Freedom on the Net 2012 - South Africa

South Africa figures


Digital media freedom is generally respected in South Africa. Political content is not censored, and bloggers and online content creators are not prosecuted for online activities. Nevertheless, the status of South Africa's internet freedom was threatened by two pieces of proposed legislation in 2011 – the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill, which could potentially legalize the bulk monitoring of internet communications, and the Protection of State Information Bill, which would make it illegal to publish and access certain state information, affecting the traditional and digital media, bloggers, and internet users.

Access to the internet has improved, and more people have the option to access the internet from their mobile phones than from computers. Nevertheless, the majority of South Africans are unable to benefit from internet access due to high costs and the fact that most content is in English – an obstacle for those who speak one of the ten other official languages – although there is now content in some local languages, especially on social-networking platforms.

The first internet connection in South Africa was established in 1988, and the internet was commercialized in 1993. By the mid-1990s, South Africa ranked higher in internet usage than other countries at comparable levels of development. Today, however, South Africa ranks lower than some countries with similar or lower levels of human development or gross domestic product (GDP) per capita,[1] and South Africa is the thirteenth most connected country in Africa in terms of internet penetration.[2] Kenya – a country with one-sixth of South Africa's GDP per capita and ten countries below it on the Human Development Index – has twice the number of internet users as South Africa.[3] According to many analysts, this relative decline has been attributed to the state's failed policy of managed liberalization which sought to "preserve a central role for state-owned operators in the sector and state shareholding in private companies, while gradually liberalizing the market over a period of time,"[4] as well as "a decade-long period of policy and regulatory paralysis" in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector "in which decision-making and administrative justice were ultimately abdicated to the courts."[5]

Obstacles to Access

By the end of 2011, 21 percent of the South African population had access to the internet,[6] up from 7.6 percent in 2006.[7] Due to the high costs of access, infrastructural limitations, and waiting periods for line installation and ADSL access in some areas, the majority of users access the internet from mobile phones or from internet cafes. In 2011, there were only 1.8 fixed-line ADSL connections per 100 inhabitants, up from 1.3 percent in 2010.[8] Those with access, especially broadband access, are concentrated in urban areas. Although the overall figures remain very low,[9] the number of South Africans accessing the internet through broadband connections grew by more than 50 percent in 2009, and wireless broadband access grew by 88 percent in the same period.[10] This growth has been attributed to the granting of Electronic Communications Network Service (ECNS) licenses to more than 400 organizations since a landmark August 2008 court ruling that value-added network service (VANS) providers can self-provide facilities.[11] Other positive factors include falling costs due to the arrival of the Seacom and the East African Submarine System (Eassy) undersea cables, the increasing use of updated mobile phone technology, and the laying of new fiber-optic cables within and between cities.[12]

After years of stifled competition, the market is slowly opening up. In March 2010, the internet service provider (ISP) M-Web launched an uncapped ADSL offering, unleashing a price war in the ADSL market.[13] The price war is projected to be more obvious in 2012, and its real impact is expected by 2013.[14] However, prices are still beyond the reach of the majority of the population, especially for users of prepaid services.

Fixed-line broadband (ADSL) is prohibitively expensive, with 1 gigabyte (GB) of data at 384 Kbps available for 306 rand (approximately US$37).[15] The cheapest unlimited 4 Mbps connection would cost 971 rand (approximately US$118).[16] Some mobile broadband packages offering small amounts of data are cheaper than the fixed-line alternatives. The cheapest prepaid mobile data packages are 40 rand (US$5) for 100 MB, 120 rand (US$15) for 500 MB, and 266 rand (US$32) for 2 GB.[17] A report by telecom research firm Ovum in 2011 found that South Africa had the most expensive broadband tariffs of 19 sampled emerging market countries.[18] South Africa also lags behind other countries in terms of broadband speed. According to one study, South Africa is sixth in Africa for average download speeds and ranks 107th out of 174 countries measured.[19]

Less than half of urban mobile users who have internet-enabled phones actually use the internet on their phones, and those who do use internet capabilities focus on specific applications like the Mxit instant-messaging service and Facebook Mobile rather than regular browsing.[20] It is estimated that 81.8 percent of the population are mobile phone users as of December 2011, with 73.3 percent of the population using prepaid mobile services, according to the South African Advertising Research Foundation.[21] The latest ITU data notes 64 million mobile phone subscriptions in 2011, amounting to a penetration rate of nearly 127 percent.[22]

