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Iran and South Africa: A Comparative Study

December 6, 2013
ByMehrangiz Kar
38 min read
Iran and South Africa: A Comparative Study
Iran and South Africa: A Comparative Study


Iran and South Africa: A Comparative Study


I would like to thank Cape Town University’s Department of Law in South Africa for granting me the Eric Abraham Academic Visitor opportunity on recommendations of Scholars at Risk Organization and extend that gratitude to all who so hospitably made my comfort possible in the All Africa House.


From March till June 2010, I was given the opportunity to be the Eric Abraham Academic Visitor at Cape Town University’s Department of Law in South Africa. When I applied for this fellowship, it appeared to me that the situation of South Africa at the time of its peaceful transition from apartheid was similar to the current and future situation of Iran. Therefore, one can take South Africa’s examples and employ it in the case of Iran to achieve a peaceful movement and transition from this discriminatory regime into a political system based on equality. However, after a few days of time spent in South Africa, I quickly realized that although there are similarities between the two countries, but the differences are far too many. Current day Iran is vastly different from South Africa at the time of its peaceful transition from apartheid. Two months of presence as a fellow in a university that in effect turns a person into an academic tourist cannot provide for a precise and thorough research and investigation. However, these two short months helped me think in more dept and extent about the similarities and differences between these two societies. I am slowly making my findings and understanding from South Africa’s transition available to the Iranians in Persian. Consequently, I have decided to hand over the most important similarities and differences that I understood to exist within the political existence of these two societies to my hosts and the University of Cape Town and the Public Law School of that university as a way of thanking them for having given me this opportunity.

As a guest scholar at Cape Town University, I have been studying South Africa’s peaceful transition from Apartheid rule to a democratic constitution with much curiosity. My generation grew up in Iran with the daily news of their struggles against Apartheid. From far away, we followed how Nelson Mandela urged and led the nation towards reconciliation non-violently. We have loved him for his vision and gained much inspiration from his actions.

Iranian youth of today, through the window of the internet, still look upon the South African model with much admiration and are eager to learn from it. One may wonder why we should make such comparisons and whether the Iranian regime is a form of Apartheid. The answer is yes. For the past 31 years, Iranians have been facing a form of Apartheid and have struggled to bring it to the negotiation table through peaceful means. They have not given up and continue to pursue this path.

In what follows I explore a number major similarities and differences that I find between the South African Apartheid narrative and the turmoil’s of today’s Iran:

Similarities Between the South African and the Iranian Contexts

Apartheid is a form of laws and regulations that discriminate between citizens based on their race, creed, religious or political beliefs, or gender. It does not view all humans, the creations of God, on similar and equal footing. This view of governance is currently ruling over Iran and the Police are empowered to repress and punish the system’s critics with utmost brutality.

Iran’s social realities do not conform to this system of Apartheid. Iran’s high rates of literacy, university education, and presence of women in institutes of higher education have resulted in many social, cultural, and scientific achievements and cannot accept the prevailing forms of Apartheid. These contradictions have created grave political and economic crises which the government is containing with every conceivable use of police and militia forces, to pretend no crisis exists. The Iranian Judiciary has lost all semblances of independence and impartiality and is another tool in service of full repression. Naturally, when a society undergoes such social changes, it will react to this kind of discriminatory governments. From the beginning of the revolution, the Iranian society had expressed both its non-violent and violent reactions to the government’s policies. However, the peaceful demonstration of the Iranian people after the contested June 12, 2009 election brought Iran one step closer to obtain certain characteristics possessed by South Africa during its transition from Apartheid to democracy.

