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:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports of police use of torture and physical abuse during house searches, arrests, interrogations, and detentions, some of which resulted in death. The NGO Sonke Gender Justice reported that almost one-third of sex workers interviewed stated police officers had raped or sexually assaulted them.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. The factors contributing to widespread police brutality were a lack of accountability and training.
As of October 30, the United Nations reported three allegations against South African peacekeepers, a reduction from six allegations in 2019. According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, since 2015 there have been 37 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against 43 peacekeepers from South African units deployed to the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of the 37 allegations, the South African government had not reported taking accountability measures in 12 of the cases, including the three cases reported during the year, three from 2019, three from 2018, and three from 2017. One of these cases involved rape of a child, four involved transactional sex with one or more adults, six involved an exploitative relationship with an adult, and one involved sexual assault of an adult. In six of the open cases, the South African government, the United Nations, or both substantiated the allegations and the United Nations had repatriated the peacekeepers. According to the United Nations, South African authorities continued to investigate the other six open cases.
Since 2018 remedial legislation to address peacekeeper abuses has been pending.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts, including equality courts designated to hear matters relating to unfair discrimination, hate speech and harassment, and the South African Human Rights Commission, but the government did not always comply with court decisions. Individuals and organizations may not appeal domestic court decisions to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, because the government does not recognize the competence of the court.
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 .
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
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.