Johannesburg - South Africa is still struggling to guarantee the economic and social rights of its citizens and safeguard their fundamental civil and political freedoms.
This is the verdict reached by US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its World Human Rights Report 2014, published on Tuesday.
Although the government had been relatively successful in providing social services, financial mismanagement and corruption – especially at local government level – had seriously undermined effective and efficient delivery of social and economic services, it said.
This, in addition to growing unemployment and poverty, had sparked a resurgence of xenophobic attacks last year in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, including against Somalis.
The government’s denial that the attacks were xenophobic had undermined the development of an effective, long-term strategy by the police to prevent such crimes.
However, the report noted, some local authorities had tried to address the problem.
The report criticised the official response to the Marikana killings of August 2012, saying the investigation had been obstructed by delays at the Farlam Commission.
“Serious concerns remain about the ongoing conduct and capacity of the SAPS, both in terms of the use of force in general, as well as the ability to deal with riots in a rights-respecting manner.”
The report commended South Africa for introducing a “precedent-setting resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on combating violence and discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity”.
But it complained that South Africa “has not played a decisive leadership role on this issue at the UN” since then.
It added that a task team established by the government in May 2011 to address violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons had become “dormant and ineffectual”. But it had been re-invigorated and could still go a long way to show the government’s commitment to fight sexual and gender-based violence.
HRW said that despite amendments last year, the controversial Protection of State Information Bill “remains a major concern in light of its restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of information, press freedom and democratic accountability”.
The report criticised the Traditional Courts Bill, revived last year, for “giving traditional leaders the authority to enforce controversial versions of customary law that infringe upon women’s rights, as well as discriminatory social and economic practices”.
HRW said “despite progressive legislation” protecting the disabled, children with disabilities, especially in rural areas, suffered from lack of access to mainstream education and were particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
The report sharply criticised the Department of Home Affairs for disobeying court orders to reopen three of its seven refugee reception offices, closed in 2011. The closures had limited asylum seekers’ access to key services, it said.
HRW also said the government applied its human rights principles to its foreign policy inconsistently.
It criticised Pretoria for endorsing Zimbabwe’s “flawed” elections in July last year and said South Africa had been reluctant to condemn human rights abuses by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war even as it strongly condemned the military takeover in Egypt in July.
The report praised South Africa for consistently working for peace and stability in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“South Africa has also played key roles in peace and reconstruction initiatives and the restoration of rights in South Sudan and Somalia.”
Joe McGluwa, the DA’s spokesman on the Presidency, said the report was “a stark reminder of the erosion of human rights under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma”.
He added: “The DA wholeheartedly agrees with the sentiments raised in the report, and will request that HRW brief Parliament on its findings.”