’s Marriage Act should include same-sex marriage. In 2002, the Constitutional Court had ruled that homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children. Nevertheless, in December 2006 a report issued by the Human Sciences Research Council documented a recent increase in anti-homosexual hate crimes in South Africa.

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. The Zuma rape case brought the issue to the fore, particularly given the cavalier attitudes displayed by Zuma and many of his supporters toward rape and the supporters’ violent treatment of women’s rights advocates demonstrating outside the courthouse. In May 2006, a new and long-waited sexual offenses bill tabled in Parliament was condemned by gender activists as an unacceptably weak version of an earlier bill that had relied heavily on input from civil society. The bill was pending at year’s end. In December, the ANC sacked its chief parliamentary whip for sexually harassing a female intern. 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 four of nine provincial governments. In 2005, Mbeki appointed Mlambo-Ngcuka as deputy president.