South Africa | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Africa

South Africa

Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The year 2013 in South Africa was marked by the continued decline of prosecutorial independence; high-profile corruption scandals; strikes by, and rivalries among, the country’s powerful trade unions; ongoing service-delivery protests; and the emergence of new opposition parties. The year was capped by the passing of the country’s iconic first black president, Nelson Mandela, in December, highlighting South Africa’s ongoing transition from single-party dominance by Mandela’s Africa National Congress (ANC) to a more competitive electoral landscape. The ANC has dominated every election since the end of the apartheid system of white minority rule in 1994.

Ahead of national elections scheduled for May 2014, the year saw the emergence of a number of new opposition parties. In February, Mamphele Ramphele—a well-known antiapartheid activist, former university chancellor, and businesswoman—formed the centrist Agang party. Meanwhile, former ANC Youth League (ANCYL) leader Julius Malema, who had been expelled from the ANC in 2012, launched the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in July. In December, the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA)—the country’s largest trade union and an affiliate of the ANC-allied labor federation Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)—resolved to withhold its usual electoral support from the ANC in 2014 and explore forming a new labor party.

A sometimes violent rivalry between the ANC-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) in the mining sector continued in 2013, resulting in nearly a dozen deaths and helping drive a number of strikes. The labor unrest exacerbated the nation’s flagging economy and high unemployment rate, which was stood at approximately 25 percent nationally and around 36 percent for youth.

President Jacob Zuma became embroiled in another corruption scandal in 2013 surrounding R200 million ($20.9 million) of state spending on renovations to his homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 33 / 40 (-1) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

Elections for the 400-seat National Assembly, the lower house of the bicameral Parliament, are determined by party-list proportional representation. The 90 members of the upper chamber, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), are selected by the provincial legislatures. The National Assembly elects the president to serve concurrently with its five-year term, and presidents can serve a maximum of two terms. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is largely independent and voter registration ahead of 2014 elections proceeded well in 2013, although allegations of corruption in awarding construction tenders for new headquarters has slightly weakened perceptions of the institution’s integrity.

The ANC—which has won every election since the end of apartheid in 1994—claimed another sweeping victory in the April 2009 elections, although with a smaller majority than in the previous elections. The ANC took 65.9 percent of the national vote, 264 seats in the 400-seat National Assembly, and clear majorities in eight of nine provinces. The Democratic Alliance (DA) remained the largest opposition party, winning 67 National Assembly seats and outright control of Western Cape Province. The smaller opposition Congress of the People (COPE) party—launched in 2008 by disaffected ANC members—won 30 seats, and the traditionally Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, took 18. Zuma was easily elected state president by the National Assembly the following month, winning 277 of the 400 votes.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 13 / 16 (-1)

The ANC, which is part of a tripartite governing alliance with COSATU and the South African Communist Party, dominates the political landscape. The DA is the leading opposition party. Factionalism within the ANC and COSATU, as well as tensions between the alliance partners, has been a hallmark of South African politics in recent years. Political violence and allegations of vote buying marked ANC nomination contests ahead of the party’s December 2012 national conference, especially in North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. The run-up to the conference showcased the most recent of many leadership battles within the ANC, pitting Zuma against backers of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. Zuma ultimately defeated Motlanthe decisively. Prominent ANC figure and business tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa, a former labor leader, was elected deputy president of the party, replacing Motlanthe, who remained deputy president of the republic.

The emergence of new and more assertive opposition parties evoked government restrictions on some political events and rallies in 2013, a trend that will likely continue before the 2014 elections. A number of events sponsored by Malema’s EFF were blocked or delayed by authorities on technical grounds. Some also saw scuffles between supporters of the EFF, the ANCYL, or the ANC-affiliated South African Students Congress (SASCO). Meanwhile, parts of Rustenberg have become “no-go” areas for ANC politicians and affiliated unions, as a result of the violence against striking workers at Marikana in 2012. The ANCYL also occasionally used vandalism to protest the DA government in the Western Cape and some of the party’s political events in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.


C. Functioning of Government: 8 / 12

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. The tender process for public contracts is often politically driven and opaque. The delivery of government services is undermined by maladministration, although a newly formed procurement office and more training for public servants may improve the situation. According to the auditor general’s report for the 2012–13 fiscal year (April 1–March 31), “wasteful” expenditure increased by 43 percent over 2011–12 to about R2.1 billion ($220 million), while “irregular expenditure” hit R26.4 billion ($2.76 billion), with health, education, and public works departments among the worst offenders. South Africa was ranked 72 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Zuma, who was charged with corruption three times between 2005 and 2009 in connection with the “arms deal” scandal, continued to face scrutiny in 2013. Although the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has repeatedly declined to prosecute Zuma for corruption related to the arms deal, in August, a North Gauteng High Court granted a request by the DA to make public the so-called spy tapes—secret recordings of the NPA’s justifications for dropping fraud and corruption charges against Zuma in 2009. Zuma appealed the decision in October. Former acting NPA head Nomgcobo Jiba previously had obstructed the tapes’ release.

