Freedom in the World
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South Africa is a constitutional democracy. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, it has been regarded globally as a proponent of human rights and a leader on the African continent. However, in recent years, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been accused of undermining state institutions in order to protect corrupt officials and preserve its power as its support base begins to wane.
- The long-ruling African National Congress (ANC) suffered a major setback in local elections in August, losing control of three of the country’s main municipalities.
- President Jacob Zuma faced mounting pressure amid corruption scandals, including a report from the public protector detailing the extent of influence over the government held by a wealthy family, the Guptas.
- In July, South Africa’s public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), fired eight journalists for criticizing a new editorial policy that banned the broadcast of violent protests; the courts later reinstated the journalists and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) ordered the reversal of the ban.
- In October, the executive unilaterally initiated South Africa’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) without consulting Parliament.
President Jacob Zuma faced mounting corruption scandals in 2016, further undermining the reputation of the ANC and likely contributing to setbacks for the party in August local elections. The Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court, ruled in March that Zuma should pay back some of the money spent on upgrades to his private home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. In April, the North Guateng High Court ruled that Zuma should face 783 corruption and fraud charges that had been dropped by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in 2009. And in November, the former public protector released a report about the wide scale of “state capture” by the Guptas, a wealthy Indian immigrant family that had close ties to Zuma.
In the August elections, the ANC garnered its lowest share of the vote nationally since taking power after the end of apartheid in 1994. The preelection environment was marred by violence and suspected political killings.
Unrest that began in 2015 continued at universities throughout the country in 2016, as students protested tuition fee increases and a lack of racial transformation on campuses. Although the student protests did not always remain peaceful, the response of police and private security to the protests was at times disproportionate and included the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades against students.
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, are selected by provincial legislatures. The National Assembly elects the president to serve concurrently with its five-year term, and can vote to replace him or her at any time. Presidents can serve a maximum of two terms.
The most recent national elections, held in 2014, were declared free and fair by domestic and international observers. The ANC won, though with a smaller majority than in previous elections—a trend that has persisted for three consecutive elections. The ANC took 62.2 percent of the national vote, 249 of 400 seats in the National Assembly, and clear majorities in eight of nine provinces. The Democratic Alliance (DA) remained the largest opposition party, winning 89 seats with 22.2 percent of the vote, up from 16.7 percent in the previous election, and maintained control over the Western Cape. The newly formed leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won 25 seats, the Inkhatha Freedom Party (IFP) took 10 seats, and nine smaller parties shared the remainder. The National Assembly elected Zuma for a second term as president.
In August 2016, South Africa held municipal elections, which regional observers assessed as free and fair. The ANC’s national share of the vote dropped to 53.9 percent, marking the first time it had garnered less than 60 percent of the national vote in any election it had contested. The DA formed postelection coalitions or agreements with smaller parties in order to gain control over three key metropolitan municipalities previously governed by the ANC: Johannesburg, the economic capital; Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes Pretoria, the national capital; and Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes a major seaport, Port Elizabeth.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is largely considered independent and the electoral framework fair. However, the IEC’s independence has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, and the 2016 local elections were seen as an important test of the body’s autonomy, given that the ANC lost significant ground. In September 2016, a media report emerged that IEC deputy chairperson Terry Tselane had written a letter to his colleagues on the commission complaining about an incident in which, following the declaration of the results of the municipal elections, senior ANC officials had angrily criticized him in the presence of Zuma, referring to him as “an enemy.” The ANC denied that an attempt to intimidate Tselane had occurred.
The ANC, which is part of a tripartite governing alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), has won every election since 1994. Nevertheless, opposition parties are able to compete in elections, and there are frequent upsets, most recently in the 2016 municipal elections.
Factional conflicts within the ANC are increasingly aired in public. Several senior current and former ANC members have called on Zuma to resign, including the chief ANC whip in Parliament. In November, at least three cabinet ministers reportedly supported an unsuccessful motion for Zuma to resign at a meeting of the ANC’s national executive committee.