Telkom SA, a partly stated-owned company, retains a monopoly in the market for broadband access via ADSL. ADSL packages are only available through Telkom lines. Although there is competition in the ADSL market and users can choose from hundreds of ISPs, ADSL connections and telephone lines are rented from Telkom. Currently, subscribers cannot enjoy their ADSL "naked" – i.e. without also paying for voice service. Additionally, ISPs selling ADSL access need to pay Telkom charges for its IP Connect service for access to its exchanges.[23] On March 31, 2012, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) regulatory body enforced a 30 percent reduction in IP Connect prices that is expected to help in lowering ADSL prices.[24]

It was hoped that the licensing of a second national operator in 2006, Neotel, would increase competition. Neotel, however, does not offer ADSL but only fixed-wireless and mobile internet packages. There are five mobile phone companies in South Africa – Vodacom, MTN, Cell-C, Virgin Mobile and 8ta – all of which are privately owned except for 8ta, which is owned by Telkom. The state previously owned a stake in Vodacom through Telkom, but the shares have since been relinquished.

Pursuant to Section 27(A)1 of the Electronic Communications Act, ISPs and internet cafes are required to register with the Film and Publications board, which falls under the Department of Home Affairs and is a relic (albeit a reformed one) of the Apartheid publication censorship regime.

The autonomy of the regulatory body, ICASA, is protected by the South African constitution, although several incidents involving ministerial policy directives sent to the regulator have called the extent of its independence into question.[25] In 2008, after a landmark ruling that mandated the implementation of existing legislation and regulations allowing VANS providers to self-provide communications facilities, the Minister at the time tried unsuccessfully to take ICASA to court to prevent it from granting an updated ECNS license to Alltech, a VANS company.[26] ICASA has also been criticized by operators for delays in the allocation of 4G mobile spectrum and local loop unbundling.[27] In November 2011, the regulator announced that it had completed its local loop unbundling study and was ready to begin implementing the process. Meanwhile, Minister of Communications Dina Pule announced that to the contrary, ICASA had not begun its study and was not ready to begin the implementation of local loop unbundling, which led some to question the independence of ICASA in these processes.[28]

A proposed ICASA Act amendment introduced as a bill to parliament in 2010 aimed to limit the independence of the ICASA by requiring the CEO of ICASA to approach parliament through the Minister of Communications, rather than directly. The initial bill was withdrawn in November 2011, and a revised draft will be introduced to parliament in 2012.[29] In November 2011, the government proposed amendments to the Electronic Communications Act that would transfer the ICASA's power over spectrum management to the Minister of Communications, going against worldwide trends of spectrum management being delegated to regulators.[30] Nevertheless, access providers and other internet-related groups are self-organized and quite active in lobbying the government for better legislation and regulations, including measures that would upgrade the independence and capacity of ICASA.

Limits on Content

While internet content remains free of government censorship, a 2009 amendment to the Films and Publications Act of 1996 has raised concerns that certain types of controversial content could be restricted. The amendment requires that every print and online publication that is not a recognized newspaper be submitted for classification to the government-controlled Film and Publications Board[31] if it includes depictions of "sexual conduct which violates or shows disrespect for the right to dignity of any person, degrades a person, or constitutes incitement to cause harm; advocates propaganda for war; incites violence; or advocates hatred based on any identifiable group characteristic and that constitutes incitement to cause harm." Exemptions are provided for artistic and scientific speech, but the board has the discretion to grant or deny these exemptions.[32]

In a positive development, a High Court in October 2011 ruled in favor of an application by Print Media South Africa (PMASA) and the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) to have the 2009 amendments to the Films and Publications Act declared unconstitutional. The judged agreed that the prescreening of "publications" (including internet content) would affect the value of news and be an unjustifiable limitation on the right to freedom of expression. During the time of writing, the amendment was being reviewed by the constitutional court.[33]

In May 2010, the deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, announced that he had approached the country's Law Reform Commission to ask for a complete ban on digitally-distributed pornography at the first tier of service providers through an internet and mobile phone pornography bill developed by the Justice Alliance of South Africa (JASA). The bill used a very broad definition of pornography found in a law outlawing sexual offenses.[34] In September 2011, a revised draft of the proposed bill was presented to the new Minister of Home Affairs by JASA, but the revised bill would still make internet pornography illegal. As of early 2012, the bill has not yet been introduced to parliament.

Under the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act of 2002 (ECTA), ISPs are required to respond to and implement take-down notices (TDNs) regarding illegal content, such as child pornography, material that could be defamatory without justification, or copyright violations. There is no procedure for appealing take down notices, thus ISPs often have to err on the side of caution by taking down the content once a TDN is received in order to avoid court cases.[35]

The government does not restrict material on contentious topics such as corruption and human rights. Citizens are able to access a wide range of viewpoints, and there are no government efforts to limit discussion. Online content, however, does not match the diverse interests within society, especially with respect to race and local languages. There are a number of political and consumer-activist websites, though the internet is not yet a key space for social or political mobilization. Radio, followed by television, continue to be the main sources of news and information for most South Africans, but there are increasing efforts to extend mainstream news outlets to online platforms. All major media groups now have an online presence.

