• Sheet of paper Report

Annual Report: South Africa 2011

June 27, 2011

Head of state and government: Jacob G. Zuma
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes
Population: 50.5 million
Life expectancy: 52 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 79/64 per 1,000
Adult literacy: 89 per cent

Incidents of torture and extrajudicial executions by police were reported. High levels of violence against women and girls continued, and there were indications of an increase in harmful practices affecting their rights. Serious incidents of violence against lesbian women, targeted for their sexuality, continued to be reported. There were some improvements in access to health services for people living with HIV, but poverty remained an important barrier especially in rural areas. Refugees and migrants continued to suffer discrimination and displacement in large-scale incidents of violence. There were further threats to the work of human rights defenders.


Political tensions continued over the direction of economic policy and appropriate solutions to poverty, inequality and unemployment, with prolonged public sector workers’ strikes and numerous protests in poor urban communities. In April, President Zuma appointed a 20-member National Planning Commission, chaired by the former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, to produce a national development plan and longer-term vision for the country. The high levels of poverty and income inequality, with persistent racial and gender disparities, were acknowledged in the Millennium Development Goals country report in September. In October, trade unions and civil society organizations (CSOs) launched a campaign for economic policies promoting social justice and protection of socio-economic rights.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Incidents of torture and other ill-treatment by police of detained crime suspects were reported. Corroborated methods included severe beatings, electric shocks and suffocation torture while the person was shackled or hooded, and death threats. The police oversight body, the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), reported that from April 2009 to March 2010 it had received five direct complaints of torture and 920 complaints of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, some of which were being investigated for evidence of torture. Seven of the 294 deaths in custody were linked to torture and 90 others to "injuries sustained in custody". The ICD also investigated 24 complaints of rape by police officers.

A draft law establishing the ICD on an independent statutory basis, separate from police legislation, was still being considered by Parliament at the end of the year. In parliamentary hearings in August, CSOs called for the inclusion of explicit obligations to investigate complaints of torture and rape in custody and for mandatory reporting by police with knowledge of these offences. Their recommendations were included in a revised bill.

Despite continuing efforts by the South African Human Rights Commission and CSOs, South Africa did not ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. A new version of the draft law to make torture a criminal offence was circulated for comment, but had not been presented in Parliament before the end of the year.

  • In May, a police officer, Vinod Maharaj, was arrested and allegedly tortured by members of the Organized Crime Unit and the special police unit, the Hawks. He was allegedly subjected to electric shocks, beatings, removal of a fingernail and suffocation torture. Four days after his arrest he was brought to court on weapons and murder charges. Although the court ordered the police to ensure his access to medical treatment, he was denied this. Four days later he was taken to hospital for emergency surgery. He was in remand custody with no trial date set at the end of the year.
  • In June, a lawyer consulting with his client at Protea Police Station in Soweto heard screaming from an adjacent office where a man was apparently being electrocuted. When he attempted to persuade police officers to intervene, he was verbally abused, threatened with violence and told to leave the police station. Lawyers managed later to trace the man who was being tortured and a second detainee who had also been assaulted; they were being held under police guard in Leratong Hospital. Access to them was denied. Four days later they were removed from hospital by members of the Organized Crime Unit and allegedly subjected to further torture, before being transferred to remand custody on murder and robbery charges. One was later released.
  • Three suspected illegal immigrants arrested near the border with Lesotho were detained and assaulted at Ladybrand police station. On 14 June, their lawyer observed that they had facial injuries and blood on their clothes and one required urgent medical attention. The following day immigration officials authorized their release. When they attempted to complain of assault by the police, the lawyer and one of the detainees were verbally abused, pushed and threatened with violence by a police officer at the station. When the lawyer attempted to obtain the medico-legal reporting form, the same officer allegedly assaulted him repeatedly and forced him out of the police station. In September the Director of Public Prosecutions decided to prosecute two police officers on assault charges, following a prompt ICD investigation into the allegations.
  • Following an ICD investigation and police disciplinary hearing, the station commander of Sasolburg police station was dismissed from service for raping a woman volunteer in his office on 5 February. His criminal trial had not concluded by the end of the year.

