/ 16 January 2023

Gender violence, xenophobia, corruption: South Africa’s human rights problems continue in 2023

Rioters retreat down a side street after setting fire to tyres near Jules Street in Jeppestown during running battles with the police through out the night on April 17.
Attacks against women and children included xenophobic violence, which many foreign nationals faced in South Africa

South Africa will continue to grapple with economic and social rights in the new year as high levels of inequality and unemployment persist, according to Human Rights Watch’s  2023 World Report.

Elsewhere, it says the humanitarian situation in neighbouring Mozambique has worsened in the past year, with continued attacks by insurgents on villages in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province.

On a global scale the report outlines a “litany of human rights crises in 2022”, including Russia’s attacks on civilians in Ukraine and the Taliban’s oppressive rule in Afghanistan.

“The obvious conclusion to draw from the litany of human rights crises in 2022 is that unchecked authoritarian power leaves behind a sea of human suffering,” the acting executive director at Human Rights Watch, Tirana Hassan, wrote in response to the report.

“Governments that fail to live up to their legal obligations to protect human rights at home sow the seeds of discontent, instability, and ultimately crisis. Left unchecked, the egregious actions of abusive governments escalate, cementing the belief that corruption, censorship, impunity, and violence are the most effective tools to achieve their aims.”

Leftovers of 2022

The report notes that South Africa struggled to realise economic and social rights last year and will this year grapple with continued problems such as corruption, gender-based violence and xenophobia.

Despite the government passing new laws to address gender-based violence in January last year, crime statistics at the end of August reflected limited improvement on protecting women’s rights. More than 11 855 cases of gender-based violence against women were reported.

From April to June, 855 women and 243 children were killed. In the same period 9 516 rape cases were opened with the South African Police Service (SAPS), 500 fewer than the same period the previous year.

The report says police officers “continue to violate rights with little accountability”. It cites a court case last July where four police officers were acquitted of killing Mthokozisi Ntumba, a bystander shot and killed during student protests at the University of Witwatersrand in 2021.

It says attacks against women and children included xenophobic violence, which many foreign nationals faced in South Africa. Vigilante groups Operation Dudula and Put South Africa First have blamed foreigners for high unemployment as well as crime.

The report notes that xenophobic attacks flared up last year, with some officials in the ruling ANC joining the vigilante groups in calling for the expulsion of foreigners. It highlights the concerns raised by Ayodele Odusola, acting resident coordinator for the United Nations in South Africa, last April, and how UN experts “condemned the violence and called for accountability against xenophobia, racism and hate speech that was harming migrants, refugees and asylum seekers”.

Last year the United Nations’ Human Rights Council Working Group review session in Geneva, Switzerland, said South Africa urgently needed to address xenophobia, femicide and corruption. In a situation worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, refugees, asylums and undocumented people continue to face “enormous challenges” in applying for asylum and obtaining or renewing documentation.

Despite the government’s extension of deadlines for the renewal of permits, “ongoing barriers to registration and documentation cause asylum seekers and refugees to face risks of evictions, police harassment, and deportation, as well as difficulties opening or maintaining bank accounts, accessing basic services, and enrolling their children in schools”, the report says.

In addition to climate change and foreign policy, the report also notes continued delays in the court cases of former president Jacob Zuma.

On Monday, the Johannesburg high court granted President Cyril Ramaphosa an interdict to halt his private prosecution by Zuma, pending the hearing of his challenge to the validity of the summons served on him by Zuma last month.

Human Rights Watch’s Hassan called for the need “to reimagine how power in the world is exercised, and that all governments not only have the opportunity but the responsibility to take action to protect human rights within and beyond their borders”.