Individuals and groups can engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet using email, instant messaging, chat rooms, and social media. YouTube, Facebook, and international blog-hosting services are freely available. The South African blogosphere has been highly active in promotion of AIDS awareness and the discussion of environmental issues, in addition to more general political coverage. The internet and mobile phones have been used for political organization, especially during recent developments like the protest and activism against the 2011 Protection of State Information Bill and around environmental issues at COP17, the Durban Climate Change Conference in November 2011. The main political parties have developed online campaigns to attract young voters and are very active in social media.

Violations of User Rights

The constitution guarantees "freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research." However, it also includes constraints, and freedom does not extend to "propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm."[36] The judiciary in South Africa is independent and has issued at least two rulings protecting freedom of expression online. Libel is not a criminal offense, but civil laws have been applied to online content. Criminal law has been invoked on at least one occasion to prosecute for injurious material.[37]

Threats to media freedom have also extended to the online content of newspapers. In May 2009, the country's public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), filed a charge of "stolen property" after the Mail & Guardian posted on its website a documentary on political satire that the broadcaster had refused to air. The documentary explored the fact that award-winning cartoonist Zapiro was being sued by President Jacob Zuma for portraying him about to rape Lady Justice. The newspaper's editor, Nic Dawes, argued that he and his colleagues had a professional duty to make such material public and accused the SABC of censorship.[38] In May 2010, the South African Council of Muslim Theologians attempted to stop the Mail & Guardian from publishing another cartoon by Zapiro that depicted the prophet Muhammad, arguing that the image was insulting to Muslims. A court injunction, which would have extended to the online version of the newspaper, was not granted.[39]

In March 2011, a businesswomen and fashion label owner, Inge Peacock, submitted an application to the Western Cape High Court to compel the magazine Noseweek to remove an allegedly defamatory article from its website. The article was about the challenges facing the South African clothing and textile industry and revealed how major stores were not discriminating enough about whom they chose to do business with. Peacock's refusal to settle an account with a garment factory was cited in the article. A judge dismissed the case seeing the issue as involving two clashing constitutional rights – the right to freedom of expression and the right to dignity. [40]

Recent legislation potentially allows for extensive monitoring and has been in force since June 2009. One such piece of legislation, the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act of 2002 (RICA), requires ISPs to retain customer data for an undetermined period of time and bans any internet system that cannot be monitored. RICA also requires mobile subscribers to provide extensive personal information to service providers, which is then made available to the government. An identification number is legally required for any SIM card purchase, and people already in the possession of SIM cards are required to register with a proof of residence and an identity document.[41] There have been reports of criminals circumventing registration laws and that illegal unregistered SIM cards can be purchased quite easily. In November 2011, the police seized about 60,000 pre-registered SIM cards, "all registered to one untraceable person."[42]

While RICA obliges ISPs to send communications in question to an interception center, the Act explicitly prohibits the interception of communications, except when granted permission from a judge designated to rule on the practice. The Criminal Procedures Act allows law enforcement agencies to apply to a high court judge or regional court magistrate for mobile phone records or the location of a cell phone. RICA also requires judicial oversight and includes guidelines for judges to establish whether the interception is justified in terms of proportionality and narrowly defined standards. Reports by the Mail & Guardian however suggest that "[s]tate intelligence agencies can – and do – access citizens' private communications illegally," and that "it is a common occurrence, especially in police crime intelligence."[43]

Another law that potentially restricts anonymous communication is the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act of 2002 (ECTA), which created a legion of inspectors trained to "inspect and confiscate computers, determine whether individuals have met the relevant registration provisions, as well as search the internet for evidence of 'criminal actions.'"[44] The law also states that ISPs "do not have an obligation to monitor," exempting them from liability if proscribed content is found on their service but taken down once a notice is received. However, this exemption only applies if the ISPs are members of a recognized representative organization, such as the Internet Service Providers' Association of South Africa (ISPA).

