South Africa

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SOUTH AFRICA 2021

Incidents of gender-based violence increased dramatically and women’s access to sexual and reproductive healthcare was restricted. Children faced significant inequalities in the public education system, exacerbated by Covid-19: up to 500,000 children dropped out of school during the pandemic. There were numerous cases of alleged corruption in provincial health departments. Millions of people did not have access to adequate sanitation and water. Foreign-owned businesses were targeted in xenophobic attacks, and undocumented migrants were excluded from the vaccine roll-out. Security forces continued to use excessive force against peaceful protesters and hundreds of people died as a result of police action. Violent unrest across two provinces, which was triggered by former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest, resulted in at least 360 deaths as well as job losses, further entrenching inequalities. The authorities failed to ensure that the mining industry complied with standards to prevent human rights violations against communities. Evidence emerged of South Africa’s complicity in war crimes committed in Yemen. Environmentalists feared that a proposed oil exploration project would threaten marine wildlife.

Background

In July President Ramaphosa authorized the deployment of 1,495 troops to Mozambique, to deal with insecurity in Cabo Delgado in the north-east (see Mozambique entry).

The Commission of Enquiry into State Capture continued to hear testimonies in relation to allegations of corruption and other abuses known as “state capture” under the presidency of Jacob Zuma who was imprisoned for contempt of court for refusing to appear before the commission. He was released on medical parole after serving two months of his 15-month prison sentence. The first part of the commission’s report was to be released in January 2022 and to focus on corruption in key state-owned entities, including South African Airways. Parts two and three were expected to be released in February 2022.

Gender-based violence

Official crime statistics published in August showed an increase in some forms of gender-based violence. Despite the adoption by the government of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide in 2019 to strengthen its response to the high incidence of gender-based violence, the statistics revealed a 72.4% increase in rape cases, a 77.6% increase in other forms of sexual assault, and a 74.1% increase in all sexual offences. While the dramatic rise in cases was attributed to low reporting during the Covid-19 lockdown period, the numbers during 2021 were still higher than those recorded in the pre-pandemic era. Parliament adopted three new bills in September to strengthen protection against gender-based violence.

There were at least 117 cases of femicide in the first half of the year. In August, the killing of Nosicelo Mtebeni by her boyfriend led to a public outcry. Nosicelo Mtebeni was a 23-year-old law student in her final year at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape province when she was murdered. Her body was dismembered and placed in a suitcase and in plastic bags. Her boyfriend was sentenced to 25 years in prison for her murder.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Many women and girls were unable to access sexual and reproductive health services during Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. In the Gauteng province, 23,226 teenage pregnancies were recorded between April 2020 and March 2021. Of this number, 934 concerned girls between the ages of 10 and 14. The high rate of teenage pregnancy was partly attributed to difficulties with accessing contraceptives. A survey of young women aged between 15 and 24, conducted by the South African Medical Research Council, revealed that 21% of the respondents reported challenges in getting condoms because of Covid-19 measures.

Right to education

The education system was ridden with systematic failures during the Covid-19 pandemic.1 The National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, a collaboration of over 30 South African researchers from several universities and research organizations, found that up to 500,000 additional children dropped out of school during the pandemic. The drop-out rate reached approximately 750,000 by May, over three times the pre-pandemic number of 230,000. According to the Department of Basic Education, one in three pregnant girls aged between 10 and 19 did not return to school.

Many schools were underfunded and sanitation conditions were poor. As of 12 April, 5,167 schools still used pit latrines, which contravened health and safety legislation.

Right to health

South Africa remained the country worst affected by Covid-19 in Africa, in terms of both reported cases and deaths. In July, healthcare facilities were struggling to cope with the third wave. In the Gauteng province alone, about 91% of private and public hospital beds were occupied. There were about 8.4 million fully vaccinated people by September in a population of almost 60 million. Undocumented migrants were excluded from the vaccine roll-out.

The Health Sector Anti-Corruption Forum and the Special Investigating Unit took on numerous cases of alleged corruption in provincial health departments. Former health minister Zweli Mkhize resigned in August after being implicated in the irregular procurement of a Covid-19 related communication services tender which resulted in the alleged misappropriation of ZAR150 million (over US$10 million).

