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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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

Police use of lethal and excessive force, including torture, resulted in numerous deaths and injuries, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), Amnesty International, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Watchdog groups noted deaths in custody often resulted from physical abuse combined with a lack of subsequent medical treatment or neglect (see section 1.c.).

NGOs criticized the use of excessive force by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) to enforce lockdown measures that began in March. On April 10, police and defense force members beat to death Collins Khosa after allegedly finding alcohol on his property. On May 31, the North Gauteng High Court ordered the suspension of officers involved and ordered the Ministry of Police to issue lockdown use-of-force guidelines to respect human rights in accordance with South African law and international treaty obligations. On August 26, SAPS officers shot and killed unarmed 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, who had Downs’ syndrome. Police allegedly took this action because he did not respond to questioning. Following rioting and clashes with police, three officers were arrested and charged with murder. One officer was released on bail, and the other two remained incarcerated at year’s end.

Courts convicted few perpetrators of political violence. Media and NGOs claimed the vast majority of killings resulted from local-level intraparty African National Congress (ANC) disputes, often in the context of competition for resources or as revenge against whistleblowers who uncovered corruption.

In 2018 the Moerane Commission, which then KwaZulu-Natal Province premier Willies Mchunu established to investigate political killings, published a report that identified ANC infighting, readily available hitmen, weak leadership, and ineffective and complicit law enforcement agencies as key contributing factors to the high rate of political killings. There were numerous reported political killings at a local level similar to the following example. In June an ANC councilor for the Umlazi Township, Bhekithemba Phungula, and two other party leaders in KwaZulu-Natal townships were killed.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

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.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes domestic violence and rape of men or women, including spousal rape, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. The minimum sentence for conviction of rape is 10 years’ imprisonment. Under certain circumstances, such as second or third offenses, multiple rapes, gang rapes, or the rape of a minor or a person with disabilities, conviction requires a minimum sentence of life imprisonment, unless substantial and compelling circumstances exist to justify a lesser sentence. Perpetrators with previous rape convictions and perpetrators aware of being HIV positive at the time of the rape also face a minimum sentence of life imprisonment, unless substantial and compelling circumstances exist to justify a lesser sentence.

In most cases of rape and domestic violence, attackers were acquaintances or family members of the victim that, together with societal attitudes, contributed to a reluctance to press charges. NGOs stated that cases were underreported especially in rural communities due to stigma, unfair treatment, fear, intimidation, and lack of trust in the criminal justice system. According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, during the first week of the COVID-19 lockdown, police received more than 87,000 rape and other gender-based violence (GBV) complaints.

There were numerous reported sexual assaults similar to the following example. In June a woman eight months pregnant was found dead hanging from a tree in Johannesburg. She and her fetus had multiple stab wounds. Muzikayise Malephane, age 31, was arrested and charged with premeditated murder. He had yet to be tried by year’s end.

SAPS reported an increase in the number of reported raped cases from 41,583 in 2018/19 to 42,289 in 2019/20. According to the National Prosecuting Authority 20192020 Annual Report, the authority achieved its highest number of successfully prosecuted sexual offense cases during the time period. It prosecuted 5,451 sexual offense cases and had 4,098 convictions, a 75 percent conviction rate.

The Department of Justice operated 96 dedicated sexual offenses courts throughout the country. Although judges in rape cases generally followed statutory sentencing guidelines, women’s advocacy groups criticized judges for using criteria, such as the victim’s behavior or relationship to the rapist, as a basis for imposing lighter sentences.

The National Prosecuting Authority operated 51 rape management centers, or Thuthuzela Care Centers (TCCs), addressing the rights and needs of victims and vulnerable persons, including legal assistance. TCCs assisted 35,469 victims of sexual offenses and related crimes during the year. A key TCC objective is prosecution of sexual, domestic violence, child abuse offenders. Approximately 75 percent of the cases it took to trial resulted in conviction.

Domestic violence was pervasive and included physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, as well as harassment and stalking. The government prosecuted domestic violence cases under laws governing rape, indecent assault, damage to property, and violating a protection order. The law requires police to protect victims from domestic violence, but police commanders did not always hold officers accountable. Conviction of violating a protection order is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, and up to 20 years’ imprisonment if convicted of additional criminal charges. Penalties for conviction of domestic violence include fines and sentences of between two and five years’ imprisonment.

The government financed shelters for abused women, but NGOs reported a shortage of such facilities, particularly in rural areas, and that women were sometimes turned away from shelters. In March 2019 the president signed a declaration regarding GBV against women and femicide (the killing of a girl or woman, in particular by a man) that provided for the establishment of the GBV Council and the National Strategic Plan for Gender-Based Violence and Femicide 2020-2030. In May the government began implementation of the plan. Its focus is on GBV faced by women across age, sexual orientation, sexual and gender identities, and on specific groups such as elderly women, women who live with a disability, migrant women, and transgender women.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C of girls and women, but girls in isolated zones in ethnic Venda communities in Limpopo Province were subjected to the practice. The government continued initiatives to eradicate the practice, including national research and sensitization workshops in areas where FGM/C was prevalent.

Sexual Harassment: Although prohibited by law, sexual harassment remained a widespread problem. Sexual harassment is a criminal offense for which conviction includes fines and sentences of up to five years’ imprisonment.

