South Africa | Freedom House

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South Africa

South Africa

Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



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The race for the presidency of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party dominated South African politics in 2007. In December, the ANC selected former Deputy President Jacob Zuma as president of the party, making him the likely successor to President Thabo Mbeki as head of state. Also during the year, hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers began a four-week strike for better pay in May. Separately, violent protests over the provision of public services continued, and relations between the government and independent media deteriorated.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. The Afrikaner-dominated National Party (NP) came to power in 1948 on a platform of institutionalized racial separation, or “apartheid,” designed to maintain white minority rule. Partly as a result, South Africa declared formal independence in 1961 and withdrew from the Commonwealth. The NP went on to govern South Africa under the apartheid system for decades. Mounting domestic and international pressure prompted President F. W. de Klerk to legalize the antiapartheid African National Congress (ANC) and release ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. Between then and 1994, when the first multiracial elections were held, almost all apartheid-related legislation was abolished and an interim constitution was negotiated and enacted.

The ANC won the April 1994 elections in a landslide, and Mandela was elected 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, which was signed into law in December 1996. The ANC claimed almost two-thirds of the vote in 1999 elections, and Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor as head of the ANC, won the presidency.

The ANC confirmed its dominance in the 2004 elections, winning nearly 70 percent of the vote and 279 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly. Mbeki was sworn in for a second five-year term. The ANC also secured majorities in seven of 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. Smaller opposition parties captured the remainder.

The ANC’s growing power was accompanied by increasing tensions with its governing allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). COSATU and the SACP vocally criticized the ANC governments’ liberal macroeconomic policies, gradualist approach to land reform, delivery of public services, and HIV/AIDS treatment policies, among other issues. In May 2007, COSATU led a four-week strike by some 500,000 public-sector workers demanding higher pay. The strike—the largest in the democratic period—saw the closure of many hospitals and schools, as well several violent confrontations involving strikers, security forces, and replacement workers. In late June, the strike was called off after the government agreed to a 7.5 percent pay increase.

Ongoing controversies surrounding former deputy president Jacob Zuma also exposed rifts, both in the governing alliance and within the ANC itself. Mbeki had sacked Zuma in 2005 after he was implicated in the corruption trial of his financial advisor, Schabir Shaik. Zuma’s supporters—including COSATU, SACP, the ANC Youth League, and many ethnic Zulus—claimed that the scandal was engineered by Mbeki’s allies in the ANC and the media; these accusations were redoubled after Zuma was accused of raping a family friend. While Zuma was acquitted of the rape charge and his corruption trial was dismissed on procedural grounds in 2006, he still faced the possibility of renewed corruption proceedings, including charges of racketeering, money laundering, and fraud. Nevertheless, COSATU and the SACP endorsed Zuma in his accelerating bid for the ANC presidency.

The contest for that position was the primary focus of political attention in 2007. Due to the ANC’s electoral dominance, whoever led the party was a heavy favorite to win the state presidency in 2009. Despite wide discussion of so-called “compromise” candidates, the contest boiled down to Mbeki versus Zuma. While Mbeki is constitutionally barred from serving a third-term as head of state, he and his allies in the ANC fought to hold on to the party presidency, an effort resisted by Zuma loyalists as creating two centers of power in the party. Delegates to an ANC policy conference in July declared that while they preferred the same person to hold both presidencies, this was not a matter of principle. Nevertheless, Zuma soundly defeated Mbeki at the party’s December national conference. Meanwhile, Zuma allies were elected to the majority of the other ANC executive positions.

Also in 2007, a recent trend of protests over the pace and extent of public-service delivery continued. While the government has made significant progress in providing potable water and electricity to most of the country’s households, since 2004 there have been thousands of service-related protests in over 90 percent of municipalities. In many cases both protesters and police have employed violence tactics. Police used rubber bullets, water cannons, and stun grenades to disperse protests near Johannesburg and Pretoria in September and November 2007, respectively.

