Freedom in the World 2004 - South Africa

Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 2
Status: Free
Population: 44,000,000
GNI/Capita: $2,820
Life Expectancy: 53
Religious Groups: Christian (68 percent), Muslim indigenous beliefs and animists] (28.5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Black (75 percent), white (14 percent), mixed (9percent), Indian (2 percent)
Capital: Pretoria


In 2003, South Africa continued to provide a remarkable example of a democratic transition in an extremely diverse country. However, President Thabo Mbeki undermined his country's stature as a regional leader by refusing to condemn publicly increasing repression in neighboring Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, more than one in nine South Africans is HIV-positive, the highest infection rate in the world, which poses enormous political and economic problems for the country.

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. International economic sanctions and civil unrest 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 moves toward democratization in the late 1980s. In 1990, de Klerk freed African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela from 27 years of imprisonment and initiated a negotiation process that resulted in legitimate multiparty elections in 1994. These elections brought Mandela and the ANC to power at the national level. The ANC's electoral primacy was confirmed in national elections in 1999.

In recent years, tension has increased between the ruling ANC on the one hand and trade unions, independent media outlets, traditional leaders, and the white minority on the other. Key areas of disagreement between the ANC and labor have included the government's conservative economic policies and its approach to the AIDS epidemic.

The ANC leadership has focused blame for the country's problems on the former white-supremacist regime. This argument has begun to lose potency with time and with the growing economic empowerment of a minority of black South Africans. Protests have taken place over the pace of essential-service delivery to disadvantaged people. Serious challenges exist regarding economic development, and the government has not kept promises to improve vastly education, health care, and housing. The durability of the new democratic structures is uncertain since South Africa remains deeply divided by ethnicity and class.

South Africa has one of the fastest-growing AIDS rates in the world, and the health crisis poses serious political, economic, and social problems. About 11 percent of the population is afflicted. Up to 360,000 South Africans die yearly from AIDS, which has orphaned more than 650,000 children in the country. After having spent considerable political capital trying to keep the drugs from the public health system, mystifyingly arguing that the virus did not necessarily cause AIDS, Mbeki yielded to international and domestic pressure to endorse anti-HIV drugs Besides overwhelming the health care system, the pandemic threatens the economy by depleting future generations of workers. Mbeki's slowness in getting the epidemic under control and the country's astronomical crime rates have scared off much foreign investment.

South Africa is looked to as a regional leader, but Mbeki lacks the moral authority of his predecessor, Mandela. Mbeki's pursuit of "quiet diplomacy" with the ANC's historic ally, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, has been ineffectual in resolving authoritarianism and economic collapse in that country. Such passivity is shortsighted as the crisis has a direct impact on South Africa.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

South Africa's young democracy has been maturing since the new constitution took effect in February 1997 and South Africans can change their government democratically. 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 the five-year parliamentary term. The next presidential and parliamentary elections are due in 2004, and local ones are scheduled for 2005.

In general, the electoral process, including extensive voter education, balanced state media coverage, and reliable balloting and vote counting, has worked properly. An exception occurs in KwaZulu/Natal, where political violence and credible allegations of vote rigging have devalued the process. Violence there is decreasing, however, as the result of a peace process between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

South Africa's constitution is one of the most liberal in the world and includes a sweeping bill of rights. In 2000, the parliament approved legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex. Parliament has passed more than 500 laws relating to the constitution, revamping the apartheid-era legal system. This legislation is now being implemented: for example, some lower courts have been designated "equality courts," with a particular mandate to review instances of unfair discrimination. In 2000, the cabinet endorsed a code of ethics for politicians, covering items such as conflict of interest and disclosure of financial assets and large gifts. Corruption is not widespread, but concerns about increasing incidents led to the introduction into parliament of the 2002 Prevention of Corruption bill.

The press and other independent institutions play important roles in articulating a wide variety of interests. Freedom of expression is generally respected, although the government is sensitive to criticism. The state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) suffers from self-censorship. However, a variety of newspapers and magazines publish opinions sharply critical of the government and the ANC. Scores of small community radio stations operate, as well as one commercial television station, e-TV. Internet access is growing rapidly but remains elusive for disadvantaged people, particularly in rural areas where computers and electricity are scarce.

The final version of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill passed by parliament in 2002 reflects the maturity of the democratic processes. Original draft legislation contained a clause requiring that the SABC report to the minister of communications regarding editorial content. The legislation was revised after considerable debate; the constitutionally mandated Independent Communications Authority of South Africa will ensure that the SABC fulfills its mission of broadcasting in the public interest.

Religious and academic freedom thrive.

The government generally respects the rights of freedom of assembly and association, and a lively protest scene prevails. In recent years, the ANC has seen increased tension with its traditional political allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party. Labor rights codified under the 1995 Labor Relations Act (LRA) are respected, and more than 250 trade unions exist. 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 trade union positions in bargaining for job security, wages, and other benefits. Half a million jobs have been lost since 1994.

The country's independent judiciary continues to function well. The 11-member constitutional court, created to enforce the rules of the new democracy, has demonstrated considerable independence. In its Treatment Action Campaign ruling in 2002, the court challenged Mbeki by requiring the government to provide treatment to women with HIV or AIDS. Lower courts generally respect legal provisions regarding arrest and detention, although courts remain understaffed. The Bill of Rights prohibits detention without trial, but lengthy pretrial detentions are common as a result of an overwhelmed judiciary. The death penalty was abolished in 1995.

Efforts to end torture and other abuses by the national police force have been implemented, although such incidents still occur. Deaths in police custody continue to be a problem. The constitutionally mandated Human Rights Commission was appointed by parliament to "promote the observance of, respect for, and the protection of fundamental rights." Prisons often do not meet international standards and are characterized by overcrowding, poor health conditions, and abuses of inmates by staff or other prisoners.

The now-concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission 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 committed by the white-minority government, but which also criticized the ANC. The controversial issue of reparations for victims of apartheid is actively debated within and between the civil society and government.

The breakdown of law and order is a serious problem. An estimated four million illegal firearms circulate in South Africa, and in recent years, the country has ranked first in the world in the per capita number of rapes and armed robberies. Only 1 in 10 violent crimes results in conviction. Self-styled Muslim vigilantes, some with links to criminals, have been charged with violent actions in the Cape Town area.

In response to the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the South African government drafted an antiterrorism bill, whose latest draft was presented to parliament in 2003. Some clauses alarmed South Africans who remembered the days when the ANC was persecuted as a terrorist organization. Further amendments are possible as parliament reviews the proposed legislation.

South African society is characterized by ample personal freedom, and a small black middle class is emerging. However, the white minority retains most economic power. Some three-quarters of South Africans are black, yet they enjoy less than a third of the country's total income. Unemployment stands at about 40 percent among blacks and 4 percent for whites. The quality of schooling differs for the two groups. The government sought to lessen these disparities by improving, although slowly, housing and health care in disadvantaged areas. It has launched initiatives such as the Mining Charter, negotiated in 2002, which requires 25 percent of that industry to be black-owned in five years.

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. These laws, however, do not provide the infrastructure for implementation. Discriminatory practices in customary law remain prevalent, as does sexual violence against women and minors. Forty percent of rape survivors are girls under 18. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Amendment Bill, introduced to parliament in 2003, seeks to widen protection for sexual victims, but human rights groups say it does not go far enough.

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