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services received over 2,000 complaints of assaults against prisoners by prison warders between April 2009 and March 2010. Overcrowding remained a serious problem, with 19 of 239 facilities having occupancy rates of over 200 per cent capacity and conditions described as "shockingly inhumane".

Extrajudicial executions

In September, Cabinet approved a bill to amend Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act governing the use of force during arrest. The proposals in the bill raised public concern as they would allow "arrestors" to use deadly force against a suspect resisting or fleeing arrest where they believed there was a substantial risk of "future death" if the arrest was delayed. The draft provisions would allow members of the public as well as police officers to use deadly force in circumstances beyond those allowed by international human rights standards.

In November, the ICD reported a six per cent decline, to 860, in deaths in custody and "as a result of police action" between April 2009 and March 2010. However, in KwaZulu-Natal province, there was a year-on-year increase from 258 to 270 deaths. The National Commissioner of Police, General Bheki Cele, told Parliament in October that the increase in shootings by police was due to the dangers they faced and inexperience.

Violence against women and girls

High levels of violence against women and girls continued to be reported and to cause national concern. Over 63,500 cases of sexual offences, including rape, against women and children were reported to the police between April 2009 and March 2010.

The report of a parliamentary committee, tabled in Parliament in February, recommended substantial changes to the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) and in policies and practices used by police, justice and social support agencies. The recommendations followed wide-ranging hearings with CSOs on failures in implementation which left many victims without access to effective remedies. The ICD reported to Parliament in November that only a quarter of the 522 police stations they inspected in the previous year were fully compliant with their obligations under the DVA. Police lack of understanding of the requirements of the law, a reluctance to discipline members who did not implement the law and failure to arrest violent abusers were the main problems reported by the ICD.

Abductions and forced marriages of girls apparently increased, particularly in rural areas of Eastern Cape Province, linked to a traditional practice, ukuthwala.

  • In August a magistrate’s court in Willowvale, Eastern Cape, dismissed the claim of a husband for the return of his 17-year-old wife or the recovery of the lobola (bride price). The young woman, who was defended by the Women’s Legal Centre, was 14 years old when she underwent a customary marriage.

In response to large-scale virginity testing events, some financially supported by state-funded traditional leaders in KwaZulu-Natal Province, the Commission on Gender Equality and some CSOs condemned virginity testing as violations of the right to equality, dignity, privacy and the rights of the child.

In March, the Equality Court in Johannesburg ruled, in a case brought by the NGO Sonke Gender Justice, that the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League president, Julius Malema, had infringed women’s right to dignity and that his comments at a public meeting about women who reported rape amounted to hate speech. He was ordered to issue a public apology and to pay a contribution to an organization assisting survivors of gender-based violence, but he did not do so. In October, he applied for leave to appeal the ruling.

Draft anti-trafficking legislation was introduced in Parliament but had not been passed by the end of the year.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people

Serious incidents of violence against lesbian women or women believed to be lesbian, targeted for their sexuality, continued to be reported. It was not clear at the end of the year if proposed draft legislation to criminalize hate crimes included victims targeted on grounds of sexual orientation, which CSOs had recommended. In December, South Africa supported an amendment to restore a reference to sexual orientation in a UN resolution calling on states to investigate discrimination-related killings.