Since the 2014 legislative elections, parliamentary sessions have taken on a more adversarial tone. In April 2016, Zuma survived an attempted impeachment initiated by the DA after the Constitutional Court ruled that the president had violated the constitution in the matter of the upgrades to his home in Nkandla. In May 2016, the EFF’s parliamentarians were forcibly removed from Parliament after they said they planned to disrupt Zuma’s attempts to speak. In the ensuing scuffle, according to a parliamentary statement, security personnel were assaulted and property damaged by EFF supporters protesting the removal of the parliamentarians.
South Africa has long been plagued by low-intensity political violence—including assassinations—with much of the violence concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal province. Both factionalism within the ANC and inter-party disputes have led to violence. In the run-up to the 2016 local elections, there were over a dozen suspected political killings in KwaZulu-Natal. Days of rioting in Tshwane in June—sparked by ANC supporters’ dissatisfaction with the party’s mayoral candidate—left at least five people dead, shops looted, and vehicles set on fire. The DA and the EFF complained that intimidation by ANC supporters hindered their campaigning in the run-up to the local elections, and the EFF accused ANC members of violence against its supporters. In April and May, respectively, two EFF supporters died after being attacked while campaigning in Gauteng province.
The political process is free from domination by the military, which is professional and largely stays out of politics. The constitution prohibits discrimination and provides full political rights for all adult citizens.
Pervasive corruption and apparent interference by non-elected actors hampers the proper functioning of government. Despite comprehensive anticorruption laws and several agencies tasked with combating corruption, enforcement remains inadequate.
In November, a report by former public protector Thuli Madonsela, whose term had ended the previous month, was made public. The report concerned allegations of “state capture,” or the exercise of inappropriate authority over state matters by private entities, by the Gupta family. The report, which calls for the creation of a judicial inquiry commission to investigate the issue, implicates the Guptas in Zuma’s ill-fated and short-lived appointment of Des van Rooyen as finance minister—which led to a crash in the value of the rand in 2015—and includes allegations of a failed attempt to bribe another potential finance minister. The report also contains allegations that the Guptas may have used their influence over the state-owned energy provider, Eskom, to acquire a coal supplier to the company on more advantageous terms. The Guptas denied the allegations contained in the report.
One of South Africa’s highest-profile corruption cases reached a climax in March when the Constitutional Court ordered Zuma to pay back a portion of the 246 million rand ($23 million) spent on upgrades to his home in Nkandla. A 2014 report compiled by Madonsela had found that Zuma derived undue personal benefit from the renovations, which were ostensibly initiated for security reasons, and said that Zuma should repay a portion of the funds. The court found that Zuma had violated the constitution by failing to comply with the report. In September, seven years after the upgrades began, Zuma paid back 7.8 million rand using a loan.
In April 2016, the North Guateng High Court found that the NPA’s 2009 decision to drop 783 fraud, racketeering, and corruption charges against Zuma was “irrational” and should be set aside. Zuma and the head of the NPA tried unsuccessfully to appeal the April decision.
Freedoms of expression and the press are protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice. South Africa features a vibrant and often adversarial media landscape, including independent civic groups that help counter government efforts to encroach on freedom of expression. Nonetheless, concerns about press freedom have grown in recent years amid increasing government pressure on both state-run and independent outlets.
A number of recent incidents have compromised the credibility and independence of the SABC, the outlet with the largest reach in the country. The most high-profile incident came in May, when the SABC banned the broadcast of violent protests taking place across the country. The broadcaster’s controversial chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng—a political ally of Zuma—said it was the role of the SABC to “educate the citizens,” and that coverage of the unrest could encourage further violence. Critics of the ban alleged that the broadcaster had enacted it in order to avoid unflattering coverage for the ANC in the run-up to the August local elections. Amid protests against the ban from journalists, civil society, and the opposition, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) ordered its reversal in July.
Seven SABC journalists and one contracted freelance journalist were fired by the SABC in July after criticizing the protest ban policy. The journalists were reinstated later in the month following a ruling by the Labour Court in Johannesburg.
