With one of the world's most liberal constitutions and a boisterous media sector, South Africa has long been the African continent's model for human rights.
But global watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) says events in 2012 have set the nation back significantly. Citing police shootings of striking miners and legislative proposals to significantly restrict press freedoms, the U.S.-based group says South Africa needs to refocus on maintaining freedoms it fought hard to gain in the wake of apartheid.
For many South Africans, the so-called Marikana massacre of August 16 was a scene straight out of that era: police shooting wildly into a crowd of angry black striking mine workers, killing 34.
Described by one major news outlet as "the single most lethal use of force by South African security forces against civilians since 1960," the Marikana wildcat strike against platinum-mining giant Lonmin drew allegations of police brutality and laid bare dire conditions that many black workers face nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid.
Speaking from Johannesburg, where the group issued Global Report 2013
– a 665-page, ranked assessment of human rights issues in more than 80 countries – HRW's South Africa director Cameron Jacobs described the tragedy as emblematic of the country's most troubled post-apartheid year.
“The year 2012 in South Africa most probably represented one of its most challenging years," he said. "I think when one has to look at the number of issues in 2012, there have been certain threats around freedom of expression, challenges in respect to the rule of law and ... the right to equality, which is one of the cornerstones of our democracy.”
While police say they fired on the workers in self-defense, a government-commissioned investigation is ongoing, and Lonmin announced last week that it would implement a long-term plan that it says will significantly improve workers’ conditions, including better housing, flexible working hours, and leave policies that will allow workers to visit their families in the countryside.
Regarding legislative affairs, HRW joined local and international media houses in vocally opposing the Protection of State Information Bill, which is slated for approval this year, saying it would limit access to information and restrict press freedom. HRW also notes opposition to the pending Traditional Courts Bill, which would set up a separate legal system for 17 million South Africans living in rural areas. The bill predominantly affects poor blacks, and critics say the bill is also unconstitutional, unfair to women and a reprise of hateful apartheid laws.
Kayum Ahmed, CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission, who also says the Marikana shooting stands out as the most significant event of the year, says many of South Africa’s human rights problems go down to the most basic level.
“The constitution provides one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, which provides for access to basic services, including water," he said. "And what we have discovered is that the situation in South Africa is fairly dire, in the sense that there are several municipalities that simply fail to provide access to water and sanitation in those respective provinces.”
But, Ahmed says, South Africa is a nation that has distinguished itself for its optimism despite its dark history.
“I think it would be difficult to say that 2012 has been the worst year for us as a country with respect to human rights," he said. "I think it’s certainly been a terrible year, but I do also see instances of hope and of optimism with respect to dealing with some of the challenges that we face in the country.”
He says his agency is engaging with the South African government to address the human rights challenges – and cited one notable success: providing nearly universal education.
Human Rights Watch acknowledged that the government has made some positive moves, such as strengthening farmworkers’ rights and being the continent’s leader in protecting the rights of gays and lesbians.