In late November, leaks from Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s provisional report concluded that Zuma had derived “substantial” personal benefit from the upgrades to Nkandla, ostensibly for security, and may have misled Parliament in this regard. By contrast, a December report by an inter-ministerial task team—led by security ministers close to Zuma—concluded that while there was substantial misallocation of spending, Zuma bore no responsibility. The inter-ministerial report was met by wide skepticism by most civil society and independent media entities. Madonsela’s final report is due in early 2014.


Civil Liberties: 48 / 60 (+1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16

Freedoms of expression and the press are protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice, though press freedom has deteriorated in recent years. Most South Africans receive the news via radio outlets, a majority of which are controlled by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The SABC also dominates the television market, but two commercial stations are expanding their reach. Private newspapers and magazines are often very critical of powerful figures and institutions and remain a critical check on the government. However, political allies of the government own a growing share of independent media. In December 2013, Cape Times editor Alide Danois was fired after the newspaper—which is part of Independent News & Media South Africa, recently acquired by the politically connected Sekunjalo Investments—ran an article about an allegedly irregular government tender awarded to the Sekunjalo consortium to manage the country’s fishery vessels.  Internet access is unrestricted and growing rapidly, though many South Africans cannot afford the service fee.

The government is highly sensitive to media criticism and has increasingly encroached on the editorial independence of the SABC. Some government critics have been barred from SABC programs, and a number of documentaries and specials produced by the broadcaster have been canceled due to political considerations. In December 2013, SABC executives reportedly ordered staff not to broadcast footage of Zuma being booed at a high-profile memorial service for Mandela, or subsequent calls for his resignation by senior leaders of NUMSA. The government has also recently enacted or proposed several potentially restrictive laws, although there has been significant pushback from civil society and judicial authorities. In 2012, the Constitutional Court (CC) found sections of the 2009 Film and Publications Amendment Act that require prepublication classification of material dealing with “sexual conduct” to be unconstitutional, and two bans on films by the government’s Film and Publications Board for encouraging child pornography have been overturned by the courts. In part because of substantial opposition from civil society and opposition parties, Zuma has yet to sign into the law a revised, less onerous version of the controversial Protection of State Information Bill, which would allow state agencies to classify a wide range of information as in the “national interest” and thus subject to significant restrictions on publication. The revised law removed a clause criminalizing the disclosure of information about state security, but still does not allow a “public interest” defense for violations.

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


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12 (+1)

Freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are guaranteed by the constitution. South Africa hosts a vibrant civil society. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can register and operate freely, and lawmakers regularly accept input from NGOs on pending legislation. Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and South Africa has a vibrant protest culture; demonstrators must notify police ahead of time but are rarely prohibited from gathering. In recent years, however, a growing number of community protests over public-service delivery have turned violent and been forcibly dispersed by police. According to the University of Johannesburg, there were 287 service delivery protests in 2013, down from 470 in 2012.

South Africans are generally free to form, join, and participate in independent trade unions, and the country’s labor laws offer unionized workers a litany of protections; contract workers and those in the informal sector enjoy fewer safeguards. Growing union rivalries, especially in mining, have led to an increase in violent tactics to win and retain members, as well attacks on rivals. COSATU, the nation’s largest trade union federation, claims about two million members. Strike activity is very common, and unionized workers often secure above-inflation wage increases. Violent and “wildcat strikes” (strikes not sanctioned by labor law) are increasing. The year 2013 saw several clashes between members of the NUM and the AMCU, leading to at least 6 deaths.

Nonetheless, the year’s labor unrest was less deadly than in 2012; in August of that year, police killed 34 striking mineworkers during a violent confrontation in Marikana near Rustenberg, marking the worst incident of state violence in the post-apartheid era. The Farlam Commission, a government-sponsored inquiry into the violence at Marikana, was ongoing at year’s end; significant evidence of excessive lethal force by police was presented during the year. After a court battle, in October the South Guateng High Court ruled that the state, through Legal Aid South Africa, was compelled to fund legal representation for strikers and their families.


F. Rule of Law: 10 / 16

Judicial independence is guaranteed by the constitution, and the courts—particularly the CC and the Supreme Court of Appeal—operate with substantial autonomy. Nevertheless, judicial and prosecutorial independence has come under pressure in recent years amid the Zuma corruption cases, prompting several instances of judicial and political misconduct. In a positive step, Parliament in 2012 approved a 17th amendment to the constitution, making the CC the apex court, the Supreme Court of Appeal a general appellate court, and the CC chief justice—not the justice minister—South Africa’s chief judicial authority. CC judges are appointed by the Judicial Services Commission, based on both merit and government efforts to racially transform the judiciary. In November 2013, the National Assembly passed the controversial Legal Practice Bill, which allows the state to regulate the previously self-regulating legal profession with a 22-member council (3 members of which are appointed by the Justice Minister) in order to facilitate racial transformation. If, as expected, it is passed by the NCOP and signed by Zuma, the law will likely be challenged as unconstitutional.

