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 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides for criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption, and the government continued efforts to implement the law effectively; however, officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
At least 10 agencies, including the SAPS Special Investigation Unit, Public Service Commission, Office of the Public Prosecutor, and Office of the Auditor General, were involved in anticorruption activities. During the year the Office of the Public Protector, which is constitutionally mandated to investigate government abuse and mismanagement, investigated thousands of cases, some of which involved high-level officials.
Corruption: Official corruption remained a problem. The ANC sought to remove party members implicated in corruption scandals due to concern the scandals undermined public confidence in the ANC-led government.
On November 10, ANC secretary general Magashule was arrested on 21 charges of corruption, theft, fraud, and money laundering, and he was released on bail. Magashule had yet to be tried by year’s end. He rejected calls by the ANC Integrity Commission to step down. The ANC National Executive Committee was considering whether to suspend him from the party at year’s end.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials, including members of national and provincial legislatures, all cabinet members, deputy ministers, provincial premiers, and members of provincial executive councils, are subject to financial disclosure laws and regulations, but some failed to comply, and the majority filed their reports late. The declaration regime clearly identifies the assets, liabilities, and interests that public officials must declare. Government officials are required to declare publicly their financial interests when they enter office, and there are administrative and criminal sanctions for noncompliance, but no office is mandated to monitor and verify disclosures and the compliance is not enforced.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Although created by the government, the South African Human Rights Commission operated independently and was responsible for promoting the observance of fundamental human rights at all levels of government and throughout the general population. The commission has the authority to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas, and take sworn testimony. Civil society groups considered the commission only moderately effective due to a large backlog of cases and the failure of government agencies to adhere to its recommendations.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
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 2019–2020 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.).
Birth Registration: The law provides for citizenship by birth (if at least one parent is a permanent resident or citizen), descent, and naturalization. Registration of births was inconsistent, especially in remote rural areas and by parents who were unregistered foreign nationals. Children without birth registration had no access to government services such as education or health care, and their parents had no access to financial grants for their children.
Education: Public education is compulsory and universal until age 15 or grade nine. Public education is fee based and not fully subsidized by the government. Nevertheless, the law provides that schools may not refuse admission to children due to a lack of funds; therefore, disadvantaged children, who were mainly black, were eligible for financial assistance. Even when children qualified for fee exemptions, low-income parents had difficulty paying for uniforms and supplies. In violation of law, noncitizen children were sometimes denied access to education based on their inability to produce identification documents, such as birth certificates and immunization documents.
Child Abuse: The law criminalizes child abuse. The penalties for conviction of child abuse include fines and up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Violence against children, including domestic violence and sexual abuse, remained widespread.
There were reports of abuse of students by teachers and other school staff, including reports of assault and rape. The law requires schools to disclose sexual abuse to authorities, but administrators sometimes concealed sexual violence or delayed taking disciplinary action.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: By law parental or judicial consent to marry is required for individuals younger than 18. Nevertheless, ukuthwala, the practice of abducting girls as young as 14 and forcing them into marriage, occurred in remote villages in Western Cape, Eastern Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces. The law prohibits nonconsensual ukuthwala and classifies it as a trafficking offense.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering or procurement of children for prostitution and child pornography. Conviction includes fines and 10 years’ imprisonment. The Film and Publications Board maintained a website and a toll-free hotline for the public to report incidents of child pornography. In October 2019 Johannes Oelofse of Alberton in Gauteng Province was sentenced to life imprisonment for conviction of repeatedly raping his daughter who had a mental disability.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) estimated the Jewish community at 60,000 persons. The SAJBD recorded 69 anti-Semitic incidents between January and December, a steep increase from 37 in 2019. There were reports of verbal abuse and hate speech–especially in social media–and attacks on Jewish persons or property.
In October a district court issued the country’s first criminal conviction of anti-Semitism. The court sentenced defendant Matome Letsoalo to three years’ imprisonment. In 2008 Letsoalo posted anti-Semitic messages on Twitter that included images of Holocaust victims. In November the Randburg Magistrate Court issued a cessation order against Jan Lamprecht for posting online virulent anti-Semitism statements and personal information on SAJBD’s national vice chairperson.