The political situation of Iran today is similar to that of South Africa in the late 1980’s. This is because at that time there was a significant increase in the rate of governmental violence by the Apartheid government against those who opposed Apartheid. Also, slowly but surely, the government ruled by the white minority realized that the increase in violence cannot guarantee the government’s stability largely due to the inability of the government to curtail the protests through violent means. Furthermore, the South African exiles who had fled the country to avoid persecution started to negotiate with European Governments to put an end to Apartheid in South Africa. In Iran, various forms of dissent have been expressed since the beginning of the revolution in 1979. The protest of a certain group of people to the discriminatory regime persisted throughout the many reincarnations of the Iranian Islamic government has metamorphosis within the last 30 years. Even still, immediately after the contested June 12, 2009 election, protesting of the discriminatory regime and election rigging was expressed in a wide scale. In these demonstrations, large numbers of Iranian people gathered in the streets in absolute silence to express their protest to the election results. People from all walks of life risked their lives and participated in the protests, facing the iron fist of the Iranian government. Punishments such as beating of the protesters, arrest and relocation of the protestors to official and unofficial detention centers, torture of protestors that led to the death of some, executions, televised mass show trials of those alleged to have concocted the mass oppositions to benefit the foreign countries, extraction of forced confessions from the protestors under duress and torture, sentencing of the protestors to long term imprisonment, social depravation of the accused, and in some cases rape and abuse of the prisoners is a collection of the extremely violent behavior of the discriminatory government in Iran post the mass peaceful demonstrations. Therefore, to the extent that can be construed, today’s Iran is comparable to South Africa’s political situation between 1986 and1988. Presently, the Iranian government does not even tolerate peaceful demonstrations of the people. This similarity brings Iran closer to the situation of South Africa before release of Nelson Mandela from prison.

Watching the documentaries from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Bishop Desmond Tutu in the library of Cape Town University, I watched as the family members of those mistreated by the police witnessed scenes of police brutality towards their loved ones. The family members were beside themselves with grief and sadness as they watched these scenes with white anti-Apartheid activists crying hand in hand with them. This reminded me of my own feelings when I watch my countrymen brutalized by the Iranian police during the post election unrest. The bittersweet moments that eventually reconciled South Africa are powerful reminders for Iranians that perhaps we can do this too. We are inspired by their philosophy of peaceful reconciliation.

Prior to exploring the differences between the Iranian and South African quest for social and political justice, it is important to at least briefly review some of the current legal, social and political discriminations that go on in today’s Iran:

Examples of Legal Discriminations

Gender Discrimination

Islamic Dress Code – Hijab

For women in Iran, choice of clothing is regulated. All women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are required to wear the hijab. The penalty for those who do not comply is imprisonment or considerable fine. The moral police cause problems for women who wear any form of makeup or show any of their hair. From the beginning of the revolution, this policy expanded to include people who wore bright and vibrant colored outfits instead of black, grey, navy blue and dark brown or other accepted dark colors. The universities refused to allow entry to female students who wore sunglasses or wore bright colored pants. In the past winter, the morals police cracked down on women who wore boots over, rather than under, their pants.

Rights of Love

The application of shari’a makes it possible for the government to control the private sphere of citizen’s lives, and their personal interactions. Currently the age at which a girl can be legally wedded is 13. A woman must marry with her father’s, grandfather’s, or court’s permission. Otherwise, the court has the right to nullify her marriage regardless of her age. Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men. A man is granted the right to divorce his wife any time he so chooses but a woman does not enjoy the same right. Men also have the right to have up to four wives permanently and as many as he wants temporarily. Women are duty bound by law to always meet the sexual needs of their husbands. Free sexual relationship is a crime punishable by lashing and even death. Homosexual acts are punishable by lashing and execution. Socialization of the sexes, even in cases where no sexual relations takes place, is a “taboo act” and punishable by lashing.

Family Law

Currently in Iran, the age of maturity for girls is 9 years and for boys 15 years old. For marriage, a girl must be 13, and a boy 15. If they are younger, marriage is contingent upon the approval of their guardians (vali). The Iranian census reports that the average age of the girls at the time of marriage to be 24 and older. Hence, the law and society are not on the same level. The husband is designated the head of the household by law. A woman is legally obliged to be obedient to her husband. She cannot leave the country without her husband’s permission. A man may take more than one wife. A man may prohibit his wife from employment. In cases of divorce, the legal custody of the child is with the mother up to the age of seven, and thereafter is determined by the court. The management and supervision of the affairs of children below the age of 18 is by their father or paternal grandfather, and the mother has no legal say in the matter. Should the father pass away, the guardianship lies with the paternal grandfather, not with the mother. A daughter’s inheritance is only half that of a son’s. Women will never get more than a quarter of the husband’s assets whereas the man can inherit all of the wife’s assets. Departure from the country for children below the age of 18 is possible only with the approval of the father or the paternal grandfather—the mother has no legal say in the matter. Citizenship of the children is that of the child’s father.