Prosecutorial independence continued to suffer under the Zuma administration. Although judicial authorities continued to push back on infringements, the senior-most ANC leaders generally retained impunity from punishment for a range of alleged offenses. In August 2013, Zuma appointed a new head of the NPA, Mxolisi Sandile Oliver Nxasana; the office had remained vacant since 2011 and has seen a string overtly political hirings and firings. Also, Vasantrai Soni was appointed the new head of the NPA’s Special Investigation Unit. In September, a North Gauteng High Court overturned former NPA official Lawrence Mrwebi’s February 2012 decision to drop corruption charges against suspended police spy boss Richard Mdluli, as well as a separate decision to drop murder, kidnapping, and assault charges against Mdluli.

Judicial staff and resource shortages undermine defendants’ procedural rights, including the rights to a timely trial and state-funded legal counsel. There were about 50,000 pretrial detainees in South African prisons in 2013, comprising about 31 percent of the prison population. They wait an average of three months before trial, and some beyond the legal maximum of two years. Lower courts have proven more susceptible to corruption than the higher panels, and there have been reports of physical intimidation of judges and magistrates.

Despite constitutional prohibitions and some government countermeasures, there are many reports of police torture and excessive force during arrest, interrogation, and detention. Prisons often feature overcrowding, inadequate health care, and abuse of inmates by staff or other prisoners; both HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are problems. The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) investigates prisoners’ complaints but has limited resources and capacity. According to a JICS report released in October 2013, inmate complaints about assaults by other inmates increased by 55 percent and by guards by 73 percent in April 2012–March 2013, and prison rapes increased by 40 percent. The government paid out R1.3 billion ($161 million) to compensate prisoners and families for assaults and rape in 2012, but prevention programs are almost nonexistent.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. After declining in recent years, murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, sexual offenses, home robberies, and carjackings all increased from April 2012–March 2013, according to a report by the South African Police Service (SAPS). The Zuma administration has given the police more latitude to use force against criminals. Mostly due to police incapacity, vigilantism is a problem.

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 and the Office of the Public Protector are empowered to investigate and prosecute cases of discrimination. Affirmative-action legislation has benefited previously disadvantaged groups (defined as “Africans,” “Coloureds,” “Asians,” and as of 2008, “Chinese”) 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 program aims to increase the black stake in the economy, mostly by establishing race-based ownership thresholds for government tenders and licenses.

The number of foreign nationals in South Africa is uncertain, with estimates ranging from two to seven million, including between one and three million Zimbabweans. South Africa receives the highest number of asylum applications in the world—overwhelmingly from other African countries. However, it accepts only about 15 percent, and closed three of seven refugee reception offices in 2012. The 2011 Immigration Amendment Act reduced the period asylum seekers have to make a formal application at refugee reception centers after entering the country, from 14 days to 5 days; also that year, the government resumed deportations of Zimbabwean migrants. Conditions at migrant detention centers are poor, and deportees are subject to physical and sexual abuse by police and immigration officers. Increased immigration, particularly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Somalia, has spurred xenophobic violence by police and vigilantes. Sporadic attacks continued in 2013, often tied to wider service-delivery protests in which immigrants were scapegoated.

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 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited in the constitution; a 2002 Constitutional Court ruling held that same-sex couples should have the same adoption rights as married couples; and the 2006 Civil Unions Act legalized same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, societal bias remains strong. LGBT people are routinely subject to physical attacks, including an increase in instances of so-called corrective rape, in which lesbians are raped by men who claim this can change the victim’s sexual orientation.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 11 / 16

The state generally protects citizens from arbitrary deprivation of property. However, some 80 percent of farmland is owned by white South Africans, who make up 9 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 about 6 percent of land has been transferred since 1994. A 2013 government land audit revealed the state owns between 14 and 21 percent of the country’s land. In 2013, the government replaced its “willing buyer, willing seller” approach to land reform with a more aggressive “just and equitable” approach, echoing language in the constitution, and proposed a number of bills to this effect, although all are in preliminary stages.

Equal rights for women are guaranteed by the constitution and promoted by the Commission on Gender Equality. While the constitution allows the option and practice of customary law, it does not allow such law to supersede women’s rights as citizens. Nevertheless, women suffer de facto discrimination with regard to marriage (including forced marriage), divorce, inheritance, and property rights, particularly in rural areas. A draft Traditional Courts Bill would strengthen the legal authority of traditional leaders, sparking concerns among civic groups about women’s rights. The bill was rejected by 5 of 9 provincial legislatures but had not yet been withdrawn from consideration as of the end of 2013.

Despite a robust legal framework criminalizing domestic violence and domestic rape, both are extremely grave problems. South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of sexual abuse: 127 per 100,000, according to the 2013 SAPS report. Under-reporting is prevalent; a separate police report estimated that only 1 in 36 rapes is reported. Women are also subject to sexual harassment and wage discrimination in the workplace, and are not well represented in top management positions. Women are better represented in government, holding some 41 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and leading five of nine provincial governments. The main opposition DA party is led by Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape Province.



Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology