FACING THE NATION South Africa's most important challenges

SOUTH AFRICAN SOCIAL ATTITUDES SURVEY

In this article BEN ROBERTS, JARÈ STRUWIG and STEPHEN RULE examine the relative ranking by the South African public of challenges facing our society, the extent to which these priorities have been changing in recent years, as well as differences among subpopulations. 
   
   
   

The issues that the public worries about are said to provide rich information on how a society views and understands a given point in its history. By scrutinising changes in the set of problems that the public identifies over time, one can appreciate the passage of South African history through the eyes of its citizens. Also, by disaggregating national-level priorities, we are able to investigate how different socioeconomic and demographic characteristics influence the manner in which South Africans evaluate and rank different challenges.

Measuring national priorities

This study draws data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), which has been conducted annually by the HSRC since 2003. The survey series consists of nationally representative probability samples of South African adults aged 16 years and over living in private households. Sample sizes for each of the seven survey rounds included in the analysis are as follows: 2003 (4 980); 2004 (5 583), 2005 (5 734), 2006 (5 843), 2007 (3 164), 2008 (3 321) and 2009 (3 305). In each survey round, respondents were asked, ‘Please tell me what you think are the three most important challenges facing South Africa today?’. The question refers to the country as a whole, so responses deal with national concerns rather than local-level or personal problems.

National results

Analysis of the 2009 round of SASAS reveals that unemployment (75%) remains, by a considerable margin, the most salient problem identified by the South African public (Fig. 1). A second cluster of issues that were mentioned by approximately two-fifths and a half of respondents comprise personal safety, HIV/AIDS and poverty. Service delivery (including housing) and corruption are nominated as priorities by an estimated fifth of the adult population, with other issues such as education, politics, racism and xenophobia being cited by fewer than 10% of respondents.

Drawing together trend data from IDASA and coupling it with the 2003–2009 SASAS data, we are able to place these results in a broader perspective and discern changes during the first 15 years of democracy (Fig. 2). While public concern over unemployment has remained entrenched over the period, there have nonetheless been some remarkable shifts in the relative position of other problems. Crime rose dramatically as a priority in the mid- to late-1990s, reaching a high of 65% in 1999, but this issue has declined somewhat in salience over the last decade. Between 2003 and 2009 close to half of South Africans listed it as a problem, with HIV/AIDS being listed as a more frequently cited problem in certain years. 

Analysis of the 2009 round of SASAS reveals that unemployment (75%) remains, by a considerable margin, the most salient problem identified by the South African public.

Crime rose dramatically as a priority in the mid- to late-1990s, reaching a high of 65% in 1999, but this issue has declined somewhat in salience over the last decade.

With the mounting impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, this issue has progressively risen up the order of priorities after 1999, to the extent that it replaces crime by a margin as the second most commonly mentioned national priority area in 2009. Poverty began escalating as a concern in the late 1990s, and although attention devoted to this issue did swing appreciably over the last decade, with the onset of the global economic crisis it again sits alongside crime and HIV/AIDS as a critical public concern. While service delivery/housing seem to have declined as a priority between 1995 and 2004, there was a short-lived increase in concern around the time the service delivery strikes intensified in 2005. Nonetheless, this issue has subsequently fallen in importance again and by 2009 it was mentioned by about a quarter of respondents. Finally, reference to corruption has steadily begun to climb, and while it was hardly mentioned in 1994, close to a fifth (18%) see it as an important problem in South Africa by 2009.

With the mounting impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, this issue has progressively risen up the order of priorities after 1999, to the extent that it replaces crime by a margin as the second most commonly mentioned national priority area in 2009.

One nation, multiple agendas?

When analysing the 2009 SASAS data on national priorities by demographic characteristics, virtually no sex differences of note were observed in relation to the frequency of mention and ranking of the top national priorities in 2009. For the most part, age group differences are also not especially pronounced. Corruption is marginally more likely to be mentioned by 35-49 year-olds and those older than 50 years relative to younger citizens.

It is not surprising that perceived national priorities differ by race, given the recent political history of South Africa (Table 1). Across all races, unemployment is either the most or the second most frequently mentioned priority issue. HIV/AIDS is second most mentioned among Africans (52%), the group among which HIV infections are most common. Crime and security issues emerge as the top priority among white and Indian respondents (64% and 71% respectively). Corruption was cited by more than a third (37%) of white respondents in 2009, placing it alongside HIV/AIDS, and approximately a fifth (22%) of Indian respondents. Corruption did not even feature in the top five priorities for black and coloured respondents, with service delivery (including housing) featuring instead.

When examining the importance placed on different problems by living standard level, which is typically employed as a measure of class, one finds differences in both the evaluation and ranking of problems. While unemployment was commonly rated as the most pressing problem for those with low, medium and high living standards, it was mentioned by 86% of those with low living standards compared to 64% of those with high living standards. Similarly, poverty is the second highest rated concern for those with low living standards (62%), while it was a much less pressing issue among those with medium and high living standards (43% and 31% respectively) and ranked as only the fourth highest priority for these subgroups. Instead, crime and safety occupied second place for those with medium and high living standards. There is an inverse relationship between living standard and service delivery and housing issues, with those with low living standards more than twice as likely to mention this as a societal challenge than those with high living standards (37% versus 14%). An opposite pattern is evident with respect to corruption, which appears to be a more salient issue for those with high living standards.

There is an inverse relationship between living standard and service delivery and housing issues, with those with low living standards more than twice as likely to mention this as a societal challenge than those with high living standards.

Unemployment emerges as the top national priority regardless of geographic location. However, the dominance of this issue is slightly higher among residents of rural traditional authority areas and urban informal settlements. Poverty is mentioned by a greater proportion of rural than urban residents. Conversely, crime and security are far more prioritised in urban formal areas (56%) and to a lesser extent informal urban settlements (45%) than by those residing in rural areas. This trend reflects the vulnerability of urban residents to criminal victimisation, attributable to the much greater level of wealth in formal urban areas and the inability to afford target hardening measures in informal settlements. HIV/AIDS tended to be mentioned moderately more frequently in urban formal and informal areas than in rural environments. It was also ranked as the second highest priority after unemployment in informal settlements, which confirms statistics that indicate higher levels of incidence of HIV-positive testing in urban, and especially urban informal, settlements than elsewhere.

The value of longitudinal surveys

The most important problem questions that have been included in SASAS and other national attitudinal survey series enable us to chart how the concerns of South African society have been shifting since the country’s transition to democracy. It also allows us to examine the influence of recent sociopolitical developments on the perceived salience of priority issues.

More than fifteen years after the advent of democracy in South Africa, levels of wealth and poverty appear to play a major role in influencing the perceptions of South Africans about where government should be focusing and targeting its efforts.

Not only do these indicators convey a real sense of the state of the nation during the time of surveying, but they suggest important lessons for policy-makers. More than 15 years after the advent of democracy in South Africa, levels of wealth and poverty appear to play a major role in influencing the perceptions of South Africans about where government should be focusing and targeting its efforts, and affirm the need for greater urgency in broadening the coverage of employment creation and for scaling-up interventions to address HIV/AIDS, crime and deprivation. The results also imply that the current emphasis on accountability and performance contracts for government officials is timely given the mounting public anxiety over corruption.

Ben Roberts and Jarè Struwig, coordinators, SASAS, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery research programme, HSRC; Dr Stephen Rule, director, Outsourced Insight.