Human Rights WatchWorld Report ContentsDownloadPrintOrderHRW Homepage

World map South Africa



Europe and Central Asia

Middle East and North Africa

Special Issues and Campaigns

United States


Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


Human Rights Developments
The African National Congress (ANC)-led government of national unity, in which the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) also participated, entered its last year before elections scheduled for 1999. As Deputy President Thabo Mbeki prepared to succeed head of state President Nelson Mandela, tensions within the ANC became more apparent. The South African economy suffered from the Asian financial crisis and from concerns at political stability in the region, and the currency collapsed to half its 1994 value against the dollar, putting greater strains on the ANC’s fiscally conservative Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, and on its traditional alliance with the labor movement.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its hearings of witness testimony about past human rights abuses, and was due to present its report to the president in October. Among notable public hearings during the year were those revealing the extent of the previous government’s development of chemical and biological weapons. Several thousand applications for amnesty remained outstanding, and hearings of amnesty applications were set to continue well into 1999, when a supplement to the report would be published. Former president P.W. Botha refused to cooperate with the commission to talk about his knowledge of violations during his presidency, leading to a court battle which culminated in his conviction for contempt of court in August.

The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), set up in 1997 to investigate or oversee the investigation of complaints against the police, reported 480 deaths in custody or as a result of police action during the first six months of 1998. The ICD investigated a number of high profile deaths during the year, as well as allegations of police involvement in political violence, and police failure to act forcefully in cases such as the shooting of a baby by a white farmer in April. In January a new police code of conduct was launched; in June 1,200 new recruits began their training, which included a human rights curriculum.

The Department of Justice established a new magistrates commission in October, more representative in terms of race and gender than the old, and with a mandate, with the judicial services commission, to spearhead the transformation of the courts. A new position, the national director of public prosecutions, was created as part of a reform of prosecution services; ANC MP Bulelani Ngcuka was appointed to fill the post. New centers for “pre-trial services” were established at courts in major urban centers, aiming to assist victims through the court system. Legislation dealing with organized crime gave the courts new powers to deal with gang related offenses. In July, the long-awaited Open Democracy Bill was introduced to parliament, which would, among other things, increase public access to government information.

Family courts were established in several provinces, bringing together cases relating to divorce, maintenance, and family violence. A controversial Employment Equity Act was passed, requiring large employers to act against racial and gender discrimination and improve the representivity of workplaces. In July, the High Court in Pretoria dismissed an application to have the 1997 Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act declared unconstitutional. In August, the Constitutional Court ruled that the criminalization of gay sex under apartheid-era laws was unconstitutional.

In November 1997 the government initiated a national program aiming to keep children out of prisons. In May 1998, however, Minister for Welfare Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi stated that an estimated 1,200 children were still awaiting trial in South African prisons. From that date, the Department of Welfare in each province was supposed to take more responsibility for children in the justice system, and hasten the process of transferring children awaiting trial to more appropriate facilities, though children between fifteen and eighteen charged with the most serious offenses would remain in adult prisons.

A number of super-maximum security prisons were planned or built, in the face of criticism by human rights groups. Prisons remained seriously overcrowded and plagued by prisoner violence. Several prisoners were reported to have died during 1998 following assaults by prison staff. A pilot project for training of prisoners and prison staff in human rights norms was launched in June by the Department of Correctional Services, together with two nongovernmental organizations. In September, the government introduced to parliament important legislation designed to restructure the prison service.

The KwaZulu-Natal region suffered yet another upsurge in political violence during 1998, especially in the long-troubled midlands region. In April, following a three-month trial, former ANC leader Sfiso Nkabinde was acquitted on charges of sixteen murders. Immediately, violence increased in his home territory of Richmond, where he had become a leader in the United Democratic Movement. Serious allegations of police involvement in or failure to stop the violence continued. Soldiers were deployed in July in an attempt to keep the situation under control.

Attacks on foreigners in South Africa continued. In September, three African immigrants were killed on a train near Pretoria by a mob that accused them of taking South African jobs. The ANC condemned this attack, but other statements during the year by IFP leader and Minister for Home Affairs Mangosuthu Buthelezi and other government officials contributed towards xenophobia. The government failed to take sufficient steps to address abuse of foreigners during the deportation process, and the Department of Home Affairs repeatedly failed to engage in organized discussions aimed at addressing such problems. More positively, the department appointed a committee including human rights lawyers to draft legislation introducing new procedures for refugee determination, and introduced a draft bill to parliament which addressed many concerns about defects in the existing system. A committee appointed to draft a white paper and legislation on migration policy in general, however, included no representative with human rights expertise.

South Africa’s foreign policy lacked direction and a human rights focus. The government apparently regretted its earlier supportfor President Laurent Kabila in the newly renamed Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and, when new rebels threatened Kabila in July and August 1998, urged Kabila to reach an accommodation. However, South Africa was ultimately forced to back the military support given to Kabila by fellow members of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Zimbabwe and Angola. In August, South Africa welcomed the new Nigerian head of state Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, without publicly raising continuing human rights concerns. South Africa led a botched military intervention on behalf of SADC in Lesotho in September, which exacerbated rather than resolved a crisis resulting from disputed general elections. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki was criticized for visiting China in April and failing to raise human rights issues. More positively, South Africa hosted a conference in March among SADC members where a declaration on violence against women was adopted. South African ambassador Jacob Selebi chaired the fifty-fourth session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and was later awarded the annual human rights prize of the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights, in particular for his role in negotiating the Ottawa convention banning landmines.

South Africa was the largest producer of weapons in Africa, exporting weapons and military equipment worth more than R.1.324 billion (U.S.$192 billion) during 1997, a 143 percent rise over the previous year, according to Zoli Kunene of the Aerospace Maritime and Defense Association. In March 1998, the National Conventional Arms Control Committee approved arms sales worth R.173 million (U.S.$25 million) to Algeria, stating that they had obtained guarantees that they would not be used for internal repression. The British Sunday Telegraph reported in June that South Africa had concluded a secret arms-for-oil deal with Libya; both South Africa and Libya denied the report. Elsewhere, it was reported that Saudi Arabia was seeking a similar deal. South Africa stated that arms transfers to Uganda and Rwanda were halted as soon as the war in the DRC began, though it did not deny that arms previously sold to the region might have been used in the fighting. In June, South Africa ratified the Ottawa landmines convention, which it had played a leading role in bringing into existence. The Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act came into force, aimed at restricting the activities of mercenaries operating from South African soil. However, South African private security firms continued to operate throughout Africa and South Africans based in the country were still involved in illegal arms trafficking, including to Angola, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.




The Democratic Republic of Congo







Sierra Leone

South Africa





Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Abduction and Enslavement of Ugandan Children

Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan


Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch