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Executive Summary

South Africa: Executive Summary

Enshrouded in controversy due to its apartheid years, South Africa is making strides to reconcile with its past.


Global Centre for Pluralism

Overall Score: 5.5

This assessment was completed in 2022.

South Africa has a complex history of race relations due to its long-standing history of apartheid, a system which institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. Since apartheid’s dismantling in 1994, the country has made significant strides toward reconciling and addressing its past injustices. South Africa has made robust legal commitments and a Constitution internationally praised for its inclusive and advanced nature. Moreover, South Africa has worked to embody its name as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ by celebrating diversity rather than using it as a marker of difference. Despite this, racial tensions and inequality persist while new struggles, such as increasing xenophobic sentiment, are coming to light. In analyzing the country’s state of pluralism through the lenses of race, ethnicity, indigeneity, nationality and gender, the Global Pluralism Monitor: South Africa report highlights apartheid’s lingering effects, as well as the many opportunities for social transformation that put a more pluralistic South Africa within reach. 

Poor policy implementation affects South Africa’s education, healthcare and basic services, particularly in poor and rural areas. Wealth inequality is high, with the top 10 percent owning over 85 percent of household wealth, and poverty affects the majority of poor and rural people, who are mostly black. South Africa’s high rates of violent crimes exacerbate ethnic tensions and lead to political and intra-ethnic violence. Although many South Africans feel a strong sense of belonging to the country, intergroup trust is extremely low which demonstrates apartheid’s lingering effects. Overall, the Monitor report highlights the country’s duality of promising commitments toward equality alongside deep divisions that persist across the population as evidenced by gender-based violence (GBV), racism, neglect of indigenous groups and a lagging economy. 

Legal Commitments  

South Africa’s Constitution aims to move forward from its colonial and apartheid past by offering protections toward freedom, human dignity and equality for all individuals. By openly condemning discrimination across all diversity types, the Constitution has taken large steps toward remedying apartheid’s intergenerational effects of segregation. However, some of its national commitments have failed to create a decisive break from the past. For instance, the 2020 Traditional and Khoi-Sans Leadership Act recognizes traditional leadership and acknowledges indigenous rights but simultaneously infringes on individual’s property and citizenship rights. Despite the country’s many positive national commitments, the South African government is not meeting the reporting requirements of the international agreements it has ratified, possibly due to a lack of capacity. Inclusive citizenship practices are also jeopardized by amendments to the Refugee Act in 2017, which constrain refugees’ access to essential documentation, potentially violating the Constitution and international obligations. Increasing residency requirements for citizenship rights exclude foreign nationals, which has implications for access to health care and education while demonstrating South Africa’s lapse in legal commitments toward pluralism. 

Practices and Leadership  

South Africa has made some positive progress by transforming state institutions and enacting policies aimed to hold governments more accountable and address inequalities caused by colonialism and apartheid. Still, a disjoint exists between policy and practice that negatively affects healthcare, education and basic services primarily in rural and poorer areas. Corruption is a significant challenge to policy implementation and undermines public service delivery, economic growth, development and trust in democratic institutions and laws. Moreover, budget cuts affect the country’s data collection capacities and inhibit an understanding of broader systemic trends that affect the population.  

South Africa is a protest-intensive country. Protests are attributed to being the public’s response to poor service delivery, corruption and governance failures. The Constitution protects citizens’ claims-making through a Bill of Rights and several institutions enable citizens to advance social claims. However, while claims-making is protected, individuals from marginalized groups, such as African non-nationals who experience anti-foreigner sentiment, may be deterred from raising their voice to claim rights for fear of facing political repercussions from societal actors and authorities. 

Since democracy was introduced in 1994, political parties, polarization and populism have continued to rise. The media is geared towards business and English-speaking middle-class groups, leaving poor, young and vernacular-speaking South Africans underrepresented. The private sector falls short of correcting inequalities, with management positions largely held by white and Indian men. Laws address the need for a fair and equal labour market, but progress to reflect national demographics in the ownership of publicly traded enterprises is inadequate. Despite this, civil society continues its legacy from South Africa’s apartheid era by challenging discrimination, corruption and abuses of power.  

Group-based Inequalities, Inter-group Relations and Belonging  

The South African Bill of Rights protects freedom of association, political party formation and free and fair elections. However, political mobilization still occurs on racial, ethnic and indigenous grounds, and women continue to face discrimination and GBV. Wealth inequality and poverty are both high and often disproportionately affect marginalized and rural communities. South African society also struggles with inclusivity. Although the country has 11 official languages, English dominates in public discourse, limiting full participation for non-English speakers.  

South Africa has high rates of violent crimes, particularly murder and rape, and ethnic tensions often lead to violence. Xenophobic violence against African migrants is prevalent and GBV is a major concern, with male homicide rates eight times the global rate. Additionally, public trust in institutions is declining due to corruption, poor public services and unequal treatment, with political leaders the least trusted. Intergroup trust is extremely low with over 60 percent of respondents noting that they have little to no trust for people from different ethnic groups. However, the majority of South Africans feel a strong sense of belonging to the country, with black Africans and coloured participants reporting the highest levels of belonging. 

