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Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law in South Africa: Making the Case




Since the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa and the United States have enjoyed a strong bilateral relationship. South Africa is the biggest non-petroleum trading partner in Africa for the United States; the largest beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA); a major beneficiary of the PEPFAR program on HIV/AIDS; and a key regional player that provides the United States critical access to other countries in the region. Americans also make up the largest group of tourists to South Africa. Domestically, South Africa receives a “Free” rating from Freedom House on political and civil liberties. It holds representative elections, allows for freedom of expression, association, and belief, has a largely free media, and supports an independent judicial system. It also has one of the most sophisticated economies in Africa. Given that apartheid was the system in place a mere quarter of a century ago, South Africa has made remarkable progress on many levels.

However, South Africa, a country of 55 million people, is currently facing a great deal of political turmoil. President Jacob Zuma, elected in 2014 for a second five-year term, is facing growing demands for his resignation due to concerns about corruption in the office of the presidency which some analysists fear has grown to the level of “state capture.” In March, Zuma dismissed widely respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, replacing him with an ally, Malusi Gigaba, who is viewed by many as being part of the corruption problem, rather than part of the solution. This move came amid a broader reshuffle of the cabinet in which 10 ministers and 10 deputy ministers were either removed or given new roles that further solidified the strength of the president’s allies. The courts have asserted jurisdiction to force a review of the justification for this cabinet reshuffle. It also resulted in two of the leading global credit rating agencies’ downgrading South Africa’s investment status to sub-investment grade status, and a fall in the national currency by more than 11 percent. In April, tens of thousands marched in South Africa’s major cities, seeking Zuma’s resignation, and the courts are reviewing 750 alleged instances of corruption within his office. A no-confidence vote is pending before the National Assembly until the courts decide whether the vote should be taken by secret ballot. Since South Africa uses a party list system to elect its representatives, it is highly unlikely that any member of the president’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), would vote against him without a secret ballot.

Looking ahead, a succession battle is being waged within the ANC, as it will hold its party congress in December and is expected to nominate its presidential candidate for the 2019 election. Many observers wonder whether there will be a split in the party in light of the controversies surrounding President Zuma. Further, South Africa is experiencing a rise in nationalism in certain segments of society, as well as calls for the redistribution of private property by groups such as opposition leader Julius Malema’s “Economic Freedom Fighters,” who some view as exploiting socio-economic grievances for political gain. Another unsatisfied segment of the population are the “bornfreers” – those who were born in the post-apartheid period but feel alienated by the ANC, which is an aging organization demonstrating increasingly authoritarian tendencies in its internal governance, and believe that the overall system is not benefitting them. This level of dissatisfaction was evidenced by the near sweep of municipal elections by opposition parties in August 2016.

A challenge that threatens to harm South Africa’s future at a foundational level is the state of education in the country. Last November, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a quadrennial test taken by 580,000 pupils in 57 countries, found South Africa scored at or near the bottom of its several rankings. An appalling 27 percent of students cannot read after 6 years of school, compared with 4 percent in Tanzania and 19 percent in Zimbabwe. After five years of school, only about half can solve a simple division problem. The discrepancy between the top 20 percent of schools and the rest is also wider than in almost every other country. Partly this remains a legacy of the apartheid system, but it has also become a social class issue as schools in the richer areas can charge extra fees. While South Africa spends 6.4 percent of its GDP on education, compared to 4.8 percent average in the EU, and more of it goes to poor areas, money is not the issue. According to The Economist, it is a lack of accountability and poor teacher quality that are the problems, both largely due to the influence of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), which is allied with the ANC and has filled all six senior civil servant positions in charge of education with its members. A May 2016 academic study found “widespread” corruption and abuse, with teachers paying the union for good jobs, and female teachers being asked for sex in exchange for a job. Moreover, there is a chronic undersupply of teaching materials. The result is an entire generation of children – mostly black – receiving a grossly substandard education, which means soon a large segment of the workforce will be uneducated and unskilled. Such a situation poses a threat to the future strength of South Africa’s institutions, economy, and even its democracy.

South Africa is a key U.S. partner in the region and it is in the U.S. national interest that South Africa remain a strong, stable democracy. South Africa could serve as a powerful model for the continent and play a more influential diplomatic role in pressing other countries on democracy and human rights concerns, but its inward focus and distraction with its own challenges (which pale in comparison to some other countries in the region) leave it underperforming regionally.



Recommendations for the U.S. administration and the Congress on working with South Africa on democracy, rule of law, and human rights include:

  • While South African institutions should take the lead, engaging the government of South Africa on the issue of corruption, expressing privately the urgent need to address this issue in a serious way rooted in rule of law for the sake of its future prosperity and standing both regionally and internationally.
  • Encouraging South Africa to support its independent judiciary as a critical pillar of society and defender of the rule of law.
  • Continuing to support robust teacher training and education programs, especially at the primary-school level.
  • Supporting efforts to strengthen South Africa’s broadcast media, which are not as vibrant or independent as its print media.
  • Exploring legislative exchange programs between South Africa’s National Assembly and the U.S. Congress as a means of discussing the value of an independent legislative branch.
  • Encouraging South Africa to play more of a positive leadership role on the continent and in its immediate region on democracy, human rights, and rule of law issues.
  • Continuing vital support for live-saving health and development programs in South Africa, which engender good will toward the United States and a continued path for positive economic and political relations between the two countries.
  • Striving for greater collaboration between South Africa and the U.S. on issues where there is shared interest, both regionally and globally.


* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.

Publish Date
July 10, 2017