Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Population: 43,600,000
GNI/Capita: $8,908
Life Expectancy: 53
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: Black (75 percent), white (14 percent), mixed (9 percent), Indian (2 percent)
Capital: Pretoria

Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 2
Status: Free


South Africa continues to provide a remarkable, powerful example of a positive democratic transition in an extremely diverse country. Consolidation of South Africa's democratic transition proceeded under the new constitution that took effect in February 1997. The country's independent judiciary continues to function, on balance, very well. Elections at all levels of government have taken place repeatedly. The press, trade unions, and other independent institutions play important roles in articulating a wide variety of interests.

This generally positive perspective, however, must be tempered by the recognition that serious problems of democratic consolidation, economic and social development, health, and group relations exist. The durability of the new democratic structures is uncertain since South Africa remains deeply divided by ethnicity and class. AIDS is rampant throughout the country, which is also plagued by corruption and by rising crime that has reached endemic proportions.

In 2001, tension increased between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and various groups, including the trade unions, elements of the press, traditional leaders, and the white minority. Key areas of disagreement between the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions have included the government's approach to dealing with key problems such as AIDS and its conservative economic policies.

President Thabo Mbeki has received increasing criticism for his positions on a number of issues, including his support for embattled President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mbeki has also spent considerable political capital arguing that HIV does not necessarily cause AIDS. The ANC leadership has focused blame for the country's problems on the former white supremacist regime. This argument has begun to lose some of its potency with the passage of time. Also in 2001, former senior ANC leaders, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa were publicly named as being under suspicion of plotting to overthrow and harm Mbeki.

In November 2001, the ANC reached a cooperation agreement with the New National Party (NNP), the successor party to the apartheid-era ruling party. The agreement paves the way for the NNP to return to government at all levels as well as giving the ANC a foothold in the Western Cape, a key province where it previously had no governing role. The major opposition grouping, the Democratic Alliance, which had included the NNP, split in part over the issue of whether to seek an alliance with the ANC to govern Western Cape Province.

South Africa's apartheid government, which came to power in 1948, reserved political power for the white minority while seeking to balkanize the black, Indian, and mixed-race, or colored, communities. Increasing international ostracism, civil unrest, and the growing strength of the ANC eventually forced the South African government to negotiate with its adversaries. Momentum for change accelerated with the accession to power of Frederick de Klerk and global and regional moves towards greater democratization in the late 1980s. In 1990 De Klerk freed ANC leader Nelson Mandela from 27 years of prison, and a negotiation process which resulted in legitimate multi-party elections in 1994, was initiated. These elections brought Mandela and the ANC to power at the national level.

South Africa's regional relations are highly sensitive and complicated. In addition to Zimbabwe's increasing instability, Angola continues to suffer from civil conflict. Strife in the Great Lakes region, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, also impedes economic and political progress. In 2001 long-running negotiations to achieve a possible resolution of Burundi's civil conflict, led by former President Mandela, resulted in the installation of a coalition government. This agreement was underwritten by the South African government in the form of South African troops being sent to the country as peacekeepers.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

South Africans have the right, in theory and practice, to change their government. Two successful national elections have taken place since 1994. Elections for the 400-seat National Assembly and 90-seat National Council of Provinces are by proportional representation based on party lists. The National Assembly elects the president to serve concurrently with its five-year term. Local and municipal elections were held in 1995, 1996, and early December, 2000. The 1996 polls had been twice postponed due to continuing disagreements between the government and traditional chiefs, who feared losing power to the new authorities and the central government.

In general, the electoral process, including extensive civic and voter education, balanced state media coverage, and reliable balloting and vote counting, has worked properly. An exception is in KwaZulu/Natal, where political violence and credible allegations of vote rigging have devalued the process.

The South African constitution is one of the most liberal in the world. It includes a sweeping bill of rights. In early 2000 the parliament approved legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sex. Parliament has passed more than 500 laws relating to the constitution, revamping the apartheid-era legal system.

In 2000, the cabinet also endorsed a code of ethics that would require the president and national and provincial cabinet ministers to abide by standards of behavior dealing with potential and real conflicts of interest, and to disclose financial assets and gifts valued above a determined amount.

