South Africa is a vibrant country filled with people from all walks of life – however, as with other countries, it does have some social issues to cope with.

Many of today's issues have roots in South Africa's turbulent history, most notably the Apartheid era, which began in 1948 and ended in the early 1990s. Under the leadership of the Afrikaner-led National Party, the country passed a succession of discriminatory laws targeting non-white South Africans (including black, Indian and coloured South Africans, who made up around 80 percent of the population combined). After a long struggle for freedom, the first democratic elections were held in 1994 and the African National Congress was voted into power.

Though South Africa has been on the road to reconciliation for many years now, decades of discrimination is hard to undo and scars of the country's difficult past remain. In addition, inefficient governance and corruption issues are rife. Regardless, many South Africans are proud of the country's diversity, lovingly nicknaming South Africa 'the Rainbow Nation', and efforts toward a brighter future continue.

Below are a few facts and resources about diversity and inclusion in South Africa.

Accessibility in South Africa

South Africa’s Bill of Rights guarantees equality and non-discrimination to those with disabilities. This includes ensuring accessibility in the built environment and providing funding for areas that need improvement.

Although there are codes and regulations requiring all new buildings to adhere to a certain standard of accessibility, the language used is often vague, allowing loopholes and making it difficult to enforce these standards in practice.

Useful resources

Accessible South Africa
Disability Info SA
National Council of and for Persons with Disabilties

LGBTQ+ in South Africa

South Africa has been praised for having one of the most progressive and rights-focused constitutions in the world. In fact, in 1996, South Africa became the first country in the world to provide specific constitutional protection to its LGBTQ+ population by prohibiting unfair discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2006. South Africa was the sixth country in the world to recognise same-sex marriage, and remains the only African country to do so to this day.

Transgender individuals can legally change their sex in the population registry, thereafter receiving identity documents reflecting the change. To do so, the individual must have medical or surgical intervention, such as hormone-replacement therapy. Sex-reassignment surgery is, however, not required.

Although the law aims for equality for the LGBTQ+ population, changing social norms proves to be more difficult. Traditional gender roles are strongly held values in some parts of South Africa. Most large cities are actively LGBTQ+ friendly, however. Every year, Pride Parades are held throughout South Africa, including in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Soweto.

Useful resources

OUT LGBT Wellbeing
Triangle Project
Department of Justice – LGBTI FAQ

Gender equality in South Africa

Historically, gender equality in South Africa has been fairly low, but in recent years the country has begun to rise in measurements of gender equality such as parliamentary representation.

There remains a massive pay gap between men and women in South Africa, with men earning anywhere from 54 to 68 percent more than women in the same position with the same level of education.

Useful resources

Commission for Gender Equality
Sonke Gender Justice
Women's Empowerment Foundation for Southern Africa

Women in leadership in South Africa

Approximately 47 percent of parliamentary seats were held by women in South Africa in 2022. Before 1994, a mere 2.7 percent of parliament representatives were women. It’s clear that major leaps have been made for women in the political sphere, but other major issues remain.

Management positions, for example, are occupied by 5.8 percent of employed women, compared to 9.8 percent of employed men.

Statistics SA reports that, in the fourth quarter of 2021, 43.4 percent of employed South Africans were women. Men occupied 66.9 percent of managerial positions, with just 33.1 percent of managers being female. In the 2020 edition of Business Africa’s report on the state of gender on JSE-listed boards, findings indicate that, out of SA’s top 100 listed companies, only 26 percent of board seats are reserved for women.

Mental health awareness in South Africa

Mental health awareness in South Africa is limited. The government does little to raise awareness and understanding of mental health issues. Moreover, public psychiatric services are underfunded. There are numerous excellent private practitioners, but they are prohibitively expensive for the average South African. Health insurance is vital to access these services. 

In a 2021 poll by UNICEF South Africa, 65 percent of young people surveyed stated that they had mental health problems. Roughly 20 percent did not know where to get help, and 18 percent said they were afraid of how they would be perceived.

There are a number of non-profit organisations working hard to raise awareness and provide resources. The most prominent of these is the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), which runs a toll-free helpline manned by trained volunteer counsellors. This includes a 24-hour suicide hotline.

SADAG volunteers can provide callers with immediate support as well as referrals to important resources, including SADAG-run support groups and free or low-cost therapy. For callers with access to medical aid or other funding, they can also recommend private practitioners.

Useful resources

South African Depression and Anxiety Group

Unconscious bias training in South Africa

Human beings are shaped by their social surroundings, and everyone holds unconscious biases to some degree. Unconscious biases can be influenced by family, friends, school, work and other group settings where a strong sense of identity is formed.

To start the process of unlearning these assumptions, self-awareness is a key tool, as is understanding the nature of bias. Identifying biased thoughts and making a conscious decision to behave differently is one important strategy. Interacting with those outside one’s social group is also helpful, as is partaking in unconscious bias training.

Many businesses offer unconscious bias training for their employees to curb the damage that unconscious biases can do, such as creating conflict in the workplace, negatively affecting the company’s reputation and limiting employee retention.

In South Africa, unconscious bias based on race is a big problem. Older people in SA society, such as those who lived through Apartheid’s active years, often carry unconscious biases based on race because of things they witnessed or experienced during that time. Many young South Africans have family members, such as parents or grandparents, who hold outdated views.

Unconscious bias training is, therefore, particularly important in South Africa. Individuals may receive training at work, but if not, there are numerous resources that can be used to challenge one’s own views.

Useful resources

Project Implicit 
Unconscious Bias Training

Diversification in the workplace in South Africa

A diverse workplace is one in which employees have a collective mixture of similarities and differences. This can include aspects such as age, sexual orientation, language, race and ethnicity, gender and gender identity, religious beliefs, physical abilities and disabilities, and socio-economic status.

Studies have shown a correlation between workplace diversity and employee wellbeing, as workers feel valued and comfortable to be themselves. This leads to innovation and better decision-making, as everyone’s voice is heard.

In South Africa, companies are incentivised, and in some cases required, to diversify their workforce in terms of race under the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) system. The system was introduced in 2003 as an effort to compensate black workers for previous injustices endured under the Apartheid government.

B-BBEE regulations mostly affect state-owned and government entities, as well as large corporate companies, which are legally required to comply with B-BBEE. This is not the case with small to medium privately owned businesses, for which compliance is optional.

However, in practice, not being B-BBEE certified limits opportunities for company growth as B-BBEE-compliant businesses only do business with other B-BBEE-compliant businesses.

Useful resources

Department of Trade, Industry and Competition – Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment

Safety in South Africa

South Africa has a high crime rate, with theft being particularly prevalent – specifically home robberies, muggings, hijackings and petty theft. This need not affect a person’s experience of the country; however, certain precautions should be taken to reduce the chance of becoming a victim.

Residents should invest in home security, with 24/7 monitoring, keep homes and cars locked at all times, not walk alone late at night, keep valuables out of sight, and always stay aware of their surroundings. When driving, keep to the main roads and park in well-lit areas. Some places are safer than others, and it’s important to find out which areas to avoid.

Calendar initiatives in South Africa

  • 4 February – World Cancer Day
  • March – Human Rights Month (including Human Rights Day public holiday on 21 March)
  • March – TB Awareness Month
  • 19 May – Global Accessibility Awareness Day
  • 18 July – Mandela Day
  • August – Women’s Month (including Women’s Day public holiday on Aug 16)
  • 10 September – World Suicide Prevention Day
  • October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month
  • 8 October –World Mental Health Day
  • 14 November – World Diabetes Day
  • 25 November to 10 December – 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children
  • 1 December – World AIDS Day

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