Right to health – people living with HIV/AIDS

An estimated 5.7 million people were living with HIV, according to UNAIDS. By the end of the year the number of AIDS patients receiving antiretroviral treatment (ART) had increased to over 971,500, according to the World Health Organization. More than a third were in KwaZulu-Natal, the province worst affected by the epidemic and with the highest infection rates among pregnant women. The government agreed to new treatment guidelines in March which increased earlier access to ART for pregnant women and people co-infected with HIV and tuberculosis. Access to treatment also improved in a number of provinces when the Department of Health, in partnership with NGOs and donors, strengthened the capacity of clinics outside hospitals to provide comprehensive treatment and care. However, poverty, inadequate daily food, unreliable and costly transport systems and the shortage of health care workers in rural areas remained major barriers to access.

In March, the government launched a drive to scale-up voluntary HIV testing and, in KwaZulu-Natal, it promoted medical male circumcision to reduce HIV infection rates. Both programmes were criticized for over-focusing on numerical targets. In some cases, informed consent and adequate counselling were absent. The South African National AIDS Council was accused of lack of leadership in monitoring the implementation of the national strategic plan on HIV and AIDS.

Refugees and migrants

Refugees and migrants continued to suffer violations of the right to life and to physical integrity. In the first six months of the year at least 14 incidents involving violent attacks and looting of shops, particularly of Somali and Ethiopian nationals, were recorded in five provinces. Large-scale displacements of non-national communities occurred in a number of areas, including Siyathemba/Balfour, Sasolburg and Middelburg. Police protection was often slow or inadequate and victims faced difficulties in getting justice and compensation. In some areas in Gauteng Province, co-operation between senior police officers and UN agency and civil society monitors prevented violence from escalating.

In May, migrants and refugees received written and verbal threats of violence if they failed to close their businesses or leave by the end of the 2010 World Cup. In June, an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) was established to co-ordinate the official response to incidents of violence. Despite increased security force deployment after 11 July, at least 15 attacks on property and individuals occurred in Western Cape and Gauteng provinces, including in Philippi East, Khayelitsha, Wallacedene and Kya Sands, and hundreds of people were displaced. Members of the IMC publicly denied that the incidents were xenophobic, but in September the deputy Minister for Social Development acknowledged that refugees and migrants were victims of "hate crimes".

A High Court ruling in November ordering banks to accept documentation from refugees and asylum-seekers to enable them to open bank accounts was welcomed by refugee rights organizations.

On at least two occasions, in cases brought by Lawyers for Human Rights, the courts ordered the release of Zimbabwean and Somali nationals held unlawfully in custody and at risk of forcible return. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ scheme announced in September to regularize the status of thousands of Zimbabweans living in South Africa and lift the moratorium against their deportation raised fears of future mass deportations due to the practical challenges of receiving and processing applications within the time frame. In December, the Minister stated that Zimbabweans who had entered the permit application process by 31 December would not be deported. According to official figures over 250,000 had applied by the cut-off date. Security personnel reportedly used excessive force against Zimbabweans waiting to make applications at the Cape Town Department of Home Affairs office.

Human rights defenders

  • The trial of 12 supporters of the housing rights movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, on charges relating to violence in the Kennedy Road informal settlement in September 2009 started in November. One state witness, who repudiated her earlier statement to the police as coerced, received death threats several days after her name was published by the media. The trial was postponed until May 2011. All the accused were out on bail.
  • In January, members of a community affected by mining operations and police repression of their protests in Limpopo province applied to the High Court for judicial review of an officially approved lease granted to Anglo-Platinum mining company. The applicants sought an order declaring that the agreement was not based on informed consent and the community’s right to just and adequate compensation. The case had not been heard by the end of the year.
  • In August, members of the Hawks unlawfully arrested a Sunday Times investigative journalist, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, apparently in connection with his reporting on an alleged hit squad linked to senior members of the Mpumalanga provincial government. They seized his notebooks and held him at various locations for 24 hours before he was allowed access to his lawyer. Following an urgent court application, the Pretoria High Court ordered his immediate release. The incident occurred at a time of increased pressure from the ruling ANC and the government for stricter control of the media and freedom of expression through a proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and draconian Protection of Information law. CSOs launched a Right2Know campaign in opposition to these developments.