The rule of law in Africa

The below report has been compiled using the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index 2021.

For this Africa Day, the Law Society of South Africa thought it would be the opportune time to summarise the information contained in the WJP Rule of Law Index 2021 and highlight the numbers from the index that pertain to Africa and South Africa (SA). The WJP Rule of Law Index 2021 is the latest report in an annual series that measures the rule of law based on the experiences and perceptions of the public, the legal practitioners of that country and experts worldwide.

The rule of law is an integral part of ensuring that countries are governed well and also ensures that the citizens of that country trust that the justice system works. Strengthening the rule of law is a major goal of citizens, governments, donors, businesses, and civil society organisations around the world. The WJP Rule of Law Index 2021 presents a portrait of the rule of law in 139 countries and jurisdictions by providing scores and rankings based on eight factors –

  • constraints on government powers;
  • absence of corruption;
  • open government;
  • fundamental rights;
  • order and security;
  • regulatory enforcement;
  • civil justice; and
  • criminal justice.

To derive at the scores and rankings in the WJP Rule of Law Index 2021, more than 138 000 households were surveyed, including 4 200 legal practitioners and experts worldwide. The index is the world’s most comprehensive dataset of its kind and the only one to rely principally on primary data, including the perspectives and experiences of ordinary people. The aim of the index is to help identify strengths and weaknesses within each country or jurisdiction, and encourage policy choices, guide programme development, and inform research to strengthen the rule of law within and across these countries and jurisdictions.

The overall ranking of SA is 52 out of 139 countries, while the county’s overall score is 0,58 out of a possible 1. Below are tables that represent the ranking of African countries within their region.

The constraints on government powers factor measure the extent to which those who are in government are bound by law. It includes the means, both constitutional and institutional, by which the powers of the government and its officials and agents are limited and held accountable under the law. This also includes non-governmental checks on the government’s power, such as a free and independent press. In terms of the constrains on government powers factor, SA is ranked at number 40 out of 139 countries and has a score of 0,63 out of a possible 1.

The second factor measures the absence of corruption in government. This factor considers three forms of corruption, which include bribery, improper influence by public or private interests, and misappropriation of public funds or other resources. These three forms of corruption are examined with respect to government officers in the executive branch, the judiciary, the military, police, and the legislature. South Africa is ranked at number 65 out of 139 countries under this factor and has scored 0,48 out of a possible 1.

Factor four recognises that a system of positive law that fails to respect core human rights established under international law is at best ‘rule by law’ and does not deserve to be called a rule of law system. Since there are many other indicators that address human rights, and because it would be impossible for the index to assess adherence to the full range of rights, this factor focuses on a relatively modest menu of rights that are firmly established under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are most closely related to rule of law concerns. South Africa ranks at number 45 under this factor and scored 0,64 out of a possible 1.


Factor five measures how well a society ensures the security of persons and property. Security is one of the defining aspects of any rule of law in society and is a fundamental function of a state. It is also a precondition for the realisation of the rights and freedoms that the rule of law seeks to advance. Under this factor, SA is ranked at number 118 out of 139 countries and scored 0,61 out of 1.

Factor seven measures whether ordinary people can resolve their grievances peacefully and effectively through the civil justice system. It measures whether civil justice systems are accessible and affordable, as well as free of discrimination, corruption, and improper influence by public officials. It examines whether court proceedings are conducted without unreasonable delays and whether decisions are enforced effectively. It also measures the accessibility, impartiality, and effectiveness of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. South Africa ranks at number 47 out of 139 countries and scored 0,61 out 1.

Factor eight evaluates a country’s criminal justice system. An effective criminal justice system is a key aspect of the rule of law, as it constitutes the conventional mechanism to redress grievances and bring action against individuals for offenses against society. An assessment of the delivery of criminal justice should take into consideration the entire system, including the police, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and prison officers. South Africa ranks at number 53 out of 139 countries and scored 0,52 out of 1.

South Africa’s Constitution is hailed as one of the best the world over. It is unfortunate that, according to the WJP Rule of Law Index 2021, this best Constitution does not translate to SA having the best statistics when it comes to the rule of law.