Some 5.5 million South Africans, about 12 percent of the population, are infected with HIV/AIDS. Both Mbeki and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have voiced skepticism about the link between HIV and AIDS, and the government has resisted making antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) available to the public health system. In 2003, however, substantial international and domestic pressure spurred the government to begin providing universal ARV treatment. In March 2007, the government announced a new five-year plan intended to cut the rate of new infections by half and extend the ARV program to 80 percent of the HIV-positive population. By October, about 300,000 South Africans were being treated with ARV drugs.

The politics surrounding HIV/AIDS became increasingly heated in 2007. In August, Mbeki sacked deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge for taking an unauthorized trip to a Spanish AIDS conference. Many observers, however, attributed the firing to the growing rivalry between Madlala-Routledge and Tshabalala-Msimang. While the former vocally supports the extension of ARV treatment, the latter has recommended traditional remedies such as garlic, lemon, olive oil, and beetroot.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

South Africa is an electoral democracy. Three successful elections have taken place since 1994, most recently in 2004. The Parliament is bicameral; elections for the 400-seat National Assembly are determined by party-list proportional representation, 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 its five-year term. In general, the electoral process has been free and fair. Still, the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been accused of pro-ANC bias. While political violence has decreased substantially with each election cycle, several ANC and IFP candidates were killed in KwaZulu-Natal province in the run-up to municipal elections in 2006.

The ANC, which has won supermajorities in every democratic election, dominates the political landscape. The DA is the main opposition party, followed by the IFP. While opposition parties generally operate and criticize the government freely, there have been a few impingements on such freedoms in recent years. In 2006, the ANC-controlled Western Cape provincial government attempted to alter Cape Town’s governance system and replace Mayor Helen Zille of the DA with a 10-member committee. In September 2007, Zille, who had recently been elected leader of the DA, was arrested while leading a protest against drug-dealing in Cape Town. Police officials had deemed the protest illegal. In November, Zille declared her intention to sue the government for wrongful arrest.

Several agencies and special bodies claim a legal mandate to combat corruption among public officials, but enforcement is inadequate. In 2006, Auditor General Shauket Fakie reported that at least 14 cabinet ministers and deputies, along with 50,000 other public servants, had failed to publicly declare their business interests as required by law. Former lawmaker and ANC stalwart Tony Yengeni was released from prison in January 2007 after serving only five months of a four-year prison sentence for a 2003 corruption conviction. The ANC has been criticized for charging fees to business leaders for access to top government officials; in December 2007, a “networking lounge” for business was set up outside the ANC national conference in Polokwane. South Africa was ranked 43 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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 controlled by the SABC. The SABC also dominates the television market, but two commercial stations are reaching growing proportions of the population.

The government is increasingly sensitive to media criticism and has encroached on the editorial independence of the SABC. A 2006 internal SABC report found that government critics had been barred from the airwaves, and in March 2007, groups including COSATU and the Freedom of Expression Institute accused the government of conducting political purges at the broadcaster. In July, the SABC dropped legal action to prevent the screening of a documentary about President Thabo Mbeki; the SABC-commissioned film had twice been canceled from airing on state television. In August, the Sunday Times faced government scrutiny after publishing articles claiming that Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s recent liver transplant was necessitated by alcoholism, that she had jumped transplant queues, and that she had stolen from a patient while a medical superintendent in Botswana. The minister took legal action, and a court forced the newspaper to return copies of the minister’s records to a Cape Town clinic and pay legal fees, but it was allowed to continue reporting on the story. Subsequently, police investigated the editor and deputy editor of the paper for stealing medical records, and Mbeki criticized the behavior and ownership structure of the media. In November, the president’s political allies participated in the purchase of the newspaper’s parent company.

Freedom of religion and academic freedom are constitutionally guaranteed and actively protected by the government. Freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are also 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 and register NGOs. Parliament regularly accepts input from NGOs on pending legislation.