In May, the DA filed a complaint with ICASA after the SABC refused to air its election advertisements. In early June, the SABC agreed to air the ads. In June, Motsoeneng reportedly directed SABC staff not to engage in tough questioning of Zuma or to cover him negatively.
In September, Motsoeneng was removed from his position at the SABC after a court found that his appointment had been improper, but he was immediately rehired in another position by the broadcaster’s board; in December, a court ordered that he be removed from his new post as well.
Offsetting the turmoil at the SABC, private newspapers and magazines are often critical of powerful figures and institutions and remain a crucial check on the government. Internet access is unrestricted and growing rapidly, reaching around 52 percent penetration in 2015. However, many South Africans cannot afford connectivity.
Freedom of religion and academic freedom are constitutionally guaranteed and actively protected by the government. Religious leaders and academics are largely free to engage in discussions of a political nature without fear of adverse consequences. However, after coming under heavy criticism from the South African Council of Churches, Zuma in December told religious leaders to stay out of political affairs. He later clarified that he meant they should “avoid becoming embroiled in divisive party political squabbles.” Violence between student protesters and police and private security on university campuses amid demonstrations related to tuition fees have disrupted academic life.
South Africans are generally free to engage in private conversations of a political nature without harassment. However, a March report from the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the government’s use of surveillance and the law governing it, the 2002 Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of association and peaceful assembly. 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. Protests over the government’s shortcomings in the provision of public services are common in South Africa, and sometimes turn violent. Police have faced accusations of provoking some protest violence.
Student protests over tuition fees, which began the previous year, continued in 2016 at universities throughout the country, and sometimes turned violent. On several occasions, police used tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at students. In September, one student reported that she had been raped by a police officer in Pietermaritzburg, and in October police allegedly abducted a student leader in Johannesburg and dumped him in a neighboring province, Limpopo.
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. However, in April David Mahlobo, the minister of state security, accused some NGOs of working with foreign powers against South African interests.
South African workers 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. Strike activity is very common, and unionized workers often secure above-inflation wage increases. COSATU dominates the labor landscape but faces growing challenges from factionalism as well as independent unions. Union rivalries, especially in mining, sometimes result in the use of violent tactics to recruit and retain members and to attack opponents; violent and illegal strikes have also increased in recent years.
The constitution guarantees judicial independence, and courts operate with substantial autonomy. The Judicial Services Commission appoints Constitutional Court judges based on both merit and efforts to racially diversify the judiciary. A number of recent court judgments held the executive and legislative branches to account in such a manner as to suggest that the judiciary commands significant independence. Most notably, in the Nkandla matter, the Constitutional Court found that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution and that a resolution of Parliament saying he did not have to comply with Madonsela’s 2014 report was “inconsistent with” the constitution and “invalid.”
In October 2016, South Africa became the first country to file a notice of intent to withdraw from the ICC. The DA immediately challenged the legality of the move, saying the executive had acted unilaterally and was required to consult Parliament before taking such an action. The decision was announced weeks before the Constitutional Court was due to hear a government appeal against a March 2016 Supreme Court of Appeal ruling that South Africa had violated the Rome Statute of the ICC and domestic law by not arresting Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who had been indicted by the ICC, during a June 2015 visit by Bashir to South Africa. The government in October 2016 said it was withdrawing its appeal against the earlier ruling.
Prosecutorial independence has been undermined in recent years. The NPA has experienced a string of politically motivated appointments and ousters. Along with the Police Services Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, known as the Hawks—which is responsible for combatting corruption and other serious crimes—the NPA appeared to be engaged in a political battle against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, with whom Zuma has frequently clashed. In October 2016, the NPA brought fraud charges against Gordhan; the charges were suddenly withdrawn later that month amid mounting pressure from opposition parties, NGOs, and senior ANC figures. Before the charges were withdrawn, evidence emerged that critics said indicated that the NPA and the Hawks had not considered all the evidence at the time the charges were announced and had subsequently sought to gather evidence to support the prosecution, including by the use of coercive tactics.
