South Africa

Flag of South Africa

By Karen Zamora 

South Africa is a country known for year-around warm weather and beautiful beach towns in the southernmost tip of the African peninsula. It is also recognized as one of the only African countries that had a predominantly white minority rule, which ended with abolishing Apartheid laws in 1990. South Africa’s freedom of the press index is slowly improving. In 2012, Reporters Without Borders reported South Africa’s index number was 42 out of 178 countries. Last year, South Africa’s press freedom index was 38, after falling five places because of attacks on journalists during the FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg and Cape Town in 2010. In 2004, South Africa was rated 26 out of 178 countries — ahead of Great Britain — marking the tenth anniversary of democracy.1 However, despite the decline in index numbers, according to Reporters Without Borders, South Africa is considered to have a satisfactory worldwide press situation — second highest rating out of five categories.

Historical Background

South Africa retrieved its independence from the United Kingdom in the 1930s. Since then the country has evolved from being closed off from democracy into a democratic state following its first national democratic election in April of 1994.2 This election set the premise for an advanced constitution involving a set of bill of rights much like the United States. The African National Congress began its reign on Jan. 8, 1912 to unify the three different types of South African people — the educated elite, the rural classes and tribal structures — after the country had spent years under racial segregation. Diamonds and gold were being discovered in the late 1800s and laws were being designed to force people off their land. For instance, the 1913 Land Act prevented Africans from buying, renting or using land, except in special circumstances. The Land Act caused overcrowding, poverty and starvation.Through a series of hardships, violence, protests and civil unrest, the ANC started to solve South Africa’s problems peacefully, which concluded with Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1991.3 Currently, South Africa has more than 48 million4 people, and is considered by Media, Identity and the Public Sphere in Post-Apartheid South Africa as a major media player in Africa.5

Free Speech

South Africa’s freedom of speech policies, or freedom of expression as stated in the South African constitution, is arguably the most liberal on the continent. The constitution states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression including: freedom to receive or impart information or ideas, freedom of artistic creativity and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.” In the first 10 years of democracy, freedom of expression started to take form. In South African National Defense Union v. Minister of Defense, the court argued the statutes of expression. The court ruled in the 1999 case that freedom of expression is the heart of democracy, it also said this freedom is valuable because it protects the morality of individuals and it facilitates the search for truth. Under the new government, officials understood citizens need to hear, form and express opinions of all matters.6 The constitution also states this right does not extend to “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”7 In 2011, a South African court ruled that an anti-apartheid struggle song was hate speech and it could not be sung, in public or in private. The court ruled the slogan “Kill the Boer, kill the farmer,” chanted by ANC youth leader Julius Malema, was hate speech and a violation of the law. The term Boer has many messages. Malema used it as a synonym to farmers, while the white minority found it offensive, as it was a literal threat against them. The song caused quite a stir as it once again started to racially divide the country. Malema was sentence to a two-year suspension from the ANC, but the sentence itself was suspended for three years.

Free Press

Freedom of the press in South Africa has been a controversial and unsteady topic, unlike freedom of expression. During the apartheid era in the 19th century, newspapers had to apply for registration if they published more than 11 times a year. The government at the time also enforced regulations controlling what newspapers could or could not publish — especially articles against the apartheid system. Newspapers were not allowed to quote banned organizations, report on conditions inside prisons or about security forces. During the 1980s, two states of emergency were declared and newspaper censorship regulations were tightened. News outlets were prohibited from reporting on any demonstrations, activities against the apartheid system or any laws. Newspapers protested by printing full black pages or paragraphs of printed articles were blacked out. Many newspapers only lasted several more issues after their protests, but others are still in publication today. Those who were able to continue publication had a larger readership and were able to survive through advertisements and distribution. The government tried to shut them down by banning certain issues, which caused financial consequences to the newspaper. At the same time the anti-apartheid groups started setting up smaller papers of their own. Made of mostly middle-class white women, the newspapers would print protests and also brought issues about the segregation to the forefront.8

Currently, there are two bills against the media that affected the 2010 index number and is still a current issue today: the Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill. The creation of media tribunals and restricting the disclosure of private information are controversial items affecting South Africa. During a 2008 national conference in Polokwane, a city in the northeastern part of the country, the African National Congress discussed the possibility for tougher sanctions against reporters who publish wrong information. South Africa is a free press country, but the ANC wants to limit the freedom of the media. The Media Appeals Tribunal would help government regulate grievances against the media. The Protection of Information Bill would allow for the government to hold information from its citizens based on national interest, which means matters relating to the advancement of public good and security of the state. If passed, the bill would allow government officials to classify any information it deems sensitive. If a reporter were to disclose any information of national interest, he or she would be sent to prison for 3 to 25 years. The ANC argues reporters who report this type of information are considered to be undermining the nation.

Comparison Between South Africa and the United States

In comparison to the United States, South Africa has a similar set of free expression guidelines. In terms of free speech, both countries are fairly liberal. However, the United States, unlike South Africa, has not banned a song from being heard nor sung. If the United States had a case similar to the hate speech case in South Africa, the United States would side with Malema. In the United States, a federal bill passed in 2009 detailed what type of speech is considered hatred. The bill states a hate crime is a crime of violence motivated by hatred of the group to which the victim belongs.9 Hate crime is different than hate speech, someone can commit a hate crime through speech. Unlike South Africa, hate speech does not include songs. There was no immediate violence coming from Malema’s actions, but because it is from a time the country is trying to forget, the speech was considered offensive.
Freedom of the press is different. The United States had a similar situation when trying to control the media from displaying information of national security. In New York Times v. United States, The New York Times was sued for publishing documents that are considered of national security during the 1970s. However, in South Africa’s case government officials think the media is undermining the nation if they print articles against the country. In New York Times v. United States, the court ruled that because the publication would not cause an immediate event against the safety of Americans, prior restraint was unjustified.

United State’s free speech and free press rights demonstrate its high superiority of leniency when compared to South Africa. Even though United States’ free press index is much higher than South Africa’s, both countries are ranked with satisfactory worldwide press situations. There is no tell how South Africans will respond if policy makers continue to increase restrictions on speech and press. If South Africa cannot maintain a satisfactory situation, the democratic state of the country will suffer.


1. “PRESS FREEDOM INDEX 2010.” Reporters Without Borders. N.p., 20 Oct 2010.

Web. 1 Apr 2012. <;.

2. South Africa. Open Government Partnership. Country Commitments. 2011. Web.


3. “A brief history of the African National Congress.” African National Congress. N.p., 2011. Web. 3 Apr 2012. <;.

4. South Africa. Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency World

Factbook. 2010. Web. <


5. Harris, Richard, and Abebe Zegeye. Media, Identity and the Public Sphere in Post-

Apartheid South Africa. 1st ed. 88. Boston: Brill, 2003. 10-11. Print.

6. Bronstein, Victoria . “WHAT YOU CAN AND CAN’T SAY IN SOUTH AFRICA.”

Democratic Alliance. N.p., 19 Aug 2009. Web. 3 Apr 2012. <;.

7. “Chapter 2- Bill of Rights.” South African Government Information. N.p., 19 Aug

2009. Web. 3 Apr 2012. <;.

8. “About South Africa > Democracy.” South Africa. International Marketing Council of

South Africa., 18 Oct 2006. Web. 2 Apr 2012. <;.

9. Robinson, B.A.. “Hate Crimes in the U.S..” Religious Tolerance. Ontario Consultants

on Religious Tolerance, 30 Jan 2011. Web. 4 Apr 2012.


Flag photo courtesy of Wikipedia and permitted under the Creative Commons


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