South Africa

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South Africa 2023

Incidents of gender-based violence continued while perpetrators enjoyed impunity. The Department of Basic Education failed in its promise to eradicate pit latrines in schools. Illiteracy rates among Grade 4 pupils rose. There were concerns that the National Health Insurance Bill might have an adverse impact on access to quality healthcare. Access to quality and safe drinking water declined. Refugees and migrants continued to be denied access to primary healthcare. The murder rate remained high. Police continued to use excessive force in response to protests. Threats against human rights defenders, activists and whistle-blowers, and attempts to silence journalists continued. The government made no progress on the decommissioning of coal-fired power stations.


According to official statistics 31.9% of the population were unemployed, and 32.7% of 15- to 24-year-olds were not in employment, education or training.

The ICC’s warrant for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin – who was invited to attend the BRICS summit in Johannesburg – put the government in a difficult position because of its relationship with Russia.

Steps were taken to start implementing the recommendations made in the 2022 Commission of Enquiry into State Capture report.

The South African Human Rights Commission’s report investigating the 2021 unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, and due to be released in July, remained outstanding.

The worsening energy crisis affected the rights to access water, health and education. A system known as “loadshedding” was used, where rolling, planned electricity blackouts were imposed for extended periods, due to corruption and mismanagement of ageing infrastructure.

Gender-based violence

High levels of gender-based violence continued. Crime statistics for the period between July and September showed 13,090 reported sexual offence cases. Murders of women decreased by 10.9% compared to the same period in the previous year, with 881 women killed. The National Council on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Bill, intended to establish a council to oversee the implementation of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, was released for public comment in May, with public hearings occurring in June.1 In December, the National Council of Provinces released an updated version of the bill for a second round of public comments.

Impunity for gender-based violence continued. The National Prosecuting Authority revealed it had insufficient evidence to prosecute the murders of Popi Qwabe and Bongeka Phungula six years earlier, but instead referred their cases to the Protea magistrate’s court for an inquest. The women were shot dead, and their bodies dumped by the side of the road in Johannesburg in May 2017.

More than a year after eight women were robbed and gang-raped by armed men while filming at an abandoned mine in Krugersdorp in July 2022, no further arrests were made and there was no justice for the victims and their families. In April, the South African Police Service (SAPS) was ordered by the Information Regulator to apologize for leaking personal information about the victims.2

Right to education

Despite promises to eradicate and replace illegal pit latrines by 2023, the Department of Basic Education’s Education Facilities Management report showed that 3,932 schools still used pit latrines, violating the rights to health, dignity, safety and life.

A 2030 Reading Panel report found that 82% of Grade 4 pupils were unable to read for meaning in any language, rising from 78% in the pre-pandemic era. The panel consists of educational experts and civil society members, who collate evidence about learning and make recommendations to the government.

The energy crisis reportedly affected access to education, contributing to children arriving at school late – or not at all – hungry and unable to complete homework, increasing the risk of entrenching existing inequalities further.3

Right to health

In December, the National Council of Provinces passed the National Health Insurance Bill and sent it to the president for his assent. Although it is intended to ensure universal access to quality healthcare services, civil society raised many concerns that it may result in reduced access. Chief concerns were the governance of the National Health Insurance Fund and risk of widespread corruption; excessive power allocated to the minister of health; the exclusion of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants; and the current crumbling state of the public healthcare system.

Strike action in March by the National Health Education, and Allied Workers Union relating to wage disputes, hindered access to healthcare services and resulted in four deaths, according to the health minister.

Reports of the detrimental effect of South Africa’s worsening energy crisis on access to healthcare continued to mount. In May, the outgoing Health Ombud (or ombudsman) lamented the state of governance in the health system and called for an independent office of the health ombudsman, in line with international best practice.

Right to water and sanitation

Department of Water and Sanitation national reports released in June revealed a decline in access to quality and safe drinking water. In 90 municipalities, 334 wastewater systems were in a critical condition, and 55% of sampled systems demonstrated poor chemical water quality compliance.

The energy crisis placed additional strain on already ageing and under-maintained water infrastructure, as reported by Umgeni-uThukela Water in April, resulting in water outages or low water pressure in many areas, and threatening the right to access safe and sufficient water.

