South Africa | Freedom House

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South Africa

South Africa

Freedom in the World 2009

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In September 2008, President Thabo Mbeki resigned under pressure from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, which was controlled by recently elected party president Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s rival. ANC deputy leader Kgalema Motlanthe was elected by the National Assembly to serve out the rest of Mbeki’s term, which ended in 2009. A number of Mbeki supporters subsequently left the ANC to form a new opposition party, the Congress of the People (COPE). Also during the year, foreign migrants were targeted in a wave of “xenophobic” attacks in the country’s cities and surrounding areas in May.

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,” that was 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 to demand higher pay; smaller-scale strike actions continued in 2008.

Ongoing controversies surrounding former deputy president Jacob Zuma also exposed rifts, both in the governing alliance and within the ANC proper. Mbeki had sacked Zuma in 2005 after he was implicated in the corruption trial of his financial adviser, 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. In 2006, he was acquitted of the rape charge, and his corruption trial was dismissed on procedural grounds.

At the ANC’s national conference in December 2007, Zuma defeated Mbeki in a heated battle for the party presidency, and Zuma’s allies were elected to a majority of other ANC executive positions. By late 2008, relations between the ANC and Mbeki’s government had grown seriously strained. In September, a High Court judge set aside the remaining corruption charges against Zuma due to prosecutorial misconduct. Later that month, the ANC’s national executive committee called on Mbeki to resign; he did so the following day, followed by 11 cabinet ministers. The party nominated its deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, to serve as interim state president, and he was quickly confirmed by the National Assembly, earning 269 of 360 votes cast; Joe Seremane of the opposition DA won 50 votes, while 41 ballots were spoiled.

After Mbeki’s ouster, recently resigned defense minister Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota quit the ANC and formed a new opposition party, eventually called the Congress of the People (COPE). He was joined by a number of other ANC leaders, most of them Mbeki allies, and COPE formally registered as a party in December.

Also during 2008, a growing trend of attacks on African migrants—particularly Zimbabweans—reached its peak in May, with a wave of assaults that killed 62 suspected foreigners (21 were in fact South African) and displaced some 80,000 others by the end of the month. Provincial authorities, in cooperation with UN officials and local civil society groups, set up 94 refugee camps to shelter about 15,000 displaced people. While some foreigners returned to their home countries and others opted for reintegration in local communities, about 2,000 were forced to leave after the provincial governments shut down the camps in October and September. By November, an additional 10 foreigners had been killed near Cape Town, though the government classified these killings as ordinary criminal cases.

Some 5.5 million South Africans, about 12 percent of the population, are infected with HIV/AIDS. Mbeki’s government, which voiced skepticism about the link between HIV and AIDS, had resisted making antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) available through the public health system; a 2008 Harvard University study claimed that 330,000 people had died between 2000 and 2005 as a result. By 2003, international and domestic pressure had spurred the government to begin working toward universal ARV treatment. In December 2008, the new government announced an effort to increase the availability of ARVs; some 300,000 South Africans were being treated with the drugs by year’s end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

South Africa is an electoral democracy. 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.

The ANC, which has won supermajorities in every democratic election, dominates the political landscape. The DA is the leading opposition party, followed by the IFP; COPE was set to become another opposition force after the 2009 national elections. The electoral process is generally free and fair, although 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 the 2006 municipal elections. There were several instances of threatened or actual political violence in 2008, including a stabbing at an ANC conference in Western Cape province and intimidation by ANC supporters at several gatherings of the splinter group that became COPE. In June, ANC Youth League and COSATU leaders said their groups were prepared to take up arms and kill for ANC president Jacob Zuma.

Several agencies and special bodies are tasked with combating official corruption, but enforcement is inadequate. Public servants regularly fail to declare their business interests as required by law, and the ANC has been criticized for charging fees to business leaders for access to top government officials. In 2007, police commissioner Jackie Selebi was arrested on charges of corruption related to his association with an organized crime boss; Selebi was set to stand trial in 2009. While the corruption charges against Zuma were dismissed in September 2008, prosecutors were granted leave to appeal that decision the following month. Separately, in October the parliament abolished the Directorate of Special Operations, known as the Scorpions, an independent unit that had pursued several high-profile corruption investigations, including the Zuma case. South Africa was ranked 54 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedoms of expression and the press are protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice. A number of private newspapers and magazines are sharply critical of powerful figures and institutions. 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 expanding their reach. Internet access is unrestricted and growing rapidly, although many South Africans cannot afford the service fee.

