Afrobarometer surveys reveal ongoing challenges to one of the continent’s leading democracies
by Carolyn Logan and Sibusiso Nkomo
Former South African President Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment for boycotting an inquiry into high-level corruption has triggered protests and looting on a scale not seen since the apartheid era. The army is in the streets, and more than 200 people are dead.
Zuma was forced to resign the presidency in disgrace in 2018 when he lost the backing of his party, the long-dominant African National Congress (ANC), amid widespread allegations of corruption and abuse of power. The last Afrobarometer public opinion survey conducted during his tenure revealed growing popular disaffection with his rule — his approval rating dropped sharply, to 34 percent, as more and more South Africans perceived levels of corruption were on the rise.
Zuma’s presidency generated immense controversy and highlighted deep divides within South Africa, which are resurfacing over his incarceration. But the results of a nationally representative Afrobarometer survey in May-June 2021 conducted in person with 1,600 South Africans suggest that Zuma’s misrule may have damaged government legitimacy, perhaps even democracy itself, in ways that extend far beyond his own administration.
While some indicators of popular support and government legitimacy have rebounded since Cyril Ramaphosa became president in 2018, others have not. On several measures South Africans rate their situation as even worse now than when Zuma left office. These results suggest Zuma’s troubled tenure either so undermined public confidence in government or so entrenched corrupt behavior that a change of leadership has not been enough to restore public confidence.
Afrobarometer surveys record Zuma’s fall
Afrobarometer conducted two surveys during Zuma’s 2009-2018 presidency, in 2011 and in 2015. The shift in attitudes over this four-year period was stark. Early in his tenure, Zuma enjoyed considerable public trust (62 percent) and positive performance ratings (64 percent). Four years later, his standing had plummeted: Trust dropped to 34 percent and performance approval to 36 percent.
The public’s concerns were not limited to the president himself. During the same period, confidence that the country was going in the right direction declined from 46 percent to 31 percent, and the public perception that the country was mostly or completely democratic fell from 66 percent to 47 percent. Although Zuma retained a core of die-hard supporters who continue to stand by him, the public’s displeasure with his rule became clear.
Selected presidential and regime performance indicators | Afrobarometer 2006-2021
Percentage of Afrobarometer survey respondents in South Africa who say 1) the president has performed "fairly" or "very" well; 2) they trust the president "somewhat" or "a lot"; 3) the country is "a full democracy" or "a democracy with minor problems"; and 4) the country is going “in the right direction.” Note: Figures 1 and 3 omit the 2008 Afrobarometer Round 4 data, as that survey was conducted in October-November 2008, less than two months into the short-lived administration of Kgalema Motlanthe.
Zuma’s legacy may run deep
What do the two Afrobarometer surveys conducted since Ramaphosa assumed the presidency tell us? Survey data show Ramaphosa enjoyed a sizeable bounce in performance ratings — his 57 percent job approval in 2018 is 21 points above Zuma’s in 2015, and approval held relatively steady in the 2021 survey (54 percent).
And the public sees clear and continuing improvement in the president’s respect for the rule of law and accountability to Parliament. During the later years of the Zuma regime, 59 percent reported that the president “often” or “always” ignored the courts and laws, and 57 percent said he ignored Parliament. These were the highest levels of presidential disregard for the rule of law and parliamentary oversight that Afrobarometer found across 36 countries surveyed in 2014/2015.
Under Ramaphosa, these levels have decreased, to 42 percent (courts and laws) and 33 percent (Parliament).
President ignores courts and Parliament | Afrobarometer 2011-2021
Percentage of Afrobarometer survey respondents in South Africa who say their president “often” or “always” 1) “ignores the courts and laws” and 2) “ignores Parliament and just does what he wants.”
But other indicators suggest that the steep decline in regime support and legitimacy that began during the Zuma administration is not abating. South Africans’ trust in the presidency has recovered only slightly since Zuma left office, to 38 percent. And the number of respondents who regard the country as mostly or completely democratic and as broadly moving “in the right direction” continues to shrink.
The weakening of these key indicators despite the more positive performance and rule-of-law assessments shows how fragile South Africans’ sense of state legitimacy and efficacy has become.
Corruption may be a critical factor in this trend. While many observers consider escalating corruption a hallmark of the Zuma government, South Africans apparently don’t see the Ramaphosa government in a different light. After a modest dip in the first post-Zuma survey, perceptions of extensive corruption in the office of the presidency now go beyond even those recorded during the Zuma years.
Corruption in the office of the president | Afrobarometer 2002-2021
Percentage of survey respondents who say that “most” or “all” officials in the South African president’s office are corrupt.
Is South Africa’s democracy in danger?
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index still ranks South Africa as the continent’s fourth-most-democratic country, though this score has been declining steadily over the past 15 years.
While several recent analyses based on Afrobarometer data suggest that popular demand for democracy remains resilient in Africa even in the face of a declining supply of democratic governance, it’s not clear that this is the case in South Africa. In addition to a decline in the perceived extent of democracy in South Africa, support for democracy as the best system of government dropped from 72 percent a decade ago to just 40 percent today.
While Ramaphosa has decried the recent “anarchy and mayhem” as an attempt to destroy South Africa’s democracy, the unrest is not a cause but a symptom of democracy under severe threat.
Even with Zuma out of office, public confidence in the political system is at or near all-time lows. The failures of successive administrations to address the country’s profound inequalities and to check corruption are undermining the legitimacy of the government.
Even if Zuma’s prosecution is a step in the right direction, as some analysts have argued, it will take more aggressive action to tackle the country’s still-rampant corruption, persistent unemployment and growing inequality if the government hopes to restore public confidence in democracy and the South African miracle.
Carolyn Logan (@carolynjlogan) is director of analysis for Afrobarometer and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University.
Sibusiso Nkomo (@SibusisoNkomo) is head of communications for Afrobarometer.