Enforcement against workplace harassment is initially left to employers to address as part of internal disciplinary procedures. The Department of Labor issued guidelines to employers on how to handle workplace complaints that allow for remuneration of a victim’s lost compensation plus interest, additional damages, legal fees, and dismissal of the perpetrator in some circumstances. NGOs and unions urged the government to ratify the International Labor Organization convention on the prevention of violence and harassment in the workplace. Despite presidential support, parliament had yet to ratify the convention by year’s end.

NGOs reported sexual harassment of women in the major political parties. For example, in October a female DA party member filed a complaint with police against former Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga. Msimanga subsequently sued for defamation. Only two of the seven major parties have policies against sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Contraception was widely available and free at government clinics. Emergency health care was available for the treatment of complications arising from abortion.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. The country has laws and policies to respond to gender-based violence and femicide, although authorities did not fully implement these policies and enforce relevant law. The law provides for survivors of gender-based violence to receive shelter and comprehensive care, including treatment of injuries, a forensic examination, pregnancy and HIV testing, provision of postexposure prophylaxis, and counseling rehabilitation services.

The maternal mortality ratio was 536 pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births. According to the South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016, for every 1,000 live births, approximately five girls and women died during pregnancy or within two months after childbirth, 77 percent of girls and women ages 15-19 had four or more antenatal care examinations, and skilled health-care providers attended 97 percent of births.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of forced abortion on the part of government authorities; however, there were reports of forced sterilizations submitted to the Commission for Gender Equality and civil society organizations during the year. In February the Commission for Gender Equality documented 48 forced sterilization procedures conducted at 15 state hospitals between 2002 and 2015. According to the commission, the procedures were largely conducted on women who gave birth via cesarean section and were HIV positive.

Discrimination: Discrimination against women remained a serious problem despite legal equality in family, labor, property, inheritance, nationality, divorce, and child custody matters. Women experienced economic discrimination in wages, extension of credit, and ownership of land.

Traditional patrilineal authorities, such as a chief or a council of elders, administered many rural areas. Some traditional authorities refused to grant land tenure to women, a precondition for access to housing subsidies. Women could challenge traditional land tenure discrimination in courts, but access to legal counsel was costly.

By law any difference in the terms or conditions of employment among employees of the same employer performing the same, substantially similar, or equal value work constitutes discrimination. The law expressly prohibits unequal pay for work of equal value and discriminatory practices, including separate pension funds for different groups in a company (see section 7.d.).

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

There were numerous reports of racially motivated abuses similar to the following examples. In June 2019 the Council on Medical Schemes launched an investigation into alleged discrimination against black and Indian medical professionals in the private health-care sector who stated that medical insurance companies denied payment of their medical-services claims on racial grounds. The SABC reported allegations that the FNB bank (First National Bank) charged black homebuyers up to 40 percent more for mortgages than it charged whites.

Some advocacy groups asserted white farmers were racially targeted for burglaries, home invasions, and killings, while many observers attributed the incidents to the country’s high and growing crime rate. According to the Institute for Security Studies, “farm attacks and farm murders have increased in recent years in line with the general upward trend in South Africa’s serious and violent crimes.” According to the SAPS Annual Crime Statistics 2019/2020 Report there were 36 homicides per 100,000 persons and a total of 21,325 reported homicides in 2019/2020.

Local community or political leaders who sought to gain prominence in their communities allegedly instigated some attacks on African migrants and ethnic minorities (see section 2.d., Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons). The government sometimes responded quickly and decisively to xenophobic incidents, sending police and soldiers into affected communities to quell violence and restore order, but responses were sporadic and often slow and inadequate. Civil society organizations criticized the government for failing to address the causes of violence, for not facilitating opportunities for conflict resolution in affected communities, for failing to protect the property or livelihoods of foreign nationals, and for failing to deter such attacks by vigorous investigation and prosecution of perpetrators.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

There were reports persons accused of witchcraft were attacked, driven from their villages, and in some cases killed, particularly in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, and Eastern Cape Provinces. Victims were often elderly women. Traditional leaders generally cooperated with authorities and reported threats against persons suspected of witchcraft.

Persons with albinism faced discrimination and were sometimes attacked in connection with ritual practices.

In August 2019 a court convicted a teacher in Mpumalanga Province of murdering and dismembering a teenage student with albinism. The suspect was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment of two life terms. Three alleged accomplices were charged and pled not guilty. They had yet to be tried by year’s end.

Ritual (muthi) killings to obtain body parts believed by some to enhance traditional medicine persisted. Police estimated organ harvesting for traditional medicine resulted in 50 killings per year.

NGOs reported intimidation and violent attacks on rural land rights activists. On October 27, environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase was killed in her home. As a prominent member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organization, she had been involved in legal proceedings protesting expansion in KwaZulu-Natal Province of one of the country’s largest open coal mines. No arrests were made. Another member of her community critical of the coal mine survived a drive-by shooting of his home. The South African Human Rights Commission called on the government to create a safe environment for activists to exercise their rights, including acting on threats against activists.

Discrimination against members of religious groups occurred. In June 2019 a female SANDF member Major Fatima Isaacs was ordered to remove her religious headscarf from beneath her military beret. She refused the order. In January SANDF dropped charges against Isaacs of willful defiance and disobeying a lawful command. A spokesperson for Major Isaacs stated that a complaint regarding discrimination across a wide range of SANDF policies would be filed with the Equality Court.

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