Attitudes towards current political leaders in SA

CATEGORY: Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery
DATE: 26 July 2016
AUTHOR: Gary Pienaar, Mojalefa Dipholo, Jare Struwig, Steven Gordon and Ben Roberts

MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS 2016

Two recent radio talk shows focused on issues relating to voter confidence in elected leadership [1], and on the link between socio-economic circumstances and voter preferences[2]. Callers on both shows expressed frustration and anger at the inadequate performance of elected representatives, and the absence of political leaders from communities between elections. Further discussions involved perceptions of corruption among current leadership and related issues of service delivery. Despite these reservations, however, callers generally indicated that they would vote in the upcoming municipal elections. Their disappointments notwithstanding, callers apparently retained their belief in the ability of democracy to respond to their daily concerns and deliver improvements in their daily lives.

[1] Motsweding, SAFM, 11 July 2016. Mojalefa Dipholo participated as a panelist.
[2] Channel Africa, SABC, 14 June 2016. Gary Pienaar participated as a panelist.

SASAS [3] results reflect this bifurcated attitude regarding democracy, on the one hand, and the performance of democratically elected leadership, on the other. While expressing dissatisfaction with elected candidates’ performance in office, interest remains in taking democratic action to correct this poor performance.

[3] SASAS is an annual nationally representative opinion survey consisting of 3,500 adults aged 16 years and older living in private homes. Most rounds of the survey are conducted between October and December of each year. All questionnaires are translated into the major languages of the country and the mode of interviewing is face to face. 

In late 2015, SASAS respondents were asked to tell fieldworkers whether they would vote if, hypothetically, there were an election tomorrow. Of the voting age public, one-sixteenth (6%) said that they were not sure if they would vote, one-eighth (13%) refused to answer and a tenth (10%) said they would not vote. The remainder (72%) said that they would vote if there were a hypothetical election tomorrow. Of those who indicated that they would not vote, only half said that they thought democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. Of those who said they would vote in a hypothetical election, 63% thought democracy was most preferred system. This seems to suggest that most potential voters in South Africa are more committed to democracy and democratic principles than to any other political system.

Findings from the 2015 survey also showed that a high percentage of South Africans thought that people should vote, with 74% of adult South Africans agreeing with the statement that “It is the duty of all citizens to vote”, compared to 14% of adult South Africans who disagreed. The remainder chose to remain neutral on the issue.

Accordingly, despite dissatisfaction with the performance of elected representatives, on balance, South Africans retain confidence in the ability of the democratic system to deliver improvements to their lives and circumstances. 

Attitudes towards current political leaders in South Africa

Since 2011, a question on satisfaction with political leaders has been fielded in SASAS. The intention of the question is to determine broad satisfaction levels and not to ask about specific political leaders or specific groups of political leaders.  As a result, we cannot discern public attitudes towards a particular South African political leader or a particular political party. Analysing responses to this question does however allow an understanding of the degree of political disillusionment prevalent amongst the general population. The specific question posed to respondents was as follows:

"How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the current political leaders in South Africa?" Response options ranged from very satisfied to very dissatisfied and results are discussed below.

Figure 1: Public attitudes towards political leaders in South Africa by metro, 2011-2015

The majority (57%) of adult South Africans said that they were dissatisfied with the current political leaders in the country. Just over a quarter (28%) of the adult population was satisfied with leaders while the remainder was neutral in their responses.  When compared to those residing outside metropolitan areas, people living in metropolitan areas tended to be less satisfied with current political leaders (Figure 1). Considering changes over time, a decline in political leader satisfaction between 2011 and 2015 in metropolitan areas was noted. Observed changes in non-metropolitan areas were more minor by comparison.

Table 1: Public attitudes towards current political leaders in South Africa by age cohort

 

16-24

25-34

35-49

50-64

65+

Total

Very satisfied

6

6

5

6

4

5

Satisfied

23

24

20

23

27

23

Neither nor

17

12

14

14

12

14

Dissatisfied

27

31

31

26

23

29

Very dissatisfied

26

26

29

32

29

28

(Do not know)

0

2

1

0

4

1

Source: South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2015

Given the new cohort of youngsters born under the democratic dispensation, it was important to examine public attitudes towards current political leaders by age cohort. Interestingly, no statistically significant difference was noted between the age cohorts in their average responses to our question on political leaders. The youth (i.e. those in the 16-24 age cohort) were more or less equally dissatisfied with current political leaders when compared to those older persons (i.e. those in the 50-64 age cohort or the 65 and above age cohort).

However, there were distinct and stark racial differences in responses to our question on current political leaders in South Africa. Members of the country’s various racial minorities were, on average, more dissatisfied with current political leaders in South Africa than the racial majority. But even amongst the Black African majority, more than half (51%) were dissatisfied with current political leaders.

Table 2: Public Attitudes towards Political Leaders in South Africa by Race Group, 2011 and 2015

 

Black African

Coloured

Indian

White

 

2015

2011

2015

2011

2015

2011

2015

2011

Very satisfied

6

5

3

2

7

2

4

2

Satisfied

27

32

9

19

13

22

8

10

Neither nor

15

18

11

21

9

21

13

20

Dissatisfied

27

30

40

34

31

32

26

33

Very dissatisfied

24

12

35

22

39

23

50

32

(Do not know)

1

2

2

2

1

1

1

3

Source: South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2011; 2015

If we compare attitudes in 2015 and 2011 by race group, some interesting changes over this period are observed (Table 2). It would appear that the share of the Black African majority who are satisfied with current leaders in South Africa has moderately declined. In 2011, 37% of the Black African majority were satisfied with current leaders compared to 33% in 2015. Interestingly, an even larger decline was observed amongst the Coloured minority. In 2011, 21% of the Coloured adult population were satisfied with political leaders in South Africa while in 2015 only 12% were satisfied.

Given that South Africa is approaching an election, it is important to determine if there is a relationship between attitudes towards political leaders and voter registration. In the 2015 SASAS,   respondents were asked if they were registered to vote in the 2016 Municipal Elections. Using these responses, we can determine whether attitudes towards political leaders have a bearing on voter registration (Figure 2). All results displayed are for the voting age population in South Africa.

Figure 2: Public attitudes towards current political leaders in South Africa by voter registration

 

Source: South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2015

Note: Those who were not of voting age (16-17) were excluded.

From Figure 2 it is clear that South Africans who are registered to vote and those who intended to register are more satisfied, in general, with political leaders than those who refused to register. If we look at the results by gender, we find that women on average tend to be less satisfied with political leaders than men. This gender disparity was noted regardless of voter registration status. Of those who said they were not registered and did not intend to register, only 21% were satisfied with political leaders in South Africa. This would suggest that those who have chosen not to participate in the 2016 Municipal Elections are more politically disillusioned than those who are participating.

Disapproval doesn't necessarily mean disillusionment and disengagement

Among those who are registered to vote, recent information indicates increased levels of democratic interest and engagement. It may be open to doubt whether or not this engagement is entirely in the public interest, however.

The 2016 municipal elections have seen a record number of political parties and candidates registered to compete in the election. The Electoral Commission reports that ‘[a] record 200 parties and 61 014 candidates will contest the 3 August 2016 Municipal Elections following the certification on 27 June 2016 of parties and candidates contesting the elections. This is approximately 65% more parties and approximately 12% more candidates than the previous municipal elections held in 2011.’[4]

[4]Electoral Commission (n.d.). ‘200 parties, 61 000 candidates to contest 2016 Municipal Elections’, EC. Available at http://www.elections.org.za/content/About-Us/News/200-parties,-61-000-candidates-to-contest-2016-Municipal-Elections/ Accessed 24 July 2016.

In addition, said the Commission, ‘[a]s part of the verification of compliance process[,] 8 350 candidates were disqualified. Of the candidates disqualified, the vast majority were disqualified for non-submission of documentation (46%), non-payment of deposit (38%) and not being registered voters in the municipality in which they wanted to contest (15%).’