South Africans are free to form, join, and participate in independent trade unions. Labor rights under the 1995 Labor Relations Act are respected, and more than 250 trade unions exist. COSATU—which claims over two million affiliate members—is part of a tripartite governing alliance with the ANC and the SACP. Strike activity is common. In addition to the four-week strike by public-sector workers, large-scale strikes were mounted in the metals, energy, and diamond-mining industries in 2007.

Judicial independence is guaranteed by the constitution, and the courts—particularly the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court—operate with substantial autonomy. In 2006, the government agreed to seek broad consultation and judicial-branch approval before proceeding with a package of judicial reform legislation it had introduced in 2005. Legal professionals and civic organizations had opposed provisions in the bills that would have extended executive control over judicial administration. In October 2007, the Ministry of Health paid for a widely distributed newspaper advertisement criticizing the Johannesburg High Court’s decision in the case between Tshabalala-Msimang and the Sunday Times.

Also in 2007, Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla suspended Vusi Pikoli as head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). While the suspension was initially attributed to disagreements over the NPA’s investigation of Jacob Zuma, it later emerged that Pikoli had authorized an arrest warrant for police chief Jackie Selebi. In October, the government announced the formation of an inquiry into Pikoli’s “fitness to hold office” led by the former Speaker of Parliament Frene Ginwala.

Although defendants are granted a range of procedural rights, staff and resource shortages undermine the rights to a timely trial and state-funded legal counsel, particularly for poorer citizens. While pretrial detainees wait an average of three months before trial, some wait up to two years. The lower courts have proven more susceptible to corruption than the higher panels, and there have been reports of violent intimidation of judges and magistrates.

Despite constitutional prohibitions and government countermeasures, there have been reports of police using torture and excessive force during arrest, interrogation, and detention. Deaths in custody continue to be a problem. Prisons often do not meet international standards and feature overcrowding, inadequate health care, and abuse of inmates by staff or other prisoners. In 2006, a commission of inquiry found corruption, maladministration, and sexual violence to be rife in the penal system.

South Africa has one of the highest violent-crime rates in the world. Such crime, along with concerns about police capabilities, has fueled regular incidents of vigilantism and a burgeoning private-security industry. Breaking with previous government understatements, Mbeki acknowledged in February 2007 that crime is a major national problem and pledged to increase the police force by 20 percent. In July, a report by the Ministry of Safety and Security found that while the overall crime rate was decreasing, murder and aggravated-robbery rates were on the rise.

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 Prosecutor (OPP) are empowered to investigate and prosecute cases of discrimination. Affirmative-action legislation has benefited previously disadvantaged groups (defined as “Africans,” “Coloureds,” and “Asians”) in public and private employment as well as in education. However, racial imbalances in the workforce persist, and a majority of the country’s business assets remain white-owned. The government’s Black Economic Empowerment program aims to increase the black stake in the economy, mostly by establishing race-based ownership thresholds for government tenders and licenses.

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 farmworkers suffer from insecure tenure rights. Illegal squatting on white-owned farms is a serious problem, as are attacks on white owners. 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” policy in favor of a more expedient approach. In January 2007, the government expropriated a farm owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, compensating the owners with $4.9 million. Separately, a state-sponsored effort to revamp downtown Johannesburg ahead of soccer’s 2010 World Cup has evicted hundreds—and potentially thousands—of squatters from inner-city buildings.

Increased illegal immigration, particularly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, has led to a rise in xenophobia and occasional attacks by police and vigilantes. Immigration and police forces have been accused of abusing illegal immigrants and detaining them longer than allowed under the Immigration Act. There are an estimated two to three 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. The 2006 Civil Unions Act legalized same-sex marriage, and a 2002 Constitutional Court ruling held that homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children. Nevertheless, a report issued by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2006 documented a recent increase in hate crimes against homosexuals, a finding confirmed in a 2007 Human Rights Watch report on the recent murders of South African lesbians.

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 supersede the rights assured to women as South African citizens. Nevertheless, women suffer de facto discrimination with regard to 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. A long-awaited sexual offenses bill tabled in Parliament in 2006 was still pending at the end of 2007. 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 a woman, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as deputy president.