An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

South Africa

Executive Summary

South Africa is a multiparty parliamentary democracy in which constitutional power is shared among the executive, judiciary, and parliamentary branches. In May 2019 the country held a credible national election in which the ruling African National Congress won 58 percent of the vote and 230 of 400 seats in the National Assembly. In May 2019 African National Congress president Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn in for his first full term as president of the republic.

The South African Police Service has primary responsibility for internal security. The police commissioner has operational authority over police. The president appoints the police commissioner, but the minister of police supervises the commissioner. The South African National Defense Force, under the civilian-led Department of Defense, is responsible for external security but also has domestic security responsibilities. On March 23, the president announced measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 and directed the South African National Defense Force to assist the South African Police Service with enforcement of a nationwide lockdown. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; official corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons, and the worst forms of child labor.

Although the government investigated, prosecuted, and punished some officials who committed human rights abuses, there were numerous reports of impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, a generally effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. Nevertheless, several apartheid-era laws and the Law on Antiterrorism permit authorities to restrict reporting on security forces, prisons, and mental institutions.

Freedom of Speech: Authorities limited free expression and public debate regarding hate speech. The decade-old case of journalist John Qwelane convicted of antigay hate speech for a 2008 editorial, “Call me names, but gay is not okay,” continued, as the Constitutional Court reviewed lower courts’ decisions on the case and examining the constitutionality of the Equality Act’s litmus test for defining hate speech.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, conviction of publishing “fake news” regarding COVID-19 was punishable by fine, up to six months’ imprisonment, or both. The country’s press ombudsman stated that the COVID-19 measure had a chilling effect on journalists. In June the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) stated that the pandemic led to the closure of two magazine publications and 80 other print publications, the elimination of 700 journalism jobs, and the loss of income of 70 percent of freelance journalists.

Violence and Harassment: There were instances of journalists being subjected to violence, harassment, or intimidation by authorities due to their reporting. For example, in August, ANC member of parliament Boy Mamabolo was recorded verbally insulting and threatening to shoot an investigative print journalist regarding allegations that Mamabolo had made derogatory remarks concerning the government’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol as a COVID-19 pandemic mitigation measure. In March Johannesburg police shot at a News 24 reporter when he started to report on police firing rubber bullets to disperse a group of individuals violating lockdown regulations. SANEF reportedly filed a formal complaint regarding the incident.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political officials often criticized media for lack of professionalism and reacted sharply to media criticism. Some journalists believed the government’s sensitivity to criticism resulted in increased media self-censorship.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law authorizes state monitoring of telecommunication systems, however, including the internet and email, for national security reasons. The law requires all service providers to register on secure databases the identities, physical addresses, and telephone numbers of customers.

There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. Nevertheless, NGOs reported many municipalities continued to require protest organizers to provide advance written notice before staging gatherings or demonstrations.

In prior years protest organizers could be legally required to notify local authorities before staging gatherings or demonstrations. In 2018 the Constitutional Court ruled unanimously against this requirement. Legal experts welcomed the decision as an advance for civil liberties; however, they noted the ruling did not address the question of assuring security by local authorities during protests.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. In March the president declared a national disaster to restrict the spread of COVID-19. Freedom of movement was severely curtailed, including movement across international and provincial borders. Beginning on March 26, authorities instituted a 35-day strict lockdown that allowed persons to leave their residences only to obtain food and essential services.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Refugee advocacy organizations stated police and immigration officials physically abused refugees and asylum seekers. Xenophobic violence was a continuing problem across the country, especially in Gauteng Province. In August and September 2019, a spate of looting and violence in Johannesburg and Pretoria targeted foreign nationals, principally Nigerians and refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those targeted often owned or managed small, informal grocery stores in economically marginalized areas that lacked government services.

On social media immigrants were often blamed for increased crime and the loss of jobs and housing. Between January and November, there were at least 48 incidents of xenophobic violence. NGOs reported migrants were illegally evicted despite a national moratorium on evictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Violence against foreign truck drivers continued, including a flare-up in November of gasoline-bomb attacks on foreign truckers. Somali refugees continued to be among the most targeted groups, especially in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Gauteng Provinces. At least 29 Somalis were killed during the year. NGOs reported perpetrators of violence included ordinary citizens and law enforcement officers. According to the African Center for Migration and Society, perpetrators of crimes against foreign nationals were rarely prosecuted.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum and refugee status, and the government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. According to local migrants’ rights organizations, the DHA rejected most refugee applications. Those rejected then sought asylum. According to civil society groups, the system lacked procedural safeguards for seeking protection and review for unaccompanied minors, trafficked victims, and victims of domestic violence. Government services strained to keep up with the caseload, and NGOs criticized the government’s implementation of the system as inadequate.

Refugee advocacy groups criticized the government’s processes for determining asylum and refugee status, citing low approval rates, large case backlogs, a lack of timely information provided to asylum seekers on their asylum requests and status of their cases, inadequate use of country-of-origin information, an inadequate number of processing locations, and official corruption. Despite DHA anticorruption programs that punished officials found to be accepting bribes, NGOs and asylum applicants reported immigration officials sought bribes.

The DHA operated only three processing centers for asylum applications and refused to transfer cases among facilities. The DHA thus required asylum seekers to return to the office at which they were originally registered to renew asylum documents, which NGOs argued posed an undue hardship on those seeking asylum. NGOs reported asylum seekers sometimes waited in line for several days to access the reception centers.

Employment: According to NGOs, refugees regularly were denied employment due to their immigration status.

Access to Basic Services: Although the law provides for asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees to have access to basic services, including education, health, social support, police, and judicial services, NGOs stated health-care facilities and law enforcement personnel discriminated against them. Some refugees reported they could not access schooling for their children. They reported schools often refused to accept asylum documents as proof of residency. NGOs reported banks regularly denied services to refugees and asylum seekers if they lacked government-issued identification documents. Following a June court order in response to a lawsuit filed by the refugee-advocacy NGO Scalabrini Center of Cape Town, the government provided COVID-19 support payments to refugees and migrants. Refugees already had the legal right to such social support.

Durable Solutions: The government granted some refugees permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship, and, in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration, assisted others in returning voluntarily to their countries of origin. The law extends citizenship to children born to foreign national parents who arrived in South Africa on or after January 1, 1995.

Temporary Protection: The government offered temporary protection to some individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government allowed persons who applied for asylum to stay in the country while their claims were adjudicated and if denied, to appeal.

Human Rights Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select A Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future