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 2007, groups including COSATU and the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute accused the government of conducting political purges at the broadcaster. In a sign of internal rifts, SABC chief executive Dali Mpofu suspended head of news Snuki Zikalala in May 2008 for allegedly leaking confidential documents; the SABC board then suspended Mpofu, and repeated the action after a court reinstated him. The board also cleared Zikalala of any wrongdoing. In addition, both the ANC and COPE accused the SABC of biased coverage of the 2008 ANC split, while SABC journalists accused the two parties of intimidation ahead of the 2009 elections. In December, Zuma launched a $700,000 defamation lawsuit against cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, known as Zapiro, for a September cartoon in the Sunday Times.

Freedom of religion and academic freedom are constitutionally guaranteed and actively protected by the government. In November 2008, however, the Freedom of Expression Institute expressed concern over disciplinary proceedings against two professors at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for publicly criticizing the university vice-chancellor’s handling of an internal debate on academic freedom.

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) can register and operate freely. Lawmakers regularly accept input from NGOs on pending legislation. A recent trend of protests over the pace and extent of public-service delivery continued in 2008. 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 violent tactics.

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 members—is part of a tripartite governing alliance with the ANC and the SACP. Strike activity is common. In 2008, COSATU and affiliated unions organized a series of strikes and demonstrations to protest rising food, fuel, and electricity costs. In June, a strike by local police turned violent when strikers and national police exchanged gunfire, but no one was injured.

Judicial independence is guaranteed by the constitution, and the courts—particularly the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court—operate with substantial autonomy. In 2008, however, judicial and prosecutorial independence came under fire. In June, the Constitutional Court (CC) filed a complaint with the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) against senior CapeHigh Court judge John Hlophe, alleging that he had approached two CC judges in an attempt to influence the Zuma corruption case. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe labeled the CC’s actions “counterrevolutionary,” and the Johannesburg High Court later ruled that the CC had violated Hlophe’s rights by filing its complaint in a public manner. The CC appealed that decision, which had not been resolved by year’s end. Meanwhile, when Pietermaritzburg High Court judge Christopher Nicholson dismissed the corruption charges against Zuma in September, he stated in the ruling that he believed Zuma’s prosecution to have been at least partially motivated by political interference from the executive branch. In November, a commission of inquiry cleared Vusi Pikoli, head of the National Prosecuting Authority, of wrongdoing after the justice minister suspended him in 2007. The suspension was initially attributed to disagreements over the Zuma case, but it later emerged that Pikoli had authorized an arrest warrant for police commissioner Jackie Selebi, a Mbeki ally. Despite the inquiry’s outcome, President Motlanthe formally dismissed Pikoli in December 2008.

Staff and resource shortages undermine defendants’ procedural rights, including the rights to a timely trial and state-funded legal counsel. 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 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. In April 2008, a deputy security minister reportedly told police to institute a “shoot to kill” policy regarding criminals. Later in the year, Zuma suggested that South Africans should reassemble the “street committees” that patrolled cities and surrounding areas before the democratic transition in 1994; critics accused Zuma of promoting vigilantism.

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. Racial imbalances in the workforce persist, and a majority of the country’s business assets remain white-owned. The government’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program aims to increase the black stake in the economy, mostly by establishing race-based ownership thresholds for government tenders and licenses. In June 2008, the Pretoria High Court ruled that Chinese South Africans should also enjoy access to such benefits and thus included them in the official definition of “black.” The year featured a number of racist attacks on black South Africans, including a shooting spree in North-West province that killed four people and wounded nine.

Increased illegal immigration, particularly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, has led to a rise in xenophobia and attacks by police and vigilantes, including the widespread wave of attacks in May 2008. 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. Separately, 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.

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 and has agreed to reconsider its “willing buyer, willing seller” policy in favor of a more expedient approach. In 2007, the government for the first time expropriated a farm, compensating the owners with $4.9 million. The government presented legislation in 2008 that would allow it to seize farmland and other assets more rapidly, but the bill was shelved in August. Separately, a state-sponsored effort to revamp downtown Johannesburg has evicted hundreds—and potentially thousands—of squatters from inner-city buildings. In January 2008, police evicted about 1,500 people living in the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, detaining scores. The raid was ostensibly a search for illegal drugs, guns, and immigrants, but human rights groups said the police used excessive force, violated detainees’ due process, and lacked proper warrants.

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 became law in December 2007; among other changes, the law replaces the country’s common law approach to defining and punishing rape with a broad statute and stricter punishments. 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 of 9 provincial governments. In 2005, Mbeki appointed a woman, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as deputy president, but she resigned with him in 2008.