Public preferences for democracy in South Africa

CATEGORY: Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery
DATE: 29 July 2016
AUTHOR: Jare Struwig, Stephen Gordon and Benjamin Roberts

MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS 2016

Speculation is rife that the ruling party has lost some of its appeal among South Africans, many of whom have grown frustrated with waiting for the promises of a "better life for all". According to some analysts, disillusionment with the ANC has gradually been building over the past few years, with people generally feeling that the ruling party is out of touch with the hardships of ordinary citizens. As a result, analysts have ventured that alignment or “feelings of closeness” to the ruling party has been diminishing. In this article, Jare Struwig, Stephen Gordon and Benjamin Roberts explore alignment with the ruling party over time and also how it compares with other parties.

Data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), an annual cross-national opinion survey was used in this study. The SASAS sample is 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 and all questionnaires are translated into the various major languages of the country.

Introduction
Democracy is often held up as the best and most desirable system of governance. But how many in South Africa see democracy as preferable to any other kind of government? Answering such a question will help us understand how committed the public is to democracy as a system of governance. In this article, Steven Gordon, Jare Struwig and Benjamin Roberts use survey data to better comprehend how much ordinary people in South Africa value democracy.  

Data
Data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), an annual cross-national opinion survey, was used for this study. The sample size was 3 500 adults, aged 16 years and older, and living in private homes. Most survey rounds are conducted between October and December of each year. All questionnaires are translated into the various major languages of the country and the mode of interviewing is face to face. 

Results
In SASAS 2015, respondents were asked "Which of these three statements is closest to your own opinion: (i) Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government; (ii) In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable; and (iii) For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have?” Here, respondents were not asked to reflect on South African democracy but rather the system of democracy itself. Looking at public responses to this question will allow us to discern if the South African population supports a democratic system.

The majority (61%) of adult South Africans said that they thought that a democratic government was preferable to any other kind of regime. Almost a fifth (18%) believed that in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable, with the remainder (18%) saying that it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have. The rest (3%) said that they did not know if democracy was the best system. Although it is encouraging to see that most people support a democratic system, it is a worrying to observe that so many ordinary South Africa do not believe democracy is the most desirable system.

Figure 1: Public Preferences for a Democratic System by Rural/Urban, 2011-2015

 

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

If we observe changes in public preferences for democracy over the period 2011-2015 in urban and rural areas we can detect relatively a positive change during the period (Figure 1). In both urban and rural spaces public preferences for democracy increased over five years.  In rural areas, the share of people who believe that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government grew from 49% in 2011 to 61% in 2015. By contrast, the share of people who thought that it didn’t matter what kind of government the country had, declined from 28% in 2011 to 19% in 2015. In urban areas, similar positive changes were also observed. This indicates the strong and growing support for democratic systems in South Africa.

The South African experience with both democratic and authoritarian systems suggests that public preferences for democracy may differ between age cohorts. In order to assess this thesis, we examined preferences by age cohort and gender in Figure 2. The results show that for men, there is an age effect on public democratic preferences. Younger men display a lower preference for democracy than older men. More than half (56%) of those men in the 16-24 age cohort think that democracy is the most preferred system compared with 72% of men in the 65 and above age cohort. This may be because older men have a better appreciation of democracy as a system of governance. For women, there is no statistically significant difference between age cohorts.

Figure 2: Public Preferences for a Democratic System by Age Cohort and Gender

 

Source: South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2015

On the question “How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the way democracy is working in South Africa?” about a third (36%) of the general population were satisfied; roughly half (48%) were dissatisfied; and the rest (16%) gave neutral responses, showing some disillusionment with South Africa’s system of democracy..

Of those who were satisfied with the way democracy was working in the country, almost three-quarters (72%) saw democracy as the best system. Of those who were dissatisfied, only around half (54%) thought democracy was the most preferred form of government. These results suggest  that the performance of our democracy is affecting how people see democracy as a system of government in the country. In other words, based on the data presented here, it would seem that political disillusionment has had an effect on democratic preference

As South Africa edges closer to the 2016 Municipal Elections, there is a need to understand the relationship between public preferences for a democratic system and voter registration. In late 2015, SASAS respondents were asked if they were registered to vote in the 2016 Municipal Elections. Using these responses, we examined preference for democracy by voter registration. Findings showed that a majority (57%) of those who were not registered to vote preferred democracy to any type of governing regime. This encouraging finding shows that even those who are not registered to vote still support a democratic system.

Figure 3: Public Preferences for a Democratic System by Voter Registration and Race Group

 

Source: South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2015
Note: Those who were not of voting age (16-17) were excluded.

If we look at democratic preferences by race groups we note statistically significant interracial differences on this issue (Figure 3). Compared to other race groups, adult members of the coloured and Indian population groups were moderately more likely to believe that it doesn’t matter what kind of governing system South Africa has. Such differences were particularly marked for members of these communities who were not registered to vote. Interestingly, despite their differing histories with democracy, adult white and black African South Africans were very similar in their preferences for a democratic system.

Conclusion

The legitimacy of a democracy depends on the support of the general population. The results of this paper should, therefore, be concerning to journalists, politicians and policymakers. The results show that almost two-fifths of the general adult population do not think that democracy is the best system of government.  Growing up in a democracy system should predispose an individual towards that system. However, our findings cast doubt on this general supposition. Preference for democracy was lowest among young men –a group who had spent most of their lives under the democratic system. This is a worrying and unexpected finding that suggests the need for action on the part of our civic leaders.

The inclusion of voter education programmes in the regular school curriculum would help reverse the trends observed here. Such programmes could instil values of civic engagement into young people, implanting fundamental civic virtues in their minds. An essential belief in the civic virtue of electoral participation would counteract an apparent disillusionment in our democratic system.  Moreover, such programmes would discourage political apathy and help participants learn about democratic values. Better civic education, we believe, will counteract cynicism about democracy and make people better democratic citizens.