The Ministry of Communications has recognized the ISPA as an industry representative body under the ECTA. The ISPA acts as an agent on behalf of its 160 members and provides the ministry with annual information about the total number of TDNs issued, the actions taken in response, and the final results.[45] Most of the complaints lodged are resolved amicably, with ISPA's clients agreeing to take down the offending content.[46]

Reports indicate that the government conducts some bulk surveillance of mobile phone conversations, short-message service (SMS), and emails through the National Communications Center (NCC), a government agency which houses interception facilities. The NCC targets "foreign signals intelligence" and intercepts communications in bulk. The NCC reportedly has the technical capabilities and staffing to monitor both SMS and voice traffic originating outside South Africa.[47] Calls from foreign countries to recipients in South Africa can allegedly be monitored for certain keywords; the NCC then intercepts and records flagged conversations. While most interceptions involve reasonable national security concerns, such as terrorism or assassination plots, the system allows the NCC to record South African citizens' conversations without a warrant.[48]

Although the NCC operates outside the boundaries of the law, a current bill in Parliament – the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill, previously shelved in 2008 but reintroduced in 2011 – would legalize the interception of "any communication that emanates from outside the borders of the republic, or passes through or ends in the republic." This presents the possibility that the mass monitoring of internet communication could be legalized and that sending messages from an email address with a foreign company or through social-networking platforms like Facebook could potentially count as interceptable communication.[49]

Current threats to the traditional media in South Africa may in the future have an impact on the online world, especially with regards to the right to information. The proposed Protection of State Information Bill in 2011, passed by the National Assembly (the first house of parliament) and currently under discussion at the National Chamber of Provinces (the second house of parliament), would impose sentences on journalists of up to 25 years for reporting on classified information. If passed, this bill would have chilling effects on the media, as well as on internet users. For example, under the bill internet users could face sentences of up to ten years in prison for intentionally accessing classified South African state information on whistleblower websites.

There have been no reports of extralegal intimidation targeting online journalists, bloggers, or other digital technology users by state authorities or any other actor. Politically-motivated hacking attacks are not significant in South Africa; however the website of the African National Congress Youth League's website was hacked and defaced twice in 2011.[50] Spam and malware are a significant problem in South Africa, and a report by MessageLabs revealed that in September 2010, South Africa was the most targeted country by email borne malware with 1 out of every 99 emails infected.[51]


1 For example, South Africa has 12.3 internet users per 100 inhabitants compared to 27.56 in Vietnam. South Africa is 123rd on the Human Development Index (HDI) for 2011 and Vietnam is 128th. Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia (with similar GDP per capita to South Africa) have between 42.9 and 52.4 internet users per 100 inhabitants. This is according to the International Telecommunication Union data for 2010 ( and World Bank and IMF GDP PPP per capita data (

2 The countries above South Africa in terms of internet users per 100 inhabitants are in descending order are: Morocco, Seychelles, Tunisia, Cape Verde, Nigeria, Mauritius, Egypt, Kenya, Sao Tomé and Principe, Libya, Rwanda, and Uganda.

3 Kenya which is 143rd on the HDI had 25.9 as internet users per 100 inhabitants in 2010, South Africa had 12.3,

4 Alison Gillwald, "Between two stools: Broadband policy in South Africa," The Southern African Journal of Information and Communication 8, 2007.

5 Alison Gillwald, "SA fails test of network society," TechCentral, October 12, 2011,

6 International Telecommunication Union (ITU), "Percentage of individuals using the Internet, fixed (wired) Internet subscriptions, fixed (wired)-broadband subscriptions," 2011, accessed July 13, 2012,

7 Data is from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2010. Another measure of internet usage could be the South African Advertising Research Foundation's all media product survey June 2011, which estimates that 10.54 percent of adults had used the internet in the last day, 15 percent in the past week, and 20.3 percent in the last month. South African Advertising Research Foundation, "AMPS Trended Media Data: Cellphone Trends," accessed March 11, 2012,

8 ITU, "Percentage of individuals using the Internet, fixed (wired) Internet subscriptions, fixed (wired)-broadband subscriptions," 2011.

9 South Africa currently has a broadband penetration of 4 connections per 100 inhabitants. See "SA's broadband penetration: the way forward," MyBroadband, October 13, 2010,

10 "Broadband Speeding Ahead," World Wide Worx, news release, March 17, 2010,

11 "SA Internet Growth Accelerates," World Wide Worx, news release, January 14, 2010,

12 Candice Jones, "More Bandwidth Coming," ITWeb, March 30, 2010,

13 Candice Jones, "Another Salvo in Broadband War," ITWeb, May 5, 2010,

14 Simon Dingle, "The broadband backslide," FinWeek, February 9 2012.

15 This package is from AXXESS ( and is R15 per GB but includes 384 kbps circuit rental of R 152 as well as mandatory fixed-line rental from Telkom for R 139.97). South Africans do not currently have the option to have "naked ADSL" – that is ADSL without paying a fee for a voice line rental. Prices are from May 4, 2012.