Criminal Law

In the case of a murder, the blood money of a Muslim woman is half that of the Muslim man. In a similar case, the blood money of a non-Muslim woman is also half that of the non-Muslim man. In such cases, if the family of the murdered woman insists on qisas (retribution), then they are obliged to pay half of the blood money to either the murderer or his family. In most cases, the testimony of women is not sufficient in a court of law. In some cases, the testimony of two women is the same as that of one man. Most of the time, the fine (diyah) for a woman’s lost limb is half that of a man. Women are tried as adults after the age of 9, whereas men are tried as adults once they reach the age of 15. When a father or paternal grandfather murders his child or grandchild, the perpetrator does not face the death penalty and may be asked to pay only blood money, which may be waived by the court all together. However, if a mother kills her children, and is proven guilty, then she will be subject to the law and punished accordingly, which means she will get the death penalty.

Discrimination in Employment
Officers of the Court

Women cannot serve as judges issuing the final verdict on a legal matter. Women were completely removed from judicial bodies as officers of the court for many years following the Islamic Revolution but were later granted proper judicial standing and the right to serve as counselors, yet still not the right to issue and sign final verdicts.

Governance Positions

Women cannot become president. While the higher positions are supposedly gender neutral, the fundamental law (constitution) requires one to be an Islamic jurist or source of emulation (Marja’), so in practice, women cannot participate in top-level political governance. However, according to articles in chapter six of the Iranian constitution, women are not prevented from nominating themselves to become members of parliament or entering parliament through elections.

Examples of Religious Discrimination

Article 12, 13, and 14 of the Constitution give the followers of the recognized religious minorities—Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism—the right to practice their religious and also apply their religious rules to that personal lives. Consequently, other religions do not have similar rights.

Article 12 states “The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja’fari school, and this principle will remain eternally immutable.  Other Islamic schools are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites.  These schools enjoy official status in matters pertaining to religious education, affairs of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and wills) and related litigation in courts of law.  In regions of the country where Muslims following any one of these schools constitute the majority, local regulations, within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils, are to be in accordance with the respective school, without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.”

Article 13 states, “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”

According to article 14, “the government of IRI and all Muslims are obliged to treat non-Muslim individuals with kindness and Islamic justice and equality and uphold their rights, this article applies to those who do not conspire or act against Islam or the Islamic Republic.”

Article 23 of the Constitution specifies that the followers of other religions and creeds enjoy freedom of opinion. It also prohibits inquisition and prescribes that no one can be prosecuted or persecuted merely for holding an opinion. At the same time, the Constitution fails to ensure the right of advocating their faiths or holding religious rituals in public for religious minorities.

Discrimination Based on Belief and Ideology

Article 500 of the Islamic penal code allows the officials to imprison critics of the official policies of the Islamic republic for up to a year. The reason for this is that any form of criticism, even the verbal form, is considered to be Propaganda against the Islamic Republic and therefore, no opposing view is tolerated in this regime. Everyone is forced to tolerate this regime lest they will be punished for their impudence.

Other Violations

Lack of Freedom of expression

Until 1988, there was no specific law on censorship of books and hence, there was no clear guideline of what was allowable for publication and what was not. It was due to this legal vacuum and the inability of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to take control of the situation that the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution had to stepped in. Responsible for compiling and composing all cultural policies of the regime, the council made a few rulings that turned censorship into effective institution. These rulings were announced to publishers and to this day they validate the policy of censorship. However, depending on which political persuasion has more power in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, these rulings are modified. During Mohammad Khatami’s rule, from 1997, without any major changes to the procedures of book censorship, the act of censorship was in effect modified. Eventually, the book censor was able to eliminate portions of books based on personal preferences that were based upon the Council’s rulings, thereby marking up the text and ordering the publisher or author to “eliminate these portions.”

The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution is an institution that was not foreseen in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Constitution and was created by order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Council does not have legislative power but in reality it does legislate. It was attributed a supervisory role in policy making decisions, but this role became a legislative one.