Twin brothers, Brandon Lee Thulsie and Tony Lee Thulsie, arrested in 2016 for allegedly planning to set off explosives at Jewish establishments, continued to await trial in detention at year’s end. They were charged with contravening the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terror and Related Activities Act and with having ties to a foreign terrorist organization. On October 1, the Johannesburg High Court of Johannesburg denied bail to the brothers. They remained incarcerated at year’s end.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disability in employment or access to health care, the judicial system, and education. The law, however, prohibits persons identified by the courts as having a mental disability from voting. Department of Transportation policies on providing services to persons with disabilities were consistent with the constitution’s prohibition on discrimination. The Department of Labor ran vocational centers at which persons with disabilities learned income-generating skills. Nevertheless, government and private-sector employment discrimination existed. The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, but such regulations were rarely enforced, and public awareness of them remained minimal.
The law prohibits harassment of persons with disabilities and, in conjunction with the Employment Equity Act, provides guidelines on the recruitment and selection of persons with disabilities, reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities, and guidelines on proper handling of employees’ medical information. Enforcement of this law was limited.
The 2017–2018 Annual Report of the Department of Basic Education stated there were numerous barriers to education for students with disabilities, primarily a policy of channeling students into specialized schools at the expense of inclusive education. The department’s 2019/20 report reported progress toward a more inclusive basic education and cited expansion of “special schools” and increased enrollment of students with disabilities in both special and public schools. Separate schools frequently charged additional fees (making them financially inaccessible), were located long distances from students’ homes, and lacked the capacity to accommodate demand. Human Rights Watch reported that children with disabilities were often denied tuition waivers or tuition reductions provided to other children. Children often were housed in dormitories with few adults, many of whom had little or no training in caring for children with disabilities. When parents attempted to force mainstream schools to accept their children with disabilities–an option provided for by law–schools sometimes rejected the students outright because of their disabilities or claimed there was no room for them. Many blind and deaf children in mainstream schools received only basic care rather than education.
According to the Optimus Study on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in South Africa, children with disabilities were 78 percent more likely than children without disabilities to have experienced sexual abuse in the home. Persons with disabilities were sometimes subject to abuse and attacks, and prisoners with mental disabilities often received no psychiatric care. According to the NGO International Disability Alliance, on August 26, Nathaniel Julius, an unarmed boy age 16 who had Down syndrome, was shot and killed by SAPS officers. Police allegedly shot the boy when he did not respond to questioning. The officers were charged with murder (see section 1.a.).
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.
The NGO Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa estimated there were 7,500 indigenous San and Khoi in the country, some of whom worked as farmers or farm laborers. By law the San and Khoi have the same political and economic rights as other citizens, although the government did not always effectively protect those rights or deliver basic services to indigenous communities. Indigenous groups complained of exclusion from land restitution, housing, and affirmative action programs. They also demanded formal recognition as “first peoples” in the constitution. Their lack of recognition as first peoples excluded them from inclusion in government-recognized structures for traditional leaders. Their participation in government and the economy was limited due to fewer opportunities, lack of land and other resources, minimal access to education, and relative isolation.
In August 2019 the president signed into law the Protection, Promotion, Development and Management of Indigenous Knowledge Bill that established the National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office, which is responsible for managing indigenous communities’ rights.
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The law prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. In March 2019 the High Court of Gauteng ruled that the Dutch Methodist Church’s ban on solemnizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.
Despite government policies prohibiting discrimination, there were reports of official mistreatment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, there were reports of security force members raping LGBTI individuals during arrest. A 2018 University of Cape Town report underscored violence and discrimination, particularly against lesbians and transgender individuals. The report documented cases of “secondary victimization” of lesbians, including cases in which police harassed, ridiculed, and assaulted victims of sexual and GBV who reported abuse. LGBTI individuals were particularly vulnerable to violent crime due to anti-LGBTI attitudes within the community and among police. Anti-LGBTI attitudes of junior members of SAPS affected how they handled complaints by LGBTI individuals.
HIV and HIV-related social stigma and discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education and health care remained a problem, especially in rural communities. In June 2019 Deputy President David Mabuza stated, “We are not doing well in preventing new (HIV) infections. It is estimated that there are approximately 250,000 new infections annually, and our target is to get below 100,000 new infections by December 2020. This gap is big, and it must be closed.”
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.