WORLD REPORT 2001 - South Africa

Human Rights Developments

President Thabo Mbeki completed his first year as president of South Africa, leading a government dominated by the African National Congress (ANC), though the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) remained a junior partner. In July, a new opposition political party was formed, the Democratic Alliance, which brought together the National Party, the old party of government, and the Democratic Party, its former parliamentary opposition. The ANC's partners in a longstanding "tripartite alliance," the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), seriously challenged the government, not only on its neoliberal economic policies, but also on President Mbeki's expressed doubts as to the link between HIV and AIDS. Local government elections on the basis of new municipal boundaries were scheduled for December 2000, after delays caused by opposition from traditional leaders, many of them IFP-aligned, to the new boundaries and the proposed role of chiefs in the new structures.

In January, the National Assembly passed four important acts required under the 1996 constitution: the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the Promotion of Access to Information Act, the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, and the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act. In May, the National Assembly passed legislation giving protection to "whistle blowers" disclosing information in the public interest. In a groundbreaking September judgment, the Constitutional Court found that the government had an obligation under the constitution to provide short-term housing for several hundred people evicted from their homes and in desperate need. In January 2000, South Africa ratified the OAU Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Respected former truth commissioner Faizal Randera was appointed "inspector general of intelligence" in April 2000, with responsibility for ensuring respect for the constitution by the intelligence services.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) continued hearing applications for amnesty. By the end of 1999, the amnesty committee had resolved 6,037 cases, or 91 percent of all applications received. It had granted amnesty in 568 cases and refused amnesty in 5,287 cases, while 815 matters remained outstanding. Victims' groups expressed concern at the delay in making payments of reparations, in accordance with the recommendations of the TRC's 1998 report. Although R.30 million (U.S. $4.2 million) had been paid out to 10,000 victims by June 2000, the total required to fulfil the recommendations was approximately R.3 billion (U.S. $420 million). The trial on charges ranging from drug trafficking to murder of Wouter Basson, a chemical weapons expert with the old South African army, continued throughout 2000. Among the revelations of the trial was the apartheid government's involvement in the murder of hundreds of members of the Namibian liberation movement, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO).

The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), set up in 1997 to investigate or oversee the investigation of complaints against the police, reported 681 deaths in custody or as a result of police action during the year to March 2000, a slight decrease on the previous year. The number of complaints lodged with the ICD increased by 50 percent. Velaphi Kwela, a senior investigator with the ICD, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in July, while on his way home from the ICD provincial office in Durban. In July, two police filmed by a BBC TV crew brutally assaulting suspected car thieves were convicted of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, fined the equivalent of U.S. $600 and $900, and given suspended sentences. According to a report of the auditor-general released in May 2000, payments to police members suspended on disciplinary charges amounted to more than R.21 million (U.S. $3 million) during the financial year ending March 31, 1999, only R.6 million less than the budget for the ICD over the same period. According to police statistics, 212 police were killed during 1999, eighty-one while on duty.

The first hundred police officers were appointed to the new "Scorpions" detective unit within the office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions in January; they were sent for training by Scotland Yard in the U.K. and by the FBI in the U.S. Legislation setting out the powers of this unit was debated in parliament in September.

Overcrowding in prisons continued to worsen: on April 30, 2000, the prison population was 172,271 (of whom 63,964 were awaiting trial), against approved accommodation for 100,384 inmates. More than five thousand of the prisoners awaiting trial had been held in prison for more than a year. At an estimated 416 inmates per 100,000 citizens, South Africa had one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. In September, the government announced that about 11,000 prisoners awaiting trial on lesser offenses would be released. Assaults on prisoners by warders and other prisoners remained serious problems, including widespread prisoner-on-prisoner rape. In March, the minister of correctional services signed a contract with a private company, the Ikwezi Consortium, to design, build, and operate a maximum security prison in Bloemfontein, the first such contract in South Africa. In April, President Mbeki appointed Judge Johannes Fagan to head the judicial inspectorate. In April, the director-general of the Public Service Commission told parliament in a management audit report that the government had lost control over the department, detailing incidents of corruption, intimidation, organized crime, sexual harassment, and rape.

Hundreds of children were held in prison, despite a formal government commitment that detention should be a last resort for juveniles: on May 31, there were 4,253 children in prison, of whom 2,519 were unsentenced and 1,734 sentenced. Conditions of overcrowding for children were particularly severe at Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town, where 300 children aged fourteen to seventeen were held awaiting trial in March. An interdepartmental task team was appointed to address this issue, but the number was only reduced to 208 by September. The Cape High Court ruled in July that the children should be immediately examined by a doctor and given medical and psychological care. The government stated that there was insufficient alternative accommodation to hold the children, many of them charged with serious offenses.

A report of the national prosecuting authority revealed a backlog of more than 180,000 court cases in July. The National Directorate of Public Prosecutions deployed "rescue teams" to clear case loads at problematic courts. In February, Minister of Justice Penuell Maduna released a ten point plan to bring fundamental changes to the justice system, including the creation of specialized courts and improved prosecution services.

Former Ethiopian president Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam visited South Africa from Zimbabwe, where he was living, in late 1999 for medical treatment. Despite appeals to arrest him and bring him to justice for human rights crimes committed while he was head of state, the government refused to do so. The government also did not accede to a request for Mengistu's extradition by the Ethiopian government. In September, the government deported a Rwandan to Kenya, despite being informed that he was indicted by the Arusha tribunal in connection with the 1994 genocide.