A disjoint exists between policy and practice that negatively affects healthcare, education and basic services primarily in rural and poorer areas.

Monitor Takeaways 

The South African government has made significant progress in addressing apartheid’s legacy, but there are still deep-rooted issues of inequality and discrimination affecting the population. As the Monitor report identifies, the ‘Rainbow Nation’ still grapples with nuanced discourses of xenophobia and racism that both create exclusionary boundaries within its own population and outwardly toward communities who do not identify as South African. Anchored in a context of rising ethnic tensions and inter-group violence, the Monitor report identifies how South African society still operates with many structural inequities unsolved. 

Ethnic tensions, unequal economic opportunities and violence, particularly GBV, hinder progress toward pluralism. Legally, South Africa’s Constitution recognizes customary law and provides for redress from the country’s apartheid past but fails to meet reporting requirements for international agreements to address discrimination and exclusion. Additionally, efforts to develop stronger indigenous rights regarding traditional leadership saw the implementation of the Traditional and Khoi-Sans Leadership Act. However, this effort failed to create a decisive break from the past and resulted in a denial of citizenship rights, particularly for rural black and female individuals living under traditional councils.  

Beyond South Africa’s legal system, struggles with policy implementation, the media and the private sector perpetuate inequities that keep society divided politically, economically and ethnically. Despite the country’s positive policies that aim to enact systemic change, the country struggles with implementation that leads to the education and health care systems reflecting a ‘race gap’ in access to resources. South Africa’s Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of association, political participation and outlines state obligations to ensure access to public goods. Through regulating access, South Africa has witnessed an increase in women’s representation in the political space. Still, women, non-nationals and indigenous communities disproportionately experience violence and economic exclusions that contradict much of South Africa’s efforts at promoting greater societal inclusion. 

The media is geared towards English-speaking middle-class groups that results in many South Africans lacking access and representation in mainstream media services. The private sector is overwhelmed by similar struggles with representation that mimic South Africa’s underlying power structures. For instance, management positions are male dominated and racialized, often to the exclusion of those with intersecting identities of gender, race and sexuality.  

The Global Pluralism Monitor Barometer, supported by Afrobarometer, highlights the challenges of violence and safety in South Africa, with crime rates among the highest in the world. Ethnic tensions, xenophobia and GBV are major sources of violence, while public trust in institutions is declining due to corruption, poor public services and unequal treatment. Xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments are deeply entrenched in South African nationalism, with institutional racism and policies. Anti-immigrant sentiments are often a barrier to accessing justice for non-nationals. South Africans generally do not trust people from other ethnic groups, although education levels lead to greater intergroup trust. Inclusivity levels vary based on gender, education and race. Despite a strong sense of belonging to South Africa, marginalized indigenous communities lack ownership and African migrants face discrimination and protests. 


The Monitor’s recommendations reinforce what experts, activists and stakeholders have called for in South Africa and provide several pathways to pluralism for the country.

The recommendations centre around how government can improve the economic and social conditions of the identified diversity groups and thus the overall state of pluralism in South Africa. 

  • To enhance its prospects for pluralism, the South African government can continue to support and actively expand policies that improve gender and racial equalities. This includes recognizing and implementing economic measures and policies that encourage social inclusion and alleviate the inequality and poverty of coloured This also includes improving and making transparent data collection on socio-economic inequality.
  • South Africa can foster a culture of policy evaluation to promote the quality and use of these evaluations across the local government.
  • South Africa can implement sanctions against the lack of economic transformation in the private sector. The South African government and its relevant institutions need to rebalance the role of the private sector, so that it is not just seen as a capitalist investor and lender but also as an active participant in training and promoting Africans into management and executive levels of the private sector.
  • To further South Africa’s work to counteract harmful narratives and promote pluralism, the government can take action by launching public sanctions and condemning xenophobic and Afrophobic attacksand dis-/misinformation campaigns against migrant communities and by offering publicly accessible investigations into institutions that mismanage immigration. 
  • Public awareness campaigns could be launched to improve marginalized communities’ capacity and understanding of the laws and issues surrounding access to justice. It is increasingly necessary to support organizations working on justice, democracy and human rights and to bolster their participation in the construction of peace in South Africa.
  • The practical implementation of existing institutional frameworks and laws, including differentiated protection mechanisms for women, needs to be prioritized.
  • To strengthen indigenous rights, South Africa can offer more resources and make an even greater effort towards better representing indigenous communities and promoting their culture and concerns. This includes redefining inclusive citizenship to actively include and promote indigenous communities. It is equally important to ensure that indigenous communities are formally incorporated into both regional and national planning, so that these groups can articulate and implement their different needs, as is their constitutional right.

Associated Documents

South Africa: Country Profile

In straddling a path towards reconciliation and one of renewed racial violence, South Africa has struggled to fully reconcile with its past.

South Africa Monitor Report

Although making significant strides in reconciling with its apartheid past, South Africa’s struggles with inequality are coming to light.

South Africa: References

To access more information that supported the development of the South Africa report, you can access the references below.