Each year, a global report titled ‘Freedom in the World’ is released by the independent watchdog Freedom House. It assesses the level of freedom of each country in the world, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948.
In 2018, South Africa received a classification of “free” from the report, achieving an aggregate score of 78 points out of a potential 100. The report paid tribute to South Africa’s parliamentary democracy and high-functioning electoral system, but noted also that “pervasive corruption and apparent interference by non-elected actors hampers the proper functioning of government”.
South Africa’s relatively high score on a number of social indicators was due to its liberal Constitution. Freedom House notes, however, that legal guarantees of rights are insufficient for “on-the-ground fulfillment of those rights”.
Does South Africa live up to its ranking? Daily Maverick asked experts to assess South Africa’s freedom on a number of social issues.
Freedom of workers to unionise
“We are indeed free to organise and strike, and legally we have made huge achievements. In 1995, the Labour Relations Act and the Constitution gave workers their right to unionize and strike,” says Cosatu general secretary Sizwe Pamla.
Pamla points out that even workers who do not belong to unions are able to benefit from collective bargaining agreements in situations where unions are sufficiently representative.
Nonetheless, challenges remain.
“Labour broking, outsourcing and subcontracting are the big threat to workers and unions in exercising the right to strike,” says Pamla. “It is very difficult to organise labour broker workers, as they are permanently temporary and scared that employers will fire them if they unionise.”
Freedom of LGBTIQ+ South Africans
“In spite of enabling legislation in South Africa, the lived experience of LGBTQ+ remains one of exclusion and invisibility,” says Keval Harie, director of the Gay and Lesbian Archives.
“South Africa in 2018 is also a place where high levels of violence against, particularly, black lesbian women and transgender people points to human rights violations which occur on a daily basis.”
Within poor and black communities, says Harie, there remain obstructions in terms of “access to protection from violence by law enforcement officials, access to healthcare and access to education.”
But Harie, who married his male partner earlier this month, says there is also much to celebrate.
“Within the LGBTIQ space we have a broad spectrum of activists who are feminists, social justice agents, human rights campaigners and frontline mobilisers of change who through their protests, art, writing, performance, music, film and many other forms of advocacy are doing the most in advancing our rights.”
On this Freedom Day, resolves Harie, “in our hardships we will find the resolve to resist against injustice, and in our celebrations we will find joy, love, and dignity.”
Freedom of assembly and protest
“We believe that many working class people are not free when they have to raise their voice,” says Social Justice Coalition general secretary Axolile Notywala.
Notywala points to the fact that the apartheid-era Gatherings Act is still used to criminalise protest. In 2017, 21 SJC members were arrested in the course of a peaceful protest because they had not provided prior notice to the police that the protest would take place. While the Western Cape High Court agreed with the SJC that this aspect of the Gatherings Act was unconstitutional and should be set aside, the South African Police Service is appealing the judgment.
The SJC says the Gatherings Act is also applied selectively. Notywala suggests that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s morning walks could technically fall foul of the legislation, since they are held for a political purpose and involve more than 15 people.
Beyond this, Notywala says that the way protests are policed in South Africa is still cause for concern due to the heavy-handed tactics involved.
“The main role of police is to protect people who are protesting, but that’s not what we see,” he says.
Freedom of the media
Media Monitoring Africa’s William Bird says that in light of the recent ‘Stratcom’ allegations that have accompanied the passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, there’s no time like the present to remember just how much better things are for journalists in 2018 than they used to be.
“If we compare our media freedom now to the 80’s – you weren’t allowed to mention the ANC,” says Bird.
“Journalists who threatened even small acts of defiance were harassed, followed, detained, assaulted. There was a culture of silence, of denial. Black people were routinely and deliberately portrayed as unthinking ethnic savages, interested only in violence. Media that tried to unpack or challenge these issues were intimidated. In almost every instance retribution against black media was far far worse than white media.”
And it wasn’t just racism that was rife.
“Sexism in the media was far more extreme. It would certainly have been close to unthinkable to have a serious team of political journalists who were women. There were a few, but they went through hell.”
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t current threats and challenges – from understaffed newsrooms, to deliberate misinformation campaigns, to attacks on journalists. These are serious issues, says Bird.
But ultimately, he concludes: “Compared to where we have been – [the state of the media] is about a million million times better and more free”. DM