South Africa 2019
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South Africa 2019

The Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture continued to hear testimonies regarding allegations of “state capture” under former president Jacob Zuma’s government after he was removed from office in February 2018 by the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Profound inequalities remain in the country, further undermining economic, social and cultural rights, including health services with shortage of medicines like ARV     s for people living with HIV/AIDS. Drought, exacerbated by climate change, continued to threaten the right to livelihoods for millions, as food prices, driven by fuel increases, continued to rise throughout the year.


The ANC won the election on 8 May. Deadly systematic xenophobic violence continued against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, partly driven by years of impunity for past xenophobic crimes. The violence in August and September resulted in the killing of at least 12 people, both locals and foreigners, and looting of shops belonging to locals and foreign nationals, as well as burning and destruction of their property. The Commission of Inquiry into State Capture continued to hear testimonies from witnesses regarding allegations of “state capture” during former president Jacob Zuma’s government. The commission continues to hear chilling testimonies about alleged corruption in government processes to benefit a few individuals perceived to be connected to Zuma.

Police brutality continued, resulting in the death in police custody of a man after he was arrested by the Johannesburg Metro Police Department for allegedly skipping a red traffic light.

Excessive use of force

Police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) recorded 393 cases of deaths as a result of police action and 214 cases of deaths in police custody in its 2018/19 annual report. 124 cases of rape by police officers were also reported as well as 270 cases of torture.[1]

In February, the NGO Social Justice Coalition      laid a formal complaint with IPID. The complaint was laid after its general secretary, Axolile Notywala, was allegedly assaulted at the hands of the police.[2]  Notywala was taken into custody during a peaceful protest outside the Civic Centre in Cape Town. He alleged that he was ill-treated during the arrest, including being slapped five times and kept in handcuffs for two hours before he was charged with interfering with the police’s work and inciting protesters. The case was later withdrawn after the police failed to produce the case docket.

On 18 August, Tshegofatso Selahle died in police custody in Johannesburg from injuries sustained from alleged beatings. On 17 August, Selahle was arrested by the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) after he allegedly skipped a red traffic light in Johannesburg. Police claimed that he was violent and that he resisted arrest.[3]

In August, IPID[4] confirmed the death of a 46-year-old Nigerian national allegedly at the hands of members of the South African Police Service in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. IPID reported that police were conducting drug raids and that the deceased died during an interview with the police. By year’s end IPID was continuing with its investigation into the matter.

Gender-related violence

Gender-based violence continued to soar in the country, including the killing of      University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana in late August. Mrwetyana was allegedly killed by a 42-year-old male post office worker at the Clareinch branch in Cape Town. The suspect lured her into the post office building after working hours under the pretence of helping her to collect a parcel. The man was arrested after he confessed to the murder and faced charges of rape, murder and defeating the ends of justice.[5] He was convicted and sentenced to life for murder, two life sentences on both counts of rape, and five years for defeating the ends of justice on 15 November[6]. The prosecutor in charge of the case told the court that Mrwetyana was raped and bludgeoned to death with a scale inside the post office.

A number of killings and disappearances of women in various parts of the country were reported in the media after Mrwetyana’s killing, demonstrating the scale of the problem in the country.

The national Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), an independent constitutional institution, expressed concern in September at the impunity for perpetrators of Gender Based Violence (GBV) and femicide, citing a “general lack of decisive action by the state”[7] and “long delays in prosecuting GBV cases”. The CGE called for the prioritization of such crimes within South Africa’s criminal justice system,[8] and greater support for survivors of rape and GBV. However, civil society groups reported understaffing of Thuthuzela Care Centres,[9] which are designated sites of medical, forensic, legal and counselling support for rape survivors, due to the failure of the government to fund the centres after the loss of international financial assistance.[10] Members of Parliament reported shortages or stock-outs of rape kits at multiple police stations.[11]

Sexual and reproductive rights

Women and girls faced continued challenges in accessing sexual and reproductive health services and information. Amnesty International visited communities in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga where women reported stock-outs and shortages of contraception and antiretroviral medicines between November 2018 and February 2019.[12] Women were still being denied access to safe, legal abortion as the government made slow progress on increasing the number of public health facilities providing the service, and has failed to provide information related to abortion on the Department of Health website.[13] Women reported to Amnesty International that they still faced long distances and transport costs to access an abortion at public hospitals, resulting in delays and the risk of being denied an abortion when the procedure is delayed beyond the gestational limits under the law

The shortage of emergency medical transport (ambulances) remains a national crisis. Community members in Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal continued to report having to pay for private transport in emergencies.[14] The country continued to make progress in reducing maternal mortality rates[15], but data released in 2019 indicated progress was too slow to meet the targets under the UN Sustainable Development Goals

In early 2019, the national and Gauteng health departments issued directives requiring foreign nationals to pay in full for healthcare at public facilities.[16] Fees for public health services are means tested in South Africa, but key services, including primary health care, maternal health care, abortion and emergency treatment should be freely available for all. The right to health, including reproductive health, is protected under Section 27 of the Constitution. While the directives were later withdrawn[17], the confusion increased barriers to accessing health services. In August it was reported that a woman suffered a still     birth at a public hospital in Mamelodi, Pretoria, after hospital staff refused to help her deliver her baby, allegedly because she was Zimbabwean[18].