The most important work of the Council has focused on the areas of women’s rights, publishing, and artistic creation. In these realms, the Council has imposed constraints in the name of Islamic and Revolutionary culture. The rulings of the Council have centered on women’s employment, the veiling of women, and absolutist police control over carrying out the policies of modest attire rather than policies that deal with freedom in the work place and choice in attire. Moreover, the Council has imposed strict censorship and guidelines for publishing in post-revolutionary Iran.

However, regardless of the preservation of the methods of censorship, reformist censors would apply executive veto power that allowed some banned books and those of uncertain fates to be published. It was as a result of this executive veto power of censors that the cultural environment of the country in the areas of publishing, cinema, and other arts experienced some improvement. It is this same improvement that caused the various reactions of hard liners. During the same period, hard line groups linked to radical centers of power, which were called pressure groups, would threaten the security of writers, publishers, book stores, and printing houses, and would eventually start the process of framing the more relaxed censors in order to eliminate them from their posts.

Ultimately, the deed was done and the hard liners were victorious under the banner of Ahmadinejad’s government. The rulings of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution enforce repression, and that which once tended towards moderation turned instead towards escalation, leaving no room for creativity and literary inventiveness or theoretical debates.

What is clear is that from a legal perspective, the existence of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council rulings, such as the implementation of the policy of banning books and censorship before or after publication, is illegal and in Iran no special law has been ratified by parliament regarding censorship or the banning of books. The rulings of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council have no legal authority, and essentially, the existence of an office specifically for books in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, to which the publisher and author are required to deliver a manuscript before publication or typesetting or page layout, is illegal. Because of the ascendancy of an administration that is not even accountable to its own laws and rulings, the crisis of censorship coincides with a time in Iran’s history when society increasingly demands free speech in a variety of fields such as domestic politics, foreign policy, women’s rights, rights of the accused, social detriment, and economic incompetence, and which will eventually lead to the collapse of the values that are so fervently preserved and protected by hard liners.

Interference of the Government in Citizens’ Private Lives

Mixing of the sexes and private parties are disrupted by the police. If the government so chooses, even the citizen’s private bedrooms are not off limit. This is very similar to South Africa. Whites and non-white could not be in love or marry and non-whites could not be moved to white’s neighborhood which were methods in which the government interfered in citizen’s private lives.

Police Brutality

Life in Iran has become increasingly more controlled by the law enforcement forces. The police controls people’s clothing, their public and private activities and engagements in private and public domains. There are many different kind of police and each have a specific job, moral police, plainclothes, basij, and other kinds. In effect, the police promotes and protects violence and discrimination and is not the protector of people’s lives and interests. The law enforcement authorities has given the police the duty to crush all NGOs and civil society organizations that work in the fields of human rights and women’s right and democracy. These activists are continuously arrested and the civil organizations related to these topics are destroyed. The discriminatory government of Iran crushed labor, student and women’s movement in Iran just as pre transition South African government did.

Prison Conditions and the Lack of Respect for Political and Human Rights Prisoners

The forbiddance of the seizure of information and confessions under physical and mental pressure is discussed in the laws of the Islamic Republic of 1ran (For further explanation of legal limitations on torture, please find Article 38 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the appendix of this legal analysis.) A few articles of the Islamic Penal Code explicitly discourage receiving confessions under pressure, and for the most part confessions that are imposed on the accused under pressure are considered invalid.

Even though the laws related to the rights of the accused person define the circumstances under which interrogations and confessions are considered legally correct and valid, there is no guarantee for the enforcement of these laws—especially in cases that are mostly about national security.

The lack of the enforcement of these laws is mainly the consequence of not letting attorneys intervene during the investigation stage (Article 35 of the Constitution-in the appendix of this analysis-demonstrates the fact the law acknowledges the right of the accused person for defending himself/herself.) Article 128 of the Procedural Code of the Public and Revolutionary Courts and its note allow the judge to ban the presence of the accused person’s attorney throughout the investigation stage. Article 128 is as follows:

Article 128, the defendant shall be entitled to have an attorney. The attorney shall be authorized, without having the right to interfere with the investigations and inquiries, to communicate to the judge the instances and matters which shall be deemed required for detection of the truth, or to defend the perpetrator, or to execute the relevant laws and regulations, when the investigations and inquiries shall terminate. The comments made and the opinions expressed by the attorney shall be registered in the process-verbal.
Note: In cases where the matter shall be deemed confidential, or when, at the discretion of the judge, the presence of any person, save the defendant, shall mar or impair the confidentiality of the offence under consideration, and in case the crime shall be related to national security of the country, the attorney may attend the investigations with prior authorization of the public prosecutor’s office.

