South Africa

Last Updated 9 September 2019

Officially known as the Republic of South Africa (RSA), this multiethnic country is situated at the southernmost tip of Africa. South Africa is a secular democracy which encompasses a wide variety of cultures, languages and religions, the majority-religion being Christianity. Race remains a huge source of social tension in post-Apartheid South Africa.

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Constitution and government

The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association. These rights are generally respected in practice.

The Republic of South Africa’s bill of rights states that the government may not discriminate directly or indirectly against any individual based on religion; in addition, no one may deny members of a religious group either the right to practice their religion, or to form, join, and maintain religious associations with other members of that group.

The law prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion and cases of discrimination against persons on the grounds of religious freedom may be taken to the Constitutional Court.

Education and children’s rights

The government allows, but does not require, religious education in public schools and prohibits advocating the tenets of a particular religion in public schools.

In June 2017, the South African court ruled that public education systems cannot promote any one religion to the exclusion of others. The Organization for Religious Education and Democracy (OGOD) had argued that it was in the interest of South Africa’s democracy that public schools not be allowed to favour a specific religion, and had asked the court to declare unconstitutional the religion policy of six public schools, accusing them of favouring Christianity over other religions.

As of October 2017, South Africa has removed the right of ‘reasonable chastisement’ of a child ’ as a valid defence for charges of assault against a minor following a ruling in the Johannesburg High Court which was seen to overrule religious beliefs relating to a parent’s right to discipline their child. The law change gives the state the ability to investigate child abuse cases where religious belief was used to protect parents who would, if they gave the same treatment to an adult, would be liable for conviction on the grounds of assault.

Family, community and society

The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 criminalizes activities relating to witchcraft and witch-hunting including both claiming a knowledge of witchcraft, and accusing others of practicing witchcraft. In 2007 the South African Pagan Rights Alliance and the Traditional Healers Organisation submitted requests to the South African Law Reform Commission for an investigation into the constitutionality of the act. In 2010 a South African Law Reform Commission project was approved by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development in order to review witchcraft legislation. Older women in communities holding traditional beliefs are most vulnerable to persecution, along with children who are vulnerable to murder through some witchcraft practices, and related abuses.

The 2006 Civil Union Act introduced an openly secular avenue for couples to legally marry in South Africa. It allows marriage by government officials or secular marriage officers. However, the vast majority of all registered officers are affiliated with religious organizations and not all of them are willing to marry same-sex couples or offer non-religious ceremonies.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedoms of expression and the press are protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice. However, the government under president Jacob Zuma had been increasingly hostile to media criticism. Most South Africans receive the news via radio outlets, a majority of which are controlled by the state-run broadcaster South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The SABC also dominates the television market. The ANC government has been highly sensitive to media criticism and encroached on the editorial independence of the SABC. In addition, government officials have used gag orders to block reporting on alleged corruption, and journalists are occasionally subject to harassment and legal action.

‘Blasphemy’ law

‘Blasphemy’, defined as “unlawfully, intentionally and publicly acting contemptuously towards God” is a common law criminal offence in South Africa. Some sources suggest that the more recent constitution has made the ‘blasphemy’ law unenforceable, due to its protections on freedom of expression, and also on anti-discrimination grounds as the old offence only applied to ‘blasphemy’ against Christianity. However, this has not been tested in law.

Convictions have been rare for many decades and the last conviction we can record was in 1968. This was against the editor of Varsity for coverage of an event which discussed the topic “Is God Dead?”, quoting participants as saying “We must write God off entirely” and “[God] is beginning to stink”. The editor was convicted, but received only a caution.

In addition to the criminal law, the civil law Equality Act (2000) forbids hate speech defined as “words” based on various grounds including religious grounds “against any person”, with intent to be, among other things, “hurtful” . The terms “words” and “hurtful” seem to suggest that a very broad range of speech about religion could in principle fall foul of the act, though the framing as hate speech and qualification that such speech targets a person may narrow the law down to properly a hate speech law. Indeed, it does not in appear that in practice the Equality Act has been used as a de facto ‘blasphemy’ law.

Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes 

As of 2018, under the proposed Hate Speech Bill, hate speech is defined as “a clear intention to be harmful or to incite harm, or promote or propagate hatred on the basis of characteristics such as race, religion, age, nationality etc”. The bill outlaws hate speech on the basis of “religion” and “political affiliation”, but not non-religious belief or worldviews.

Some civil society groups are concerned that petty insults or satire could lead to convictions under the proposed law.

The Bill received backlash from many Christian groups who saw it as a threat to freedom of religion and feared it would criminalize religious texts, especially those denouncing homosexuality.

However, the text of the bill tabled in parliament as of April 2018 excludes expression performed in good faith, such as proselytizing or espousing any religious tenet, belief, teaching or writing, to the extent that such interpretation and proselytization does not advocate hatred that constitutes incitement to cause “harm”.

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