16 The speed would not be fully unthrottled for this option and would be "shaped," meaning that certain services or content would be slowed down. Mandatory line rental and 4 Mbps circuit rental of R139.97 and R 413 respectively are included in the price. The package is offered by Propertiere. The price was obtained from

17 These prepaid data bundles are from the mobile operator 8ta, which is owned by the fixed-line incumbent Telkom. Prices are from

18 Ovum, "Broadband Pricing in Emerging Markets in 2011," cited in Nicola Mawson, "SA's broadband most expensive," ITWeb, August 10, 2011,

19 Simon Dingle, "The broadband backslide," FinWeek, February 9 2012.

20 "Mobile Internet Booms in SA," World Wide Worx, news release, May 27, 2010,

21 "AMPS Trended Media Data: Cellphone Trends," South African Advertising Research Foundation, accessed July 13, 2012,

22 International Telecommunication Union (ITU), "Mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions," 2011, accessed July 13, 2012,

23 Gareth Vorster, "Telkom charging twice for the same product," BusinessTech, March 6 2012, Weoma Wright, CEO of the ISP OpenWeb said that, "As everyone is aware, the cost of the IPConnect service is the single most expensive ingredient in the make-up of ADSL. If Telkom cut the cost of their IPConnect link by only 50 percent per month, ISP's would be able to instantly offer a less contended service that costs less."

24 Larry Claasen, "Icasa brings prices down," Financial Mail, April 19, 2012; Bonnie Tubbs, "IPC cut encourages ADSL promos," ITWeb, April 11, 2012,

25 Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, South Africa, Public Broadcasting in Africa Series (Johannesburg: Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, 2010).

26 Belinda Anderson, "Ivy takes ICASA to court," Fin24, October 20, 2008,

27 "MTN warns of "regulatory failure," Tech Central, March 2, 2012,

28 Randolph Muller, "LLU: get ready to lose your cool," MyBroadband, February 14, 2012,

29 "Icasa Amendment Bill under fire," Tech Central, March 7 2010,; Nicola Mawson, "DOC to issue amendment Acts," ITweb, February 28, 2012,

30 "More criticism of telecom law amendments," Tech Central, November 15, 2011.

31 The Film and Publications Board, is part of the Ministry of Home Affairs. According to the Film and Publications Amendment Act of 2003, all ISPs are required to register with the board.

32 Films and Publications Amendment Act, No. 3 of 2009, accessed June 4, 2010,

33 "Film and Publications Act amendments declared unconstitutional," BizCommunity, November 3, 2011,

34 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, No. 32 of 2007, accessed June 4, 2010,

35 Ant Brooks from the ISP Association says: "If an ISP gets a TDN targeting your content, they will either take it down, or require that you provide them with an undertaking to cover any legal costs they might incur by leaving it up."

36 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, May 8, 1996, Bill of Rights, Chapter 2, Section 16.

37 See Freedom of the Net 2011, "South Africa."

38 Matthew Burbidge, "SABC Lays Charge of 'Theft' over Zapiro Doccie," Mail & Guardian, May 28, 2009,

39 "Anger Mounts Over Zapiro Cartoon," Mail & Guardian, May 22, 2010,

40 "Fashion victim," Noseweek, March 1, 2012,; Sapa, "'Fashion victim' bid to gag Noseweek fails," Times Live, March 6, 2012,

41 Nicola Mawson, "'Major' RICA Threat Identified," ITWeb, May 27, 2010,

42 Yogas Nair, "60k pre-Rica'd SIMS found," Daily News, November 8, 2011,

43 Heidi Swart, "Secret state: How the Government spies on you," Mail & Guardian, October 14, 2010,

44 Privacy International, "South Africa," in Silenced: An International Report on Censorship and Control of the Internet (London: Privacy International, 2003), accessed June 24, 2010,[347]=x-347-103781.

45 Paul Vecchiatto, "Content Disputes Settled Amicably," ITWeb, March 12, 2010,

46 "Nyanda Recognises ISPA as Industry Representative Body,", May 21, 2009,

47 Moshoeshoe Monare, "Every Call You Take, They'll Be Watching You," Independent, August 24, 2008,

48 Moshoeshoe Monare, Op cit.

49 Drew Forrest and Stefaans Brümmer, "Spooks bid for new powers," Mail & Guardian, February 3, 2012,

50 Stuart Thomas, "ANC Youth League website hacked," Memburn, July 24 2011,

51 OECD Communications Outlook 2011,,3746,en_2649_34225_43435308_1_1_1_1,00.html

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