2015 has been a tumultuous year for South Africa’s democracy. A number of key government officials have been embroiled in corruption scandals, most notably the alleged mismanagement of state funds in the construction of President Jacob Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. An investigation led by the Public Protector found that state funds were employed for non-security installations and determined that the president should repay “a reasonable percentage” of these costs (Public Protector of South Africa, 2014). While civic groups called for greater government accountability, opposition demands for President Zuma to account to the National Assembly and reimburse the state led to numerous clashes, and parliamentary security had to be called during last February’s State of the Nation address.
While the corruption scandal awaits resolution in the courts – and the headlines – student protests have succeeded in forcing the government, already plagued by mediocre news on the economic and unemployment fronts, to accept a freeze on higher education tuition for 2016.
Data from the 2015 Afrobarometer survey suggest that elected leaders may not escape unscathed by the year’s events. Public approval of the performance of the president, members of Parliament (MPs), and local government councillors has declined. The president’s approval rating is at its lowest level since 2000, well below the regional average for presidents. Unsurprisingly, public approval is generally higher in rural areas and among black South Africans, the ANC’s traditional electorate.
Interestingly, citizens increasingly believe that voters, rather than political actors, should be responsible for making sure that leaders do their jobs. Given these findings and the successes of recent student protests in securing a higher education tuition freeze for 2016, South Africans may increasingly turn to direct civic action to achieve their objectives.