Freedom of expression

Journalists continued to face threats, harassment and intimidation from certain politicians and unofficial actors when trying to report on certain political issues and corruption.

In July, the South African National Editors Forum and some journalists filed a complaint with the Equality Court against the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader, Julius Malema, accusing him of hate speech. The complaint followed attacks they believed were an attempt to harass and intimidate journalists and stop them from reporting critically about the party and its leaders[19]. The court action followed instances where Malema identified journalists by their names at public political gatherings and on social media and told his supporters to “deal with them”. On 24 October, the court ruled against SANEF partly saying that unpopular, offensive or controversial views do not necessarily constitute hate speech.  On 5 March, Malema shared journalist Karima Brown’s personal cellular phone number on his Twitter account, making her vulnerable to receiving abusive messages and threatening telephone calls from his supporters.

The court heard how Malema specifically targeted journalists in general for their critical reporting about the party in the run-up to the 8 May election. The South Gauteng High Court later ruled in favour of Brown.[20]

On 12 September Malema announced a ban on independent investigative journalism entity amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick’s investigative arm, Scorpio, from attending the EFF’s political events[21]. Malema told his supporters during the party’s memorial service for late former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in Soweto that the two online newspapers should be treated “as enemies”[22]. The two media entities are known to have reported critically about Malema’s and other EFF leadership’s financial affairs, including how they allegedly benefited through generous cash injections from the executives of the now collapsed, allegedly looted Venda Building Society (VBS) Mutual Bank.  

Refugees' and migrants rights

Deadly systematic xenophobic violence continued against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, partly driven by years of impunity for past attacks and failures in the criminal justice system that have left this vulnerable group exposed and unprotected[23]. The violence in August and September was one of the longest since 2008 and resulted in the killing of 12 people, both locals and foreigners, and looting of shops mainly belonging to foreign nationals, as well as burning and destruction of their properties.

The violence was sparked by locals blaming foreign nationals for illegal drug dealing and stealing their economic opportunities such as jobs and business opportunities.

Businesses belonging to Nigerians and other foreign nationals were targeted in two cities, Johannesburg and Pretoria, with stock and possessions worth millions burnt to ashes. The violence escalated dramatically during the first week of September following confrontations between locals and foreigners, marked by horrific attacks and killings.

The government has largely failed to address past xenophobic violent outbreaks across the country, instead often continuing to scapegoat foreign nationals by claiming they are responsible for high levels of crime, putting a strain on government services and operating illegal businesses.

Business and human rights

Seven years after the mining strike that resulted in the fatal shooting of 34 men at Lonmin’s Marikana mine on 16 August 2012 by the South Africa Police Service, victims and their families who were directly affected by the tragedy were still waiting for justice and reparations, including adequate compensation[24]. More than 70 others sustained serious injuries after the shooting, and some have since lost their jobs through permanent disability.

Right to water

Villagers in and around Giyani, in Limpopo province continued to suffer from lack of access to water owing to the collapsed water infrastructure after the government tender that was meant to supply 55 villages with water came to a halt[25]. Despite more than US$148-million having been paid to contractors, LTE Consulting, Khato Civils and South Zambezi, by the government, the crucial water supply was yet to be delivered at year’s end.[26]

The Special Investigating Unit subsequently issued summons to the three companies, seeking a refund of the money they received from the state[27].








[7] Commission for Gender Equality, Media Release, ‘CGE calls for President Ramaphosa to take concrete action in fighting GBV’, 5 September 2019,

[8] Commission for Gender Equality, Media Release, ‘Uyinene’s murder calls for a re-think in addressing gender-based violence (GBV)’, 4 September 2019,



[11] Department of Women, Youth & Persons With Disabilities quarterly reports; with Minister Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities 17 September 2019,;

[12]; Amnesty International Focus Group Discussion and Interviews in Mpumalanga, 5 & 6 February 2019.

[13] Website checked again on 8 October 2019,


[15]; Health Systems Trust, District Health Barometer 2017/2018 published 31 January 2019 at page 68.