The now-concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission has sought to heal divisions created by the apartheid regime through a series of open hearings. From 1996 to 1998, the commission received more than 20,000 submissions from victims and nearly 8,000 applications for amnesty from perpetrators. In 1998 the commission released a report on human rights abuses during the apartheid years that largely focused on atrocities by the white-minority government, but which also criticized the ANC. The commission's amnesty committee remained in existence until June 2001 to complete the task of assessing thousands of applications for amnesty from self-confessed perpetrators of human rights abuses.

A constitutional court has been created to enforce the rules of the new democracy. The 11-member court has demonstrated considerable independence. Lower courts generally respect legal provisions regarding arrest and detention, although courts remain understaffed. Efforts to end torture and other abuses by the national police force have been implemented. The constitutionally mandated Human Rights Commission was appointed by parliament to "promote the observance of, respect for, and the protection of fundamental rights."

Free expression in media and public discourse is generally respected. A variety of newspapers and magazines publish reportage, analysis, and opinion sharply critical of the government, political parties, and other societal actors. Concerns about possible infringements on the freedom of the press, however, arose early in 2000, when the Human Rights Commission issued subpoenas to the editors of a number of leading publications to appear before an investigation into racism in the media. After receiving considerable criticism, the commission compromised, issuing "invitations" to the editors instead of legally binding subpoenas. Radio broadcasting has been dramatically liberalized, with scores of small community radio stations now operating. The state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation is today far more independent than during apartheid, but still suffers from self-censorship.

Equal rights for women are guaranteed by the constitution and promoted by the constitutionally mandated Commission on Gender Equality. Laws such as the Maintenance Act and the Domestic Violence Act are designed to protect women in financially inequitable and abusive relationships, and other areas of social inequity. These laws, though a step in the right direction, nevertheless do not provide the infrastructure for their implementation. Discriminatory practices in customary law remain prevalent. In addition, the past several years have been marked by an increase in violence against women. It is estimated that every 26 seconds a woman is raped in South Africa. Violence against children is also reportedly widespread.

The breakdown of law and order is a serious problem. An estimated four million illegal firearms circulate in South Africa. Nationally, police make arrests in only 45 percent of murder cases and 12 percent of robberies, compared with 70 percent and 30 percent, respectively, in the United States. South Africa's murder rate is on a par with Colombia's, and rising. Firearms account for 30 percent of deaths. In recent years South Africa has ranked first in the world in terms of the number of per capita rapes and armed robberies. Tension has also grown between elements of the nation's Muslim minority and the government. A number of self-styled vigilantes, some of them with links to criminals, have been charged with a string of violent actions, especially in the Cape Town area.

In response to this problem and to the September 11 attacks in the United States, the government is drafting a terrorism bill. It is not yet clear how the new law would affect the two militant Muslim organizations in South Africa, Qibla and the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), which were branded "terrorist" groups by the U.S. State Department in 1998. The government has blamed PAGAD for some 190 bombings in Cape Town and accused it of trying to destabilize the country.

The proposed terrorism law has alarmed South Africans who remember the days when groups such as the ANC were persecuted as terrorist organizations and anti-apartheid activists were detained for up to 90 days without trial. Human rights groups are particularly worried about a clause in the new bill that allows for detention without trial for 14 days for interrogation purposes.

Prison conditions are characterized by overcrowding. The prison system has a capacity of 100,000 but has been holding as many as 170,000 individuals. In 2001 the government announced that spending on the integrated justice system, the police, courts, and correctional services would increase by 7.2 percent a year to allow for infrastructure improvements and the hiring of 6,000 new police officers.

Labor rights codified under the 1995 Labor Relations Act (LRA) are respected, and there are more than 250 trade unions. The right to strike can be exercised after reconciliation efforts. The LRA allows employers to hire replacement workers. The ANC government has introduced several labor laws designed to protect the rights of workers, although it has taken other actions that weaken labor union positions in bargaining for job security, wages, and other benefits. South Africa faces other serious problems. It has one of the fastest-growing AIDS infection rates in the world. About 4.7 million people in South Africa are believed to be HIV-positive, higher than in any other country. Up to 250,000 deaths from AIDS occur each year and the health crisis poses an extremely serious political and social problem.

The quality of schooling is extremely uneven. More than three-quarters of South Africa's people are black, but they share less than a third of the country's total income. The white minority retains most economic power. Corruption is a serious and growing problem. Unemployment stands at about 40 percent among blacks and 4 percent among whites; an estimated 500,000 private sector jobs have been lost since 1994. Half of the population of 41 million lives below the poverty line.

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