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The use by security forces of excessive and lethal force increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. At least 115 people died in police custody. Incidents of gender-based violence soared. The asylum system failed those most in need; immigrants and other non-nationals were subjected to xenophobic social media campaigns. COVID-19 put health workers at particular risk of infection due to the lack of PPE, while women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services was restricted. Children faced significant inequalities and hardship in the public education system. Millions of people did not have access to safe drinking water; and lockdown placed an additional burden on women having to walk long distances for water.


The President continued to take a lead in national and regional efforts to resolve political instability and address the need for human rights reforms in Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

The Commission of Enquiry into State Capture continued to hear testimonies in relation to allegations of corruption and other abuses of power known as “state capture”, during former President Zuma’s rule. Jacob Zuma was removed from office in 2018 by the African National Congress (ANC).

On 15 March the President declared a National State of Disaster in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which, in turn, invoked the Disaster Management Act (2002). A national lockdown was imposed on 27 March which threatened to undermine rights to freedom of movement and association, and was eased in August.

The President established a ministerial team to investigate allegations of corruption connected to COVID-19-related procurements, including PPE and food aid, which was allegedly distributed by ANC-aligned politicians in a way that favoured certain communities.

The pandemic forced several media houses to close, cut down on staff or cut salaries due to the pandemic’s effect on advertising revenue.

Excessive use of force

In March, during lockdown, the authorities deployed around 76,000 officers of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and police officers onto the streets to enforce lockdown restrictions. Widespread reports of their use of excessive, and sometimes unnecessary, lethal force against the population quickly emerged.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), an official oversight body, received 828 complaints of police misconduct between 25 March and 5 May. They included 16 deaths in police custody; 32 deaths as a result of police action; eight incidents of rape by police officers; 25 reports of torture in custody; and 589 assaults.

On 7 April, South African Police Service (SAPS) officers fired rubber bullets at homeless people living in a camp at the Strandfontein sports grounds in Cape Town when they protested against their poor living conditions, including lack of food.1

In August, police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at protesters who had gathered peacefully outside Parliament in Cape Town to mark the first anniversary of student Uyinene Mrwetyana’s murder and to protest the soaring levels of gender-based violence. Eighteen protesters were arrested. Uyinene Mrwetyana had been raped and killed in Cape Town by a male post office employee.

Unlawful killings

Elma Robyn Montsumi, a 39-year-old sex worker, died in suspicious circumstances in custody in Mowbray police station in Cape Town, four days after being arrested on 9 April on suspicion of possessing drugs. The police claimed she had committed suicide and the IPID said they were looking into the circumstances of her case. No one had been arrested in connection with the case by the end of the year.

Collins Khosa died on 10 April in Alexandra, a township north of Johannesburg city, after he was assaulted and brutally beaten by members of the SANDF and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department. Collins Khosa’s attackers claimed he had violated lockdown rules when they found a half-consumed glass of beer in his yard. The authorities had banned alcohol during lockdown.2 On 19 August, the Military Ombudsman found that SANDF officers implicated in the killing had acted “improperly”.

Between 29 August and 1 September, the IPID arrested three police officers and charged them with the murder of Nathaniel Julies, a 16-year-old disabled boy, on 26 August in Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg. He was allegedly shot by police officers after he refused to answer their questions.

Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence continued to soar and the rate was nearly five times higher than the global average. The President described the increase as “a war” against women. Reports of rape and sexual assault increased by 1.7% in the first quarter of the year, with more than 42,000 rapes reported in 2019-2020 and almost 144 sexual offences committed every day. Such violence increased during the lockdown period and within the first week, police had received over 2,300 complaints. Twenty-one women were reportedly killed in June alone, including Tshegofatso Pule, a 28-year-old pregnant woman from Roodepoort town, west of Johannesburg, who was found hanging from a tree with multiple stab wounds. A man was charged with her murder and he was awaiting trial at the end of the year.