Despite the aforementioned articles and written laws, authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran do not hesitate to force suspects, detainees and prisoners whose cases are principally about threats to Iran’s national security to confess under mental and physical pressure. Also, since no attorney is allowed to intervene during the investigation stage, judicial authorities often publicly announce that the accused has eagerly confessed or has repented on his/her own and without any use of mental or physical force.

Political Prisoners

Article 168 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Political and press offenses will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in courts of justice. The manner of the selection of the jury, its powers, and the definition of political offenses, will be determined by law in accordance with the Islamic criteria.

This article is most important to focus on the situation of political prisoners. However it was never respected. So all verdicts against political accused are and were illegal and not valid.

Lack of Independent Political Party and NGO

Article 26 of the Constitution specifies the conditional freedom of organizations and parties as follows:

The formation of parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities, is permitted provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic Republic. No one may be prevented from participating in the aforementioned groups, or be compelled to participate in them.

Among lawyers, the wording of this article is open to two possible interpretations. According to the democratic interpretation, Article 26 does not require registration of parties and organizations.

The other interpretation given to Article 26 which is the interpretation of choice for abusive, extremist rulers. According to this interpretation, parties and organizations are not allowed to be registered legally without passing through every manner of inquisition, security filters and extensive background checks going back to generations before the founders themselves.

Unlike the accommodations that Article 26 has to some extent provided in the framework of religious rule, in 1982 the Law of Operation of Parties and Associations (governing societies and professional, political, and Islamic associations and the associations of recognized religious minorities) was passed by the Majles. This law defines a party, society, association, Islamic association or association of religious minorities and specifies the procedure for registering and issuing permits for them. With this law, the free formation of a political party is made more difficult and a tightening of the political sphere and removing parties from it is made easier for those in power. With the passage of this law, the legal opportunity was taken away from those supporting the idea of separating religion from state and from the secular-minded of any political group or persuasion.

According to Paragraph 6 of this law, the operation of groups is considered free, of course, as long as they do not commit the violations specified in Paragraph 16 of the same law. Paragraph 6 has also explained the limits specified in Article 26 of the Constitution and has cited some examples. This paragraph lists in ten clauses the limits on parties and groups but some of these points are very similar to the general points made in Article 26 of the Constitution.

Up to this point in the law, if they had any intention to make reforms and rein in the crisis of popular dissatisfaction with the regime, they could have interpreted all the “ifs” and “buts” to the benefit of the people's rights and could have left judges free to base their verdicts on their own understanding and reading of the law. But from this point on the story has a twist and paragraph 10 of the law was passed in a way that parties, associations and organizations are all turned into appointees of the establishment as will be explained below.

According to paragraph 10 of the law of parties, the decision as to the competence of applicants for forming parties or other organizations and approving the issue of permits to them and judging their violations of regulations stipulated in paragraph 16 is left with a commission whose members are:

1. one representative of the Attorney-General

2. one representative of the Judiciary

3. one representative of the Interior Ministry

4. two representatives chosen by the Majles who may be either from inside or outside the Majles.

The commission, made up of the above-mentioned members, is supposed to process within three months the cases of applicants for establishing parties and approve the issue of permits for applicants wishing to establish parties. After that, according to paragraph 9, the Interior Ministry is supposed to issue the permit within ten days of it being signed by the Minister of the Interior. In cases where the Commission set up by paragraph 10 judges that a party or association or any other registered organization has committed one of the violations listed in paragraph 16, this commission can revoke that party or organization's permit. However, it also has the right to dissolve the said party or organization.

Unfair Trials

The Iranian legal system is completely under the control of the law enforcement and security forces. It does not bear any resemblance to a judicial system and is instead extremely political. In Iran the trials do not have the specification of fair trials, specially in investigating political or press crimes. In most cases, the detentions are arbitrary and the accused does not have the right to be accompanied by the defense attorney in the investigative phase. Pressures and torture that leads to extracting confessions from the press or political accused has become common place.