Violence against women, including sexual violence, remained a very serious problem. The Domestic Violence Act and the Maintenance Act came into force in December 1999, improving the system for the award and enforcement of court orders restraining perpetrators of violence in the home and the collection of maintenance payments from absent fathers. An interdepartmental steering committee led efforts to train magistrates, prosecutors, and police in the new laws. The justice ministry hosted a three-day workshop on sexual offenses in February.

"Taxi violence" between rival operators of minibus taxis continued; reports continued to implicate members of the police in this violence. Attacks focused on the Golden Arrow bus company operating in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town township, had led to the deaths of at least four bus drivers, a taxi driver, and two passengers by the end of July, as well as dozens of injuries. In an attempt to halt the killing, the Western Cape government cordoned off the entire township for twenty-four hours in August, and the police made several arrests. Continuing a two-year series, a number of bomb explosions occurred in Cape Town during the year, the most serious a blast at a bar on November 28, 1999, in which forty-eight people were injured. Police alleged that members of the vigilante group People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) were responsible. In September, a Cape Town magistrate who had heard some cases involving PAGAD was shot dead in what appeared to be a planned assassination. Violence also continued to plague KwaZulu-Natal, and several ANC and IFP leaders were killed in what appeared to be political assassinations. One of the worst incidents occurred in November 1999, when eleven people were killed in a shoot-out at a taxi-rank in Empangeni. In July 2000, police shot dead ANC MP Bheki Mkhize at his home near Ulundi during an operation they claimed was a search for illegal weapons. The ICD immediately began an investigation; three public order policeman were arrested and charged with murder.

The government brought a new Refugee Act into force in April 2000, which addressed several concerns about defects in the existing system, while failing to provide asylum seekers with the right to a hearing before those who would adjudicate their case. The government also published a heavily criticized draft migration bill. A very high percentage of people arrested during a police "operation crackdown" in February and March were "suspected illegal immigrants," leading to severe overcrowding at the detention facility where foreigners without papers were held pending deportation. Many of those detained had asylum claims pending, had been granted refugee status, or were South African citizens. Several government officials made statements implying that all undocumented foreigners were involved in criminal activities. In December 1999, the Constitutional Court ruled that homosexual couples must be given the same rights to naturalization under immigration law as heterosexuals; in June 2000, the court ruled that a restrictive section of the Aliens Control Act relating to the grant of temporary residence permits to spouses of South African citizens was invalid, and that the government must grant such permits unless good cause existed to refuse.

Defending Human Rights

South Africa's vigorous human rights community continued to monitor adherence to national and international standards. Occasional government hostility to NGO criticism was counteracted by strong collaboration in government-NGO partnerships elsewhere. The constitutionally guaranteed South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) criticized the government in its annual report for often ignoring its recommendations. The Commission on Gender Equality faced substantial internal difficulties during the year, and several key staff resigned. The government reduced the size of the much-criticized Youth Commission in June.

In November 1999, the SAHRC released an interim report on racism in the media, based on two methodologically controversial research papers, and requested responses from the industry. When little response was forthcoming, the commission decided to subpoena editors and others to appear before it, provoking an outcry that this threatened freedom of expression. A compromise was agreed by which the subpoenas were withdrawn and editors voluntarily attended hearings on media racism in March and April 2000. The commission published a final report in August that was less critically received, and made recommendations to reduce racism in the media. In September, the commission hosted a high-profile conference on racism in preparation for the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Forms of Intolerance, to be held in South Africa in 2001.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

In January 2000, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child considered South Africa's first report to that body. The committee welcomed legal reforms and steps taken to implement them, but expressed concerns about a number of areas, including the juvenile justice system, especially the holding of children in adult detention facilities. South Africa chaired the tenth U.N. Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held in Vienna in April 2000. U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Dato Cumaraswamy visited South Africa in May, on a fact-finding mission during which U.N. technical aid to South Africa was also discussed.

The office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, under a project in operation since April 1998, offered technical assistance to South Africa. A manager for the project was based at the SAHRC's headquarters in Johannesburg. In addition, the Pretoria office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees gave logistical and other support to the SAHRC's work on xenophobia.

South Africa continued to receive substantial international donor funding: an estimated R.760 million during the 1999/2000 financial year (U.S.$110 million) and R.800 million (U.S.$116 million) in 2000/2001.

United States

President Mbeki visited the U.S. in May, his first state visit. The U.S. Agency for International Development's Program for South Africa focused on six strategic areas, including democracy and governance, as well as law enforcement. In May, USAID pledged U.S.$250 million for social development programs over the next five years.

European Union

Under the terms of an "in principle" agreement in December 1999, the E.U. Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa pledged continued funding until September 2003 of human rights and development projects with funds from the European Commission's Programme for Reconstruction and Development in South Africa. Individual E.U. member states also made bilateral contributions to human rights initiatives. In June 2000, E.U. foreign ministers approved a 885 million euro (U.S. $840.7 million) program. Several European ministers traveled to South Africa during the year. A Trade, Development, and Cooperation Agreement between the E.U. and South Africa was finally agreed in February 2000, cutting tariffs and liberalizing trade, after years of negotiations. President Mbeki visited the U.K. in May, and attended the third annual meeting of the U.K.-South Africa forum.

The Commonwealth

In November 1999, South Africa hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Durban; in August the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association met in Cape Town. A number of Commonwealth governments provided assistance for human rights projects, including the Australians and the Canadians.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports:

A Question of Principle: Arms Trade and Human Rights, 10/00