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Human Rights Law

Human Rights Legislation

Human rights are legislatively protected by:

A. the Bill of Rights, which is contained in Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 1996. The Constitution is available on:

  • The South African Government's website (open access) - current consolidation incorporating all amendments to date. Note that there is no official version of the Constitution as amended. This webpage also includes links to:

    • Printable version of the Constitution including amendments up to the 17th Amendment
    • Printable version of the original and official gazetted Constitution excluding all amendments
    • Constitution in all official languages

B. The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (Act 4 Of 2000). The Act is available on SAFLII:

  • current version, incorporating all amendments to date

Human Rights Monitoring Bodies

Section 181 of the Constitution is entitled 'State Institutions Supporting Constitutional Democracy', and establishes a number of independent bodies to help enforce human rights.

The South African Human Rights Commission monitors human rights, as provided for by s 184 of the Constitution. The Commission handles and resolves complaints of human rights violations. It can refer complaints to the courts. The courts can also judicially review the Commission's decisions.

  • Human Rights Commission Investigative Reports

The Public Protector is South Africa's version of the Ombudsman. Its functions are contained in s 184 of the Constitution. The Public Protector protects citizens from administrative excess, government maladministration and abuse of power. The Public Protector can investigate complaints against state organs or officials and recommend corrective action. 

The functions of the Commission for Gender 
Equality are provided for by s 187 of the Constitution. Its function is to promote gender equality and to advise and make recommendations to Parliament on any laws that affect the status of women.

The objects of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities are contained in s 185 of the Constitution. 

South African Courts

The South African courts are:

  • The Constitutional Court;
  • the Supreme Court of Appeal;
  • the High Courts;
  • the Magistrates' Courts (decisions of these courts are not reported);
  • Specialist Courts that operate at the level of the High Court. These are:
    • Special Income Tax Courts
    • Labour Courts and Labour Appeal Courts
    • Family Courts
    • Land Claims Courts; and
  • Military Courts

The Constitutional Court is South Africa's highest court on constitutional matters. Its jurisdiction is therefore restricted to constitutional matters. It was established in 1994 and heard its first case in 1995. More information about the role and functions of the Constitutional Court are available on its website.

The Supreme Court of Appeal is the highest court in respect of all other matters.  More information on the Supreme Court of Appeal, including judgments, can be accessed on the court's website.


Finding South African Human Rights Cases

All courts in South Africa must apply the Constitution (s 165 of the Constitution) and 'promote the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights' (s 39(2) of the Bill of Rights). So human rights matters may be heard in most South African courts.

Open Access Unreported Decisions

Decisions of all South African Superior Courts and some specialist courts are available as unreported judgments on SAFLII. The decisions of individual courts can be browsed by year or searched by eg: casename, legislation or keywords. The search database can also be used to search all South African courts simultaneously.  

Each decision in SAFLII provides a 'noteup' function to look at cases citing your case. Each decision also provides links to LawCite citations, so you can see cases around the world that cite your case.

SAFLII includes citations to the decisions in law reports. The titles of the report series are abbreviated. To find the full title so you can check the catalogue for holdings, use the Law Library's Legal Abbreviations webpage.

Law Reports held by the Law Library

Selected decisions from the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court of Appeal and High Courts are reported in the South African Law Reports. Vol 1 1947 to current are held in print only - on Level 4 of the Law Library.

Butterworths Human Rights Cases (on LexisNexis Advance, vol 1 1996 to current (UniMelb staff and student access) contains landmark and interesting cases from the Constitutional Court of South Africa that make a significant contribution to the way in which a particular right or freedom is interpreted or applied. This database can be browsed by year or searched.

Butterworths South African Constitutional Law Reports (on LexisNexis Advance, 1991 to current (UniMelb staff and student access)) provides selected decisions from the Supreme Court of Appeal and Constitutional Court pertaining to the interpretation of the South African Constitution. SACLR is available online on  Also included are key constitutional law decisions from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. Most decisions are in English, but a significant number are in Afrikaans. Each case has an extensive summary provided in English. This database can only be searched - there is no table of contents by year.

Latest cases from the Constitutional Court

History of the Constitution & Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court website provides a useful brief historical timeline of the Constitution and information on writing the final Constitution. The website also contains an outline of the history of the Constitutional Court.

UN Treaties - South Africa's ratification status and reservations

Check South Africa's ratification status and reservations of the core human rights treaties in the UN Treaty Collection Status of Treaties database.

See the ratification status of 18 human rights treaties at a glance on the OHCHR's Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard.

Monitoring South Africa's Compliance with international human rights obligations - National, UN & Civil Society Reports

South African Reports 

The South African Human Rights Commission reports in its Annual International Reports on South Africa’s compliance with each of the core human rights treaties during the period under review, in terms of policy, noteworthy legal cases, and social and political developments. These reports also consider South Africa's national human rights obligations as a member of the African Union (AU).


Reports to and by the UN

UN Treaty Body Reports

South Africa is required to submit periodic reports to the UN on its implementation of and compliance with each of the seven core UN human rights treaties it has ratified. South Africa's Reports to the United Nations can be found on the UN Ratification, Reporting & Documentation website  - contains the UK's reports, UN Committee observations, comments, conclusions and recommendations, and NHRI and Civil Society submissions and shadow reports.


Universal Periodic Review

The UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States, undertaken by the UN Human Rights CouncilIt involves review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. Review under the UPR does not depend on a country being a party to a particular human rights treaty. South African Reports can be viewed on the Documents database. 

The UN South African Country Report includes information on the latest Universal Periodic Review, and the status of the country in relation to UN Charter based bodies and Treaty bodies.

The UN Universal Human Rights Index provides access to country-specific human rights information emanating from international human rights mechanisms in the United Nations system: the Treaty Bodies, the Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).


Civil Society Reports 

Amnesty International Annual Country Reports

  • See the latest report for South Africa

Human Rights Watch annual  World Reports 

Freedom House's Freedom in the World - an annual study of political rights and civil liberties.

  • see the latest report on South Africa


US Department of State Reports

US Department of State annual Human Rights Reports 

  • See the latest report on South Africa

Human Rights ranking in the Rule of Law Index

In the latest Rule of Law Index from the World Justice Project, South Africa ranked 44th out of 102 countries for its adherence to protection of fundamental human rights. See the South African statistics on the Rule of Law website. 

The factors taken into account in assessing South Africa's human rights rank are those established under the Universal Declaration:

  • effective enforcement of laws that ensure equal protection; 
  • the right to life and security of the person;
  • due process of law and the rights of the accused;
  • freedom of opinion and expression;
  • freedom of belief and religion;
  • the right to privacy;
  • freedom of assembly and association; and
  • fundamental labor rights, including the right to collective bargaining, the prohibition of forced and child labor, and the elimination of discrimination.  

See the full Rule of Law Index for all countries here.

African Regional Instruments binding on South Africa

See  South Africa's ratification status of all binding regional human rights legal instruments. See the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights resources page for information on the regional binding instruments.

South Africa's Compliance with its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights

South Africa has ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The Charter requires states to submit two types of report: an Initial Report is required to be submitted two years after ratification or accession to the Charter, and a Periodic Report is required to be submitted every two years after the initial report. Statistics and State Reports are available on the Commission's State Reporting web page. All South Africa's reports are on the South African page.