Were it not for these disqualifications, the increased interest by candidates in participation in these elections would have been even more significant. How might we explain these increased levels of interest in public office?
Several quite different explanations seem plausible. Firstly, it seems pertinent to note that dissatisfaction with public representatives’ performance in office appears to attach to both individual public officials, as well as to their political parties. The relative increase in the number of new political parties is significantly greater than the increase in the number of candidates. Secondly, voters may be so dissatisfied with the ability of existing leadership to efficiently deliver even the most basic services, that many of them believe that they might do a better job of it themselves.

A third, and more unsettling, possibility is that public office may be seen by an increasing number of voters as merely an opportunity for employment in a desultory economic environment. An even less encouraging interpretation might be that election to municipal office might be viewed as a means to secure access to public resources for private or sectional benefit.

The Auditor-General’s reports record the seeming inability of many local governments to stop the misallocation of municipal resources.[5]  Releasing his report on local government audit outcomes for the 2014-15 financial year, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu observed that ‘the audit outcomes of municipalities in Limpopo, North West and the Northern Cape have been disappointing at best’.[6]

[5] Auditor-General (2016). ‘Auditor-general reports an overall, encouraging five-year improvement in local government audit results’ Media Release 1 June 2016, available at https://www.agsa.co.za/Portals/0/MFMA%202014-15/Section%201-9%20MFMA%202014-2015/FINAL%20MEDIA%20RELEASE%20(MFMA%202016)%20FN.pdf. Accessed 24 July 2016.

[6] Ibid at p4.

Table 3: Total number of candidates by province (incl. independents)[7]

Province

2016 Municipal Elections    

2011 Municipal Elections

Percentage change* + / -

Eastern Cape

8 394

7 239

+15.96%

Free State

3 996

3 284

+21.68%

Gauteng

8 897

9    034

-1.52%

KwaZulu-Natal

10 375

10 412

-0.36%

Limpopo

9 087

6 660

+36.44%

Mpumalanga

5 428

4 378

+23.98%

North West

5 247

4 045

+29.71%

Northern Cape

2 327

1 600

+45.43%

Western Cape

7 263

7 105

+2.22%

Total

61 014

53 757

+13.49%

*Figures rounded off

[7] Electoral Commission (above).

An intriguing correlation arises between the AG's findings regarding the financial performance of municipalities in these three provinces and the Electoral Commission's announcement of the numbers of candidates standing for election in the 2016 local government elections in these same provinces. As may be seen in Table 3 above, the largest increases in the numbers of aspirant councillors have occurred in the Limpopo, North West and Northern Cape provinces. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that two municipalities in Limpopo saw violent public protests in early May 2016. And it seems that the electoral, political and legal trauma of the Tlokwe by-election will not be glossed over by voters in the North West province.

It seems likely that the decrease in the number of registered candidates in KwaZulu-Natal province is accounted for by the IEC’s non-registration of the National Freedom Party. [8]

If the increased numbers of parties and candidates reflects a commitment by aspirant candidates to get involved and disrupt increasingly entrenched patrimonial hierarchies, local democracy may be about to undergo a long overdue revival. It is possible, however, that some newly elected leaders seek merely to take power in order to appropriate public resources for themselves. Existing financial and administrative systems require a fundamental overhaul, especially at local level, if democracy is to be rescued from predatory elites. An important additional tool for voters in this regard could have been political finance transparency. If candidates were now obliged by law to disclose the sources of their largest donations, voters would be in a better position to take informed decisions regarding candidates’ possible range of agendas once in office.[9]  Local democracy cannot thrive, or survive, if elections are seen as merely a scramble for resources.

[8] See, for example, ‘NFP to approach ConCourt to fight disqualification from elections’, News24 6 July 2016. Available at http://www.news24.com/Elections/News/nfp-to-approach-concourt-to-fight-disqualification-from-elections-20160706. Last accessed 25 July 2016.

[9] My Vote Counts, a Cape Town-based civil society organisation, is about to launch legal proceedings in the Western Cape High Court in the latest bid to ensure regulation of political parties’ opaque funding arrangements. This lack of transparency contributes to lack of accountability to the electorate, and enables private money to exercise undemocratic influence on public representatives’ policy choices.  See ‘MVC Statement on Political Party PAIA responses’, Janine Ogle, MVC 4 July 2016. Available at http://www.myvotecounts.org.za/. Last accessed 25 July 2016.