South Africa | Freedom House

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South Africa

South Africa

Freedom in the World 2010

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Jacob Zuma, head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, faced renewed corruption charges in January 2009, but prosecutors dropped the case just before national elections in April. The ANC easily won the vote despite competition from a splinter party that had formed in 2008, and Zuma was elected president by the new National Assembly. Also during the year, residents intensified demonstrations to protest the government’s slow delivery of public services including electricity, water, and housing.

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. In 2004, the ANC won an even greater victory, taking nearly 70 percent of the national vote and majorities in seven of nine provincial legislatures. Mbeki easily secured a second five-year term.
Rifts within the ruling party and its “governing alliance” with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) dominated South African politics over the subsequent years, as did ongoing controversies surrounding former deputy president Jacob Zuma. Mbeki sacked Zuma in 2005 after he was implicated in the corruption trial of his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. Zuma’s supporters—including COSATU, the 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. Zuma was again charged with corruption in 2007.
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 were seriously strained. In September, after a High Court judge set aside the remaining corruption charges against Zuma due to prosecutorial misconduct, the ANC’s national executive committee forced Mbeki to resign as state president. The party nominated its deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, to serve as interim state president, and he was quickly confirmed by the National Assembly. After Mbeki’s ouster, recently resigned defense minister Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota quit the ANC and formed a new opposition party. A series of ANC leaders—nearly all of them Mbeki allies—moved to the new party, which was formally registered as Congress of the People (COPE) in December 2008.
While Zuma was once again charged with corruption in January 2009, head national prosecutor Mokotedi Mpshe dropped the case for good in April, just two weeks before national elections. He argued that the timing of the 2007 charges was politically motivated, citing wiretap evidence of conversations to that effect between top law enforcement officials, who denied Mpshe’s claims.
Despite the new competition from COPE, the ANC won another sweeping victory in the April 2009 elections, taking 65.9 percent of the national vote (for 264 seats in the 400-seat National Assembly) and clear majorities in eight of nine provinces. The Democratic Alliance (DA) retained its status as the largest opposition party, winning 16.7 percent of the national vote (67 seats) and outright control of Western Cape Province. COPE won 7.4 percent (30 seats), the IFP won 4.6 percent (18 seats), and a collection of smaller parties took the remainder. Zuma was easily elected state president by the National Assembly the following month, winning 277 of 400 votes.

Some 5.5 million South Africans, about 11 percent of the population, are infected with HIV/AIDS. A 2008 Harvard University study claimed that 330,000 people had died between 2000 and 2005 as a result of the Mbeki government’s skepticism about the link between HIV and AIDS, and the disease caused average life expectancy to drop from 62 in 1990 to 50 in 2007. While state-funded access to antiretroviral drugs expanded rapidly in 2008, it slowed in 2009. In September, the AIDS Law Project reported that 40 percent of HIV-positive South Africans were not receiving treatment.

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 COPE and the IFP. The electoral process is generally free and fair, although the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been accused of pro-ANC bias. Political violence, while never severe, increased in the run-up to the 2009 elections. According to the Mail & Guardian, there were 40 incidents of electoral violence in 2009, most “at the level of intimidation or clashes” in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Between January and April, five politicians were killed in election-related violence, including four in KwaZulu-Natal. In addition, party officials engaged in inflammatory rhetoric during the campaign.
Several agencies are tasked with combating 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; his trial began in October 2009. In 2008, Parliament abolished the Directorate of Special Operations, known as the Scorpions, an independent unit that had pursued several high-profile corruption investigations, including the case against current president Jacob Zuma. The Scorpions were replaced by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (or the “Hawks”). In November 2009, the Human Settlement Department, which deals with housing, announced that over 920 government officials were being charged with corruption linked to housing fraud. South Africa was ranked 55 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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. Government critics have been barred or restricted from SABC airwaves. In March 2009, the SABC canceled a television puppet show based on the work of cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro; in December 2008, Zuma had sued Shapiro and the Sunday Times for defamation over a cartoon in the paper, seeking over $700,000 in damages. Rifts within the ANC have recently found their way into SABC leadership battles. In February 2009, President Kgalema Motlanthe refused to sign legislation that would have allowed Parliament to fire SABC board members; the measure was seen as a means of ousting the board recently appointed by former president Thabo Mbeki. An amended bill requires a “proper inquiry by Parliament” before such dismissals, but the bill had not been passed by year’s end. In addition, both the ANC and COPE accused the SABC of biased coverage of the events surrounding the ANC split. SABC journalists in turn accused members of both parties of intimidation in the run-up to the 2009 elections.
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) 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—including housing, electricity, and water—escalated significantly in both scope and violence in 2009, particularly during the winter months. Police used rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse protests throughout the year.
South Africans are free to form, join, and participate in independent trade unions. 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 July 2009, 70,000 construction workers building soccer stadiums for the upcoming World Cup went on strike; that same month, municipal workers also struck across the country. In August, a demonstration by over 1,500 soldiers demanding higher pay turned violent as the soldiers rioted in Pretoria. Subsequently, the government considered banning the unionization of the defense forces.
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 of that year, the Constitutional Court (CC) filed a complaint with the Judicial Service Commission against senior CapeHigh Court judge John Hlophe, alleging that he had attempted 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. Meanwhile, in dismissing corruption charges against Zuma that year, Pietermaritzburg High Court judge Christopher Nicholson stated that he believed Zuma’s prosecution to have been at least partially motivated by political interference from the executive branch.
In October 2009, Zuma appointed four new judges and a new chief justice to the CC; the appointments were welcomed by opposition parties and legal organizations. However, his November appointment of former justice ministrydirector general Menzi Simelane as the new head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was condemned by many opposition parties and civil society organizations, who pointed to Simelane’s lack of qualifications and allegedly unlawful role in the politically tainted dismissal of former NPA head Vusi Pikoli in 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. According to Amnesty International, deaths in custody increased in 2009. The Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons investigates prisoners’ assault allegations but has limited resources and capacity. Prisons often fail to meet international standards and feature overcrowding, inadequate health care, and abuse of inmates by staff or other prisoners; both HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are problems. Recent inquiries have found that corruption, maladministration, and sexual violence are rife in the penal system.
South Africa has one of the highest violent-crime rates in the world. The Zuma administration has given the police more latitude to use force against criminals, and in 2009 a number of police officials made statements alluding to a “shoot to kill” policy. However, after a string of civilian deaths in police actions, Zuma announced that no such policy existed.
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 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.” In November 2009, the Solidarity trade union sued the government for racial discrimination in police hiring on behalf of a group of white applicants; the union had already filed nine similar cases against the police and one against the prison service. Also that month, the cabinet approved a new policy prohibiting discrimination against HIV-positive soldiers.
Increased illegal immigration, particularly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, has led to a rise in xenophobic violence by police and vigilantes, including a wave of attacks in May 2008 that killed 62 suspected foreigners (21 were in fact South African) and temporarily displaced some 80,000 others. Sporadic attacks picked up in 2009, particularly during the service-delivery protests in July. In November, about 2,500 Zimbabweans were forced to flee the de Doorns informal settlement in the Western Cape after being attacked by other residents. Immigration and police forces have been accused of abusing illegal immigrants and detaining them longer than allowed under the Immigration Act.
The number of foreign nationals in South Africa is contested, with estimates ranging from two to seven million, including between one and three million Zimbabweans. In April 2009, the government announced a moratorium on the deportation of Zimbabweans, and granted most 90-day visa waivers. The government also announced plans to create six-month “special dispensation permits” for many Zimbabweans, legalizing their presence and giving them access to workers’ rights and basic health care and education. However, the program had not been implemented by year’s end. 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, homosexuals are subject to attacks.
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; however, only 6.7 percent of land had been transferred by the end of 2009, and over half of the affected farms had failed or were failing, according to the Ministry for Land Reform and Rural Development. In July, the state-owned Land Bank told Parliament that 350 redistributed farms would have to be repossessed if the new owners continued to fail to repay their loans.
Separately, a state-sponsored effort to revamp downtown Johannesburg has evicted hundreds—and potentially thousands—of squatters from inner-city buildings. In May 2009, the rights group Abahlali baseMjondolo sued the government over plans to demolish shantytowns in Durban; the case was set to appear before the CC.
Equal rights for women are guaranteed by the constitution and promoted by 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 (including forced marriage), divorce, inheritance, and property rights. Despite a robust legal framework, domestic violence and rape, both criminal offenses, are serious problems. South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of sexual abuse. In June 2009, a survey by the South African Medical Research Council found that two-fifths of male respondents admitted to being physically violent with a sexual partner, and one-quarter admitted to committing rape. 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 45 percent of seats in the National Assembly and lead5 of 9 provincial governments; the main opposition DA party is led by Helen Zille, who became premier of Western Cape Province after the 2009 elections.