Once this phase is passed, during which even the family members of the accused are barred from visiting him/her, the case file of the accused is sent to court and with accordance to the forced confessions extracted under torture, the court will convene to decide the fate of the accused and it is at this phase where the defense attorney can be present. Most of such trials are closed to public, particularly post June 12 election where a form of TV show was made using the protestors to the election result. All in all the punishments issued for the protestors of the post June 12 election unrest does not conform to the act they are accused of having done; the punishments are very severe. The reason for this is that the legal system of the country, called the post election unrest and peaceful demonstrations a ‘soft revolution’ that in their minds were instigated by the west and violently crushed it. In general, the specifications of a fair trial cannot be seen in any of the trials in Iran. Focus on confession and political legal system.

Evident Violation of Human Rights

In general, Iranian law, examples of which were brought before in discrimination section, has in effect legalized violation of human rights. This is parallel to the South African state when Apartheid, a clear and evident violation of human rights, was legalized and the basis for law making. Even the more moderate laws in Iran become violations when they are executed by the regime, such as investigation of the case file sin court mentioned above. So there are violations of human rights both in the text of the law and in its execution. The regime is based on discrimination.

Governmental Corruption

As the Apartheid regime was caught up in governmental corruption, the discrimination regime in Iran, because it has no public oversight by people’s representative and does not want to undergo such supervision, it is not accountable for financial corruptions. A complete and utter corruption has engulfed the Iranian regime and people are aware of it too. The corruption leads itself in to financial discrimination as well.

International Reactions to the Violations of Human Rights in Both Countries

The international community expresses a lot of sensitivity to Iran’s enriching uranium, particularly the western states. They try to convince Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program and so has placed Iran under a sanction for many years. Recently the sanctions have become tighter, more targeted and smart. This is another similarity between Iran and the transition state of South Africa. Indeed it cannot be said yet that the international community is uniform in their sanction of Iran, as they had been in the case of South Africa.

Disagreement and Destruction of the System from Within the Government

Due to peaceful demonstration and combating of the people, specially since the June 12, 2009 election, the reformist faction has been completely crushed and left out of the inter governmental dealings. The ruling faction also has developed major disagreements within it to the point that it is now similar to a period of fighting in .... Year in South Africa where three different parliament governed by three different political movements coexisted simultaneously.

Exile and Self-Exile

This similarity also exists between Iran and SA Apartheid era. As many people left Africa because they were in love with a person of another race and the Apartheid government would not even allow them to live together, they would self exile to be able to do as they please. In Iran also, because many are in danger because of their activism and go to exile, many also leave because they don’t want the government to interfere in their everyday lives and they consider this against their human dignity. This is why the rate of exile and self exile of Iranians goes up daily.

Adherence to Civil Disobedience

In a society like this where no permission is granted for any form of dissent or opposition to exist or be expressed, the people have turned to civil disobedience in order to combat the discriminatory regime and eventually topple it.

At the End all of These Create a Consequence that is Similar to that of Iran

The people of Iran and the South Africans during apartheid reached the conclusion that the best method of combating to change the governmental methods and to achieve regime change, is civil movements and non violent protests. This is what the Iranian people want right now. They prefer not to enter the realm of violent actions but rather work in non violent ways.

Legal Violence

In Iran, laws are so cruel that the death penalty is administered not just against violent criminals but extensively and unabashedly. According to Amnesty International, Iran ranks second in total number of executions worldwide. South Africa’s young democracy, only 15 years old, has abolished the death penalty and its Constitutional Court has ruled that the death penalty is in contravention to the right to life recognized in the constitution.

Death by stoning is a legal punishment in Iran and its victims are mostly women. Execution sentences for children who commit offences under the age of 18 are regularly doled out. Such offenders are held in jails for several years, until they reach the age of 18, and then are executed. Amputation is a form of legal punishment and its latest implementation took place some time ago in the city of Bushehr, where the hand and a leg of a young man accused of burglary were amputated.