By 22 May, 15 people had died of cholera in the Hammanskraal region in Gauteng province.4 This rose to 23 people a week later. An independent investigation by the Water Research Commission found that inadequate sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, particularly in informal and rural settlements, as well as operational inefficiencies in treating wastewater and water to acceptable standards, enabled the rapid spread of the disease.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

The vigilante group Operation Dudula continued to curtail refugees’ and migrants’ rights, including by preventing access to healthcare. In January, they chased foreign nationals from the Jeppe Clinic in Johannesburg.5

Some health facilities in Gauteng province continued to deny access to pregnant and lactating migrant women, and children under six, according to Lawyers for Human Rights. This was despite the South Gauteng High Court ruling which upheld their right, irrespective of nationality and documentation status, to access free health services at all public health facilities.

In April, after legal disputes spanning 11 years, the Department of Home Affairs reopened the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office.

Right to life and security of the person

According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, there were, on average, reports of more than two targeted killings a week.

In the period from July to September, police records showed 6,945 murders, 59 fewer compared to the same period in the previous year. However, the murder rate remained high, with an average of 75 people murdered each day. During this reporting period, there were 58 cases of mass killings, involving the killing of three or more people in a single incident, resulting in 218 deaths.

In September, the South Gauteng High Court found the state liable for damages for the torture of five prisoners in the Leeuwkop prison in Gauteng province, for the first time since the end of apartheid.

In July, Khayalihle Gwabuzela, also known as Khaya Ngubane, was found guilty of the March 2022 killing of Ayanda Ngila, a human rights defender and community leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), a shack dwellers’ movement, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. There were no convictions for the killing of three other AbM human rights defenders in 2022.

Excessive use of force

SAPS officers continued to use excessive force, resulting in injuries and deaths.

In July, eight Presidential Protection Services officers, who were transporting the deputy president, were caught on video assaulting motorists on a highway in Gauteng province. They were granted bail in August and their trial was rescheduled for May 2024.

Unlawful killings

As of 14 February, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate was dealing with 1,060 cases of deaths as a result of police action.

In July, 16-year-old Karabo Chaka was killed during a protest in Slovo Park, south of Johannesburg. Investigations continued into whether his killing was at the hands of police.

Freedom of expression and association

Human rights defenders, activists and whistle-blowers continued to face threats, intimidation and harassment. Police whistle-blower Patricia Mashale, who was allegedly dismissed after reporting suspicious activities by SAPS officials, went into hiding after not receiving protection. The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development released a Discussion Document on Proposed Reforms for the Whistleblower Protection Regime in South Africa for public comment in July. In August, six men were found guilty of murdering Gauteng Department of Health whistle-blower Babita Deokaran in 2021 and given prison sentences ranging from six to 22 years. Investigations continued to find others suspected of being responsible for her death.

In May, the cabinet approved the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill, which gives powers to security intelligence services to vet anyone seeking to establish an NGO.

Journalists also continued to face threats, attacks, intimidation and harassment, especially through attempts to silence them using the courts. A private prosecution by former president Jacob Zuma against journalist Karyn Maughan was dismissed in June. A gag order granted to the company Moti Group against the AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism was set aside in July.

Right to a healthy environment

Despite the government’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions by 2030 to within a target range which is aligned with limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the government made no progress in decommissioning coal-fired power stations. Civil society raised concerns that this delay might compromise South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET IP).

In October, the government announced that Denmark and the Netherlands had joined the International Group of Partners investing in the country’s JET IP, and that further pledges to support the transition were made by Canada, Spain and Switzerland. At COP28 in December, the Just Energy Transition Implementation Plan was launched, giving effect to the JET IP.

  1. “South Africa: Amnesty International’s submission in relation to the National Council on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Bill [B31 – 2022]”, 18 May
  2. “South Africa: Urgent measures needed to hold SAPS accountable for denying GBV victims and their families justice”, 9 August
  3. “South Africa: SONA 2023: President Cyril Ramaphosa has failed the nation on the delivery of basic human rights”, 8 February
  4. “South Africa: Authorities must act with urgency to prevent further cholera deaths”, 22 May
  5. “South Africa: Collective Voices against Health Xenophobia strongly condemns Operation Dudula’s attack on patients at the Jeppe Clinic”, 20 January