Sexual and reproductive rights

During lockdown, medical and civil society organizations documented complaints relating to the lack of availability of, or access to, sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants

The asylum system failed those who needed it most and left asylum-seekers and migrants in limbo without legal status. The Refugees Amendment Act came into force in January; many argued that it severely undermined the legal and human rights framework for refugees, as well as South Africa’s international obligations to protect refugees.

During lockdown, the authorities’ failure to abide by their constitutional and international legal obligations towards refugees, asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants was particularly marked. The government’s COVID-19 aid programmes and social relief arrangements were only available to people with national identity documents. A legal challenge brought by the Scalabrini Centre, a civil society organization, led to some asylum-seekers and special-permit holders receiving a six-month COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress grant in June. Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants were unable – like citizens – to work in the informal economy which had previously sustained them. Only spaza shops owned by nationals were allowed to operate during the period when lockdown was most strictly enforced. In August, the President announced his support for a 2019 initiative from the Department of Small Business Development to develop legislation to restrict foreigners from working in some sections of the economy.

A malicious Twitter campaign, #PutSouthAfricaFirst, evoked a dangerous xenophobic narrative in the COVID-19 context, and targeted African migrants, accusing them of stealing jobs and draining public health resources. The media reported that nationals damaged or looted 124 spaza shops owned by foreigners, and other businesses in Thokoza township, south of Johannesburg, in September.

Right to truth, justice and reparation

At the end of the year, the families of 34 mine workers, and 10 others unlawfully killed by SAPS officers in 2012 in Marikana, a mining town in North West Province, were still waiting for justice and reparation including adequate compensation for their loss. The police had responded, using unnecessary lethal force, to a strike at the Marikana mine, owned by Lonmin Mine plc, near Rustenburg city in the North West province. More than 70 people sustained serious injuries after the shooting, including permanent disability, causing some of them to lose their jobs.

Right to health

By early August, at least 240 health workers had died after contracting COVID-19.3 On 3 September, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union protested outside Parliament against the authorities’ failure to meet their demands for adequate PPE, and for fair pay to reflect the health risks arising from their exposure at work to COVID-19. Their situation was compounded when they were denied an annual salary increase as a result of the weak economy and the bloated civil service wage bill. In July, there was a surge in COVID-19-related deaths among the population as a whole, and there were more than half a million confirmed cases nationwide. The surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths accelerated in late December during the holiday period.

Right to education

The public education system, one of the most unequal in the world, continued to be characterized by decaying and dangerous infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and poor educational outcomes that perpetuated inequality, particularly among those living in poverty. More than 75% of nine-year-olds could not read properly; 50 to 60% got as far as high school, and of those, only around 40 to 50% passed their matriculation, while just 14% went to university.4

Students attending underfunded schools were forced to study in inadequate conditions; hygiene levels were poor and children had to use pit latrines which contravened health and safety legislation.5

Educational inequality was further exacerbated when the pandemic led to school closures and students in poorer communities did not have access to remote learning. Meanwhile, the government paused its national school feeding programme that over 9 million learners had benefitted from. The authorities failed to use the school closures as an opportunity to improve school infrastructure. Children and staff who returned to school in August did not have adequate water, sanitation or PPE, and teaching/learning conditions prevented them from practising physical distancing. Meanwhile, the government diverted funding which had been promised for the improvement of infrastructure in around 2,000 schools to COVID-19-related projects.

Right to water

According to the government’s National Water and Sanitation Master Plan, around 5.5 million households did not have access to safe and reliable drinking water as a result of poor infrastructure management and a lack of investment in water services. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded problems accessing water and the associated health risks arising from poor hygiene. For example, people, particularly women, had longer distances to walk to find safe drinking water. Women from QwaQwa region in the Free State province, in the central eastern part of the country, said their health suffered from carrying heavy buckets of water over long distances. Others relied on rainfall to get water and some were forced to break lockdown regulations to get to neighbouring villages, risking fines or arrest, only to find the water was unfit for consumption.

According to official information between March and August, the Department of Water and Sanitation delivered 18,678 water tanks to 158 municipalities and districts, and 407,665 households.