Iranian women, representing half of the population, suffer from widespread legal discrimination and are even deprived of the basic right of choosing their own clothing. Religious minorities that are recognized under the Iranian Constitution do not enjoy equal rights with Muslims. Those who are not recognized under the Constitution suffer greatly from a plethora of discriminations. Members of the Baha’i Faith, representing the largest religious minority in Iran are not recognized under the law. Baha’is cannot even attend universities, forcing Baha’i youth to leave the country if they wish to obtain higher education.

Elections in Iran are not free. Large segments of the Iranian population who cannot demonstrate their absolute and unequivocal loyalty to the regime are banned from candidacy in the parliamentary and presidential elections. Thus, only an exclusive segment of the population is present in the political sphere.

In some cases, opposition with the government and street protests carries extremely violent punishments such as is the subject of articles 183, 190 and 195 of the Islamic Penal Code that prescribes dismemberment, hanging, exile and even crucifixion for someone accused of being at war with god (muharibih).  Furthermore, as are subjects of article 198, 201 and 202 of Islamic Penal Code, committing certain kinds of theft can carry the punishment of dismemberment.

The Differences of the South African and the Iranian Contexts         

While there are inspiring resembles between Iran’s struggle for social and political justice and the South African model, there are also some major differences between the two contexts. The followings include brief descriptions of some of these differences:

The political and social movements in Iran are deprived of a powerful leader who could band together all the oppositions to the discriminatory government, be they from various political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. The anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa had Nelson Mandela, a man who was look to for inspiration and advice by all those who opposed Apartheid, black, white, Christian, Muslim and Hindu alike. Nelson Mandela spent his youth in various prisons and his opinions were implemented by his followers outside of prison. Mandela had never collaborated with the Apartheid regime but had such political foresight that he said, “Without the help of the white people, victory against Apartheid cannot be achieved.” Within the last 31 years, Iranians who have fought for amending or changing the discriminatory regime have given many victims yet they still feel the void that should be filled by a leader who can line up all the layers of the society and political view points with himself and one another. Therefore, even if the discriminatory regime in Iran reaches a point where it wants to start discourse with the opposition, there is no leader that will be accepted by all the various opposition group to represent them all.

In South Africa, although the discriminatory and violent regime had a long history, discrimination was completely racial based and did not extend to religion. In other words even during Apartheid there was no limitations on freedom of religion. This characteristic is entirely absent in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In South Africa, because freedom of religion existed, churches could collaborate with representatives of other religions like Muslims and Hindus against Apartheid. This slowly turned into forces bringing about change and standing in front of the discrimination and Apartheid. In Iran, things are different. Religious minorities see themselves in so much danger from the Islamic and Shi'a government that they have no presence in the social and political movements. In Iran, even Sunni Muslims do not have the same legal rights as Shi’a Muslims do. As a result, fear and insecurity does not leave any room for them to collaborate with the Shi’a Muslims who are against the current regime. This is a major difference and prevents effective groups from various religious minorities to band together against the discriminatory and violent government.

Majority of people in South Africa are white, black and Christian. As a strong civil organization, churches were able to play a significant part in the anti-Apartheid movement, in spite of the limitations forced on them. The churches were especially active in organizing peaceful protest that benefited the movement. In Iran with majority population Shi’a Muslims, all mosques and religious centers are under the control of the government and not independent to aid the anti-discrimination and anti-violence movements. A Court by the name of Special Clerical Court which is illegal in essence and not prescribed in the constitution has the job of crushing moderate and reformist clergies. Therefore, forces connected to religious establishments do not enjoy the impunity enjoyed by churches in South Africa and if and when they enter the arena of criticizing and opposing the government, they will be immediately arrested, imprisoned and condemned to be stripped off of their clerical status. As a result, social and political movements do not enjoy the support of religious forces that are naturally based out of mosques, seminaries and religious schools.

Iran is yet to see a united opposition front that incorporates various political view points but works with the aim of reforming or toppling the discriminatory and violent regime. The serious disagreement of the opposition movement with one another, as well as their crushing by the government, has prevented the formation of a broad based opposing organization with the aim of reforming or changing the discriminatory regime in Iran. Opposition assemblies and societies outside of the country have not yet been able to work together under a united banner. They have, however, been able to use modern technology such as internet and satellite TV to their advantage and strengthen the human rights and exposing movements in Iran and reveal the crimes of the regime to the international community.

