Contributor(s)Derrick Thulani & Sasha Gear (Just Detention International)

Physical integrity

The death penalty was abolished in 1995 during peacetime and in 1997 during wartime.

The last execution dates back to 1989.

There is provision in the Criminal Code1 for life imprisonment. The sentence is mandatory for:

  • Premeditated murder
  • Gang rape
  • Serial rape
  • When the perpetrators of rape knew they were HIV positive
  • If the victim of rape is younger than 18, and/or mentally disabled

According to the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services Annual Report 2015-2016, around 8.8% of sentences inmates were in prison for life sentences as of 2016 (11% as of March 20152). There has been a huge increase of prisoners serving long-term of life sentences since the beginning of 2000s.

Minors may be subjected to a life sentence, including life sentence without parole.

Parole is generally granted to prisoners that have served the minimum period of the life sentence. Parole hearings may be requested after a ten, fifteen or twenty-five-year period. Life term inmates can also invoke compelling circumstances as motive for a parole hearing. Yet, important delays for parole applications have been pointed out by NGOs.

  1. Amendment Act of 1997. 

  2. Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, Annual Report 2014/2015, p.46. 

Deaths from natural causes in detention are not subject to detailed statistics, but deaths from unnatural causes are.

According to the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) annual report 2016/2017, 52 were unnatural death (62 as for 2015/2016) were reported; including 24 suicides (25 as for 2015/2016)1.

Inmates showing risks of attempting suicide should be placed under a 24-hour monitoring. World-renowned athlete Oscar Pistorius was subjected to this measure in 2016. However, for regular prisoners, only those who have already attempted suicide are placed under special watch.

The British private prison operator G4S, who runs Mangaung prison, has been accused of covering cases of death from torture as either having been from natural causes or by suicide. The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) has admitted being aware that G4S’ record keeping of deaths in custody is not up to standards and that it might be covering up deaths from torture. The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) pointed out, in its 2014 report, that G4S did not follow operating procedures that are in place for suicides.

Tuberculosis (TB) and HIV/Aids have been common causes of death in the South-African prisons (see the section “Health”).

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) has implemented an extensive programme to fight both TB and HIV/Aids. According to its annual report 2016/2017, it “achieved a TB cure rate of 83% (1 034 / 1 250)” and “98% (24 506 / 25 042) of [HIV and Aids infected] inmates on Antiretroviral Therapy2.

  1. Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, Annual Report 2015/2016, pp. 69-71. 

  2. According to its annual report 2015/2016, it “achieved a TB cure rate of 83.43% (1,239/ 1,485)” and “98% (21,722/22,142) of HIV and Aids infected inmates are on Anti-Retroviral Therapy”. 

Number of deaths


/ Unnatural deaths - Department of Correctional Services

Number of deaths attributed to suicide


/ Department of Correctional Services

The Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act 13 of 2013 typified torture as a specific crime. Acts of torture were prosecuted as assault cases before. This bill is yet to be properly implemented; there has been no completed prosecution for torture as of 2016.

There is a lack of effective prevention. Officials are not trained on the absolute prohibition of torture.

Violence by police force:

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID)1 recorded 173 cases of torture between 2016 and 2017.

An overall increase of 19% was noted in comparison with 2015/2016 (145 cases of torture).

During the 2016/2017 period, it also registered:

  • 302 deaths in police custody (216 during 2015/2016)
  • 3,827 cases of assault (3,509 during 2015/2016)
  • 112 cases of rape by a police officer (the same during 2015/2016)
  • 20 cases of rape in police custody (23 during 2015/2016) The great majority of the cases involve the South African Police Services (SAPS).

During the 2016/2017, no police officers were prosecuted for allegations of torture dating back to previous years. There were nine disciplinary convictions for torture during that period2.

Violence by prison staff:

Prison authorities do not conduct a thorough assessment and follow-up of inmates upon arrival or while in prison. This contributes to a higher number of violent incidents and poor health among the prison population. In 2016, the Committee Against Torture (CAT) expressed concern over the number of cases of torture in South African prisons. At least 15 complaints of torture inside prison were reported during 2015/20163.

In 2015, a warrant officer from Ladybrand South African Police Service (SAPS) was convicted for assaulting a disabled inmate with a Sjambok (a short whip) over his entire body. He was suspended for five years and had to pay 5,000 Rands (319 €) or serve a thirty-six months sentence in prison4.

In the Johannesburg remand facilities, a few officers admitted using illegal force and beating up inmates transgressing the rules with the aim of disciplining them: “And to be honest, when maybe you get a case of rape or something, we somehow threaten them by assaulting the perpetrator in front of everyone though we know that we are not supposed to assault this inmate. But we do, just to show how we don’t like this thing to happen5.

The Wits Justice Project revealed, in a report published in 2013, that prison workers from the Mangaung Correctional Centre, run by G4S, illegally administrated anti-psychotic drugs to a patient. The story received important media coverage after a video of the scene leaked on the internet, causing general indignation. A group of 43 prisoners filed complaints against G4S for abuse. The company has denied allegations of torture, including electrocuting inmates. A former G4S employee said the prison staff had to revert to electric shields to control the prison population because dangerous prisoners outnumbered them. According to The Telegraph, “despite evidence of non-compliance over the use of force, the obligation not to torture, the correct handling of deaths in custody and many other transgressions, G4S was handed back control of the prison a year ago.”

Violence between inmates:

Gang culture is very present in South Africa and therefore reflects in its prisons. Sexual abuse is a common phenomenon and it is linked to overcrowding rates and understaffing. According to a non profit organization Just Detention, “During “lock-up” hours, which last from the afternoon to the next morning, people are put in communal cells with minimal staff supervision, leaving vulnerable prisoners at the mercy of gangs. During this time, a single officer is in charge of entire sections of a prison, with limited access to cells — even in emergencies.

Male inmates separate themselves into what they call “men” and “women”. The latter are men who do not demonstrate violence. They are forced to engage in sexual relations with gang members and to provide domestic work for them.

  1. However, national institutions that monitor detention facilities lack independence and transparency. Their powers and finances are limited. For example, the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) is not independent from the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). It can only make non-binding recommendations. The IPID investigates misconducts. It is also not fully independent, as the Minister of Police may suspend the head of the IPID, as it happened in March 2015. 

  2. Independent Police Investigative Directorate, Annual Report 2016/2017 

  3. Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, Annual Report 2015/2016, p.82. 

  4. Thematic report on criminal justice and human rights in South Africa, a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in response to the Initial Report by South Africa under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the 116th session of the Human Rights Committee (Geneva, March 2016). 

  5. Just Detention International - South Africa, Sasha Gear, “In Their Boots: Staff Perspectives Behind Bars in Johannesburg”, January 2015, p.98. 

On 31 March 2017, 1,615 remand prisoners (4% of the prison population) were detained for longer than the maximum legal time, which is two years.

Half of the prisoners in remand are held for three months or longer, and one third for three to twelve months1.

In 2016, a women in her mid-30s had waited nearly three years for her trial to be completed.

  1. Thematic report on criminal justice and human rights in South Africa, a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in response to the Initial Report by South Africa under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the 116th session of the Human Rights Committee (Geneva, March 2016).