Rights to water and sanitation

Communities still struggled with access to water and sanitation. According to the Department of Water and Sanitation, an estimated 5.3 million households did not have access to safe and reliable drinking water and 14.1 million people did not have access to safe sanitation. In some municipalities only 50% of residents enjoyed adequate sanitation facilities. Protests over access to water and sanitation continued throughout the year, disrupting voter registration for the 2021 local government elections. In September, residents of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, the legislative capital, protested over blocked drains and sewage running down their streets and into their homes, compromising their health.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

There were over 153,000 outstanding asylum applications. The government and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, signed a US$9.6 million agreement in March to clear the backlog and revamp the asylum management system by 2024. In May, the Western Cape High Court ruled that the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office (RRO), which had been closed in 2012, be reopened. This followed the Department of Home Affairs’ failure to comply with a 2017 court order issued by the Supreme Court of Appeals to reopen the RRO by March 2018. Since its closure, asylum seekers living in Cape Town had to travel to Durban, Musina or Pretoria every few months (1,455km, 1,633km and 1,923km, respectively) to renew their permits.

There were sporadic xenophobic attacks throughout the year, with businesses owned by migrants targeted in Durban.

Excessive use of force

South African police continued to use excessive force against peaceful protestors resulting in deaths and injuries. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), an official oversight body of the police, received 6,122 new complaints by the end of the 2021 financial year on 28 February. Of these, 4,228 were assault cases, 353 were cases of death as a result of police action, 256 were cases of torture, and 80 were rapes by a police officer.

IPID received 74 complaints during the July unrest in parts of the Gauteng and KZN provinces (see below, Right to life and security of the person). Of these, the majority – 26 – were cases of deaths resulting from police action, while there were 25 complaints of assault, and four deaths in police custody. Two cases involving torture were filed.

Unlawful killings

In March, Mthokozisi Ntumba was shot and killed by members of the South African Police Service while passing a student-led protest in Braamfontein in Johannesburg. The University of Witwatersrand students were protesting the university’s exclusion of learners with outstanding fees. The trial of four police officers in connection with Mthokozisi Ntumba’s killing was postponed until 2022.

Right to life and security of the person

In July, violent looting and destruction of property erupted in parts of Gauteng and KZN provinces following the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma. The unrest spread to residential areas and in the absence of a clear police presence many communities turned to vigilantism. The South African National Defence Force was deployed to support police on the ground.2 At least 360 people died during the week of unrest. Some died in stampedes and others from live ammunition or rubber bullets shot at close range.

Corporate accountability

The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy continued to fail to meet its annual target of inspecting mines to ensure they complied with its Social and Labour Plans (SLPs). Strict adherence to SLPs would go some way to ensuring that the negative socio-economic ramifications of mining are remedied, and human rights violations prevented.

Irresponsible arms transfers

In March, a research report by Open Secrets, an organization which exposes private sector economic crimes, revealed South Africa’s links to alleged war crimes committed in Yemen. Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, one of the state-owned enterprises, and other South African companies had regularly supplied the Saudi Arabia and UAE-led coalition in the armed conflict in Yemen with weapons such as bombs and shells, before and since the conflict started (see Yemen entry). In June, the Pretoria High Court ordered South African arms companies that supplied weapons found to have been used against civilians in the Yemen conflict to be made public.

Environmental degradation

In July, the National Disaster Management Centre, an official body, declared a drought disaster in the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces. The country’s first comprehensive legal framework for climate change was tabled in parliament in November. Also in November, the government joined France, Germany, the UK, USA and EU to support a just transition to a low carbon economy. In December, the energy minister supported Shell’s plans to conduct seismic oil exploration on the Wild Coast which environmentalists said would threaten marine wildlife. The high court in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape issued an interdict on 28 December to temporarily halt the exploration until the second part of the interdict proceedings.


  1. South Africa: Failing To Learn the Lessons: The Impact of Covid-19 on a Broken and Unequal Education System (AFR 53/3344/2021), 15 February
  2. South Africa: Investigate loss of life during unrest and looting spree and ensure accountability”, 22 July