However, they are deprived of having an organized assembly such as African National Congress that was formed in 1912 .The absence of such strong and united political assembly has blocked the path of growth for the social and political movements in the country. African National Congress was able to, after long periods of violence from both sides, open channels of communication on behalf of Nelson Mandela. The nonviolent revolution would have never taken place without Nelson Mandela and the widespread activities of the African National Congress outside of the country.

Therefore, such a significant difference must be taken seriously and pondered upon in comparative analysis of the opposition movement in Iran with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

In one of the most sensitive stages of the nonviolent revolution, South African judges were able to use their power and issue light sentences for freedom fighters that were condemned and tried by order of pro-Apartheid forces. This specification, an effective indirect support of the opposition in South Africa that separates their nonviolent revolution from the Iranian opposition movement. The judges who preside over the trials of the participants or leaders of the protests after the June 12, 2009 presidential election do not enjoy any impartiality or independence. They are entirely under the yoke of the intelligence apparatus which demands maximum violence and it is based on this demand that the judges issue verdicts.

Therefore, at the moment that this report is being written, judicial system of the country is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, Law Enforcement Forces, the Basij Militia as a subset of the Revolutionary Guards, Ministry of Intelligence and fundamentalist and extremist clergies.

In South Africa, certain resistances by the pro-Apartheid white people gave energy to the anti-Apartheid movement. Groups of white women started their own organizations and slowly opened channels of communication with black anti-Apartheid women inviting them to their gatherings. This made discourse between the two groups possible.

On the other hand, a newfound resistance movement was formed during this battle that frightened the Apartheid regime greatly. Some young men who were to be drafted into the military refused to do so based on the notion that they will not join the military forces of a nation that will kill its own citizens. They did not mind the punishments they were to face. Slowly, their resistance movement turned into an attractive force, weakening the Apartheid regime. The regime started to realize that they can no longer depend on young white men because those youth believed in equality for all mankind. The two examples above show that such level of opposition has never existed in Iran. Whenever a group of the Basij Militia was willing to join the opposition movement of the Iranian people tolerating its various levels, or whenever judges could openly refuse to collaborate with the Judicial system that is under the control of the security and law enforcement forces, the regime of religious despotism and discrimination will start to crumble.

However, the most important difference can be found in the behavior of the international community with the Apartheid regime versus the discriminatory and violent regime of Iran. So long as the international community was involved in the dealings of the cold war, it did not care what people governed by Apartheid were going through. It only cared that the South African government was preventing South Africa from falling prey to communism. After the end of cold war, things changed to the benefit of anti-Apartheid and opposition movements. Governments of the world unanimously recognized their duty in aiding the non-whites in South Africa. The economic sanction imposed on the Apartheid government was unanimously agreed upon from the get go by the international community and it weakened the Apartheid government to the point that they had to contact with the African National Congress and through them, with Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the movement. This unified front by the international community had not been formed against Iran in the last 31 years. Governments of the world have often given priority to their economic benefits over pressuring the discriminatory government in Iran.


The opposition movement in Iran bears certain resemblances to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. Iranians who are engaged in peaceful protests and desire nonviolent political transitions can learn a lot from it and increase their opportunities in terms of being effective against the discriminatory and violent regime in Iran by carefully studying the history of anti-Apartheid movement specially from 1991 onward when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and entered the discourse with the Apartheid regime.

On the other hand, significant differences separate the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa from the opposition movement of the Iranian people. Whenever Iranians decide to ignore these differences and armed only with slogans, pay no mind to the history and lessons of nonviolent revolution of South Africa and continue to fight their battles, they will sacrifice victims but gain nothing in return.

The writer, who had an opportunity to closely learn the knowledge and experience of nonviolent opposition in South Africa, recommends that the similarities and the differences of these two movements must be closely studied. Iranian’s effort to increase the similarities and decrease the differences using internet and communication capabilities will create a suitable backdrop for the Iranian opposition movement to operate in peacefully.


This article was written by Mehrangiz Kar while she was Eric Abraham Academic Visitor On Recommendations of Scholars at Risk Organization at Cape Town University’s Department of Law in South Africa in 2010