Shortages of judicial staff and financial resources undermine defendants’ procedural rights, including the rights to a timely trial and state-funded legal counsel. According to a Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) 2015–16 annual report, there is severe overcrowding in some prisons. During this period, 62 unnatural deaths were reported in prisons and there were 811 complaints of assault by prison officials on inmates. According to the 2015–16 Department of Correctional Services report, detainees wait an average of nearly six months before trial, and some are held beyond the legal maximum of two years.
Customary law plays a significant role in areas that under apartheid had been designated as land reserves for the country’s black population. Traditional councils in these areas have authority over some aspects of local administration and can enforce customary law as long as it does not contravene the constitution. While this policy reduces the burden on state courts, customary law is replete with discriminatory provisions affecting women and certain minorities.
Despite constitutional prohibitions, there are many reports of police torture and excessive force during arrest, interrogation, and detention. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) is required by law to investigate allegations of police offenses or misconduct. In its annual report for the 2015–16 fiscal year, the IPID recorded 582 reported deaths either in police custody or by police action, 112 reported rapes by police officers, 145 reports of torture, and 3,509 reports of assault. Overall, there was a 6 percent decrease in total reported incidents from the previous period.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. After a decline, murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery increased for the fourth consecutive fiscal year in 2015–16. Vigilantism remains 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 discrimination cases. Affirmative-action legislation has benefited previously disadvantaged racial groups in public and private employment as well as in education but racial imbalances in the workforce persist. White people, constituting a small minority, still own a majority of the country’s business assets. The indigenous, nomadic Khoikhoi and Khomani San peoples suffer from social and legal discrimination.
Xenophobic violence against immigrants from other African countries has broken out sporadically in recent years. In April 2016, foreign-owned shops were looted in Cape Town. A government-commissioned report on the causes and consequences of a spring 2015 spree of xenophobic violence in KwaZulu-Natal, released in April 2016, found that the attacks were immediately caused by a purposeful attempt by local businesspeople to push out competition from establishments owned by foreigners. The investigation found that the spread of sensationalism and misinformation by media organizations and on social media also contributed to the violence.
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, same-sex couples have the same adoption rights as heterosexual married couples, and same-sex marriage is legal. However, there are frequent reports of physical attacks against LGBT people, including instances of so-called corrective rape, in which lesbians are raped by men who claim that the action can change the victim’s sexual orientation.
While there are no official restrictions on housing, employment, or freedom of movement for most South Africans, travel and some other personal freedoms are inhibited by the country’s high crime rate. For many foreigners, the threat of xenophobic violence impedes freedom of movement as well. The legacy of apartheid continues to segregate the population and restrict nonwhite opportunity for employment and education.
The state generally protects citizens from arbitrary deprivation of property. However, the vast majority of farmland remains in the hands of white South Africans, who make up some 9 percent of the population. Illegal squatting on white-owned farms is common, as are attacks on white farm owners. The government has lagged far behind its own targets for land reform to address the legacy of apartheid.
In May 2016, Parliament passed a new land Expropriation Bill, which had not been signed into law by the end of the year. The bill called for an end to the current “willing buyer, willing seller” policy and would allow for the compulsory purchase by the government of land in the “public interest.”
The constitution guarantees equal rights for women, which are actively promoted by the Commission on Gender Equality. Nevertheless, women suffer de facto discrimination with regard to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and property rights, particularly in rural areas. Sexual harassment is common, and reports of forced marriages persist. Women are also subject to wage discrimination in the workplace and are not well represented in top management positions. Women are better represented in government, holding 42 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Female premiers lead two of the nine provinces. Despite a robust legal framework criminalizing domestic violence and rape, both are grave problems. Only a small percentage of rapes are reported.
South Africans, predominantly from rural regions, as well as foreign migrants are vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor. Organized criminal syndicates are responsible for the bulk of trafficking.
Inequality levels in South Africa are among the highest in the world. Only a small percentage of the population benefits from large state industries and the economy is controlled by a relatively small number of people belonging to the political and business elite.