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Dispatch

AD71: Support for democracy in South Africa declines amid rising discontent with implementation

Rorisang Lekalake 8 Feb 2016 South Africa
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In April 2015, South Africa marked the 21st anniversary of its inaugural elections under full universal suffrage, the country’s formal transition from apartheid to electoral democracy. South Africa’s political system is well-regarded by international experts and is one of only 11 on the continent that Freedom House currently classifies as “free” (Freedom House, 2015).1 Despite this success, 2015 is best remembered for its political turmoil, including corruption scandals, a combative atmosphere in Parliament, and nationwide student protests against higher education tuition. In December, these events culminated in large protest marches under the banner of #ZumaMustFall to demand President Jacob Zuma’s resignation following the economic fallout from his unexpected replacement of the country’s wellregarded finance minister (Telegraph, 2015). Recent analysis of public opinion data from the 2015 Afrobarometer survey in South Africa shows significant declines in approval of government performance on a wide range of highpriority issues as well as in citizens’ confidence in President Zuma (see Afrobarometer dispatches No. 64 and No. 66, at www.afrobarometer.org). The 2015 data also indicate that South Africans have grown more dissatisfied with the state of the country’s democracy in general. Although public disapproval of alternative political systems is high, outright support for democracy has declined since 2011, and a majority of citizens would be willing to give up elections in favour of a non-elected government that would provide basic services. Furthermore, there have been corresponding declines in the proportions of citizens who believe that South Africa is a democracy and who are satisfied with its implementation. Race continues to be a leading source of differences in South Africans’ attitudes toward democracy. Black citizens report significantly higher levels of support for democracy and its current institutionalization in the country. However, they are also are more willing to give up regular elections in return for basic service provision, indicating a lack of full commitment to the system.

Key findings
  • Support for democracy has declined from 72% of South Africans in 2011 to 64% in 2015, which is slightly below the continental average (67%). Support for democracy is higher than average among better-educated, rural, younger, and black South Africans.
  • Six of 10 South Africans (61%) say they are willing to forego elections in favour of a non-elected government that would guarantee basic services such as safety, rule of law, housing, and jobs.
  • Substantial majorities of South Africans reject alternatives to democracy, with public disapproval highest for one-man rule (80%), followed by a return to apartheid (77%), one-party rule (72%), and military rule (67%). Only 44% of white South Africans reject a hypothetical return to apartheid, while 30% would support such an initiative and 26% are ambivalent or “don’t know.”
  • Less than half (47%) of respondents say the country is a “full democracy” or “a democracy, but with minor problems,” a 19–percentage-point decrease since 2011.
  • Public satisfaction with the country’s democracy has also declined significantly since 2011, from 60% to 48%.

In April 2015, South Africa marked the 21st anniversary of its inaugural elections under full universal suffrage, the country’s formal transition from apartheid to electoral democracy. South Africa’s political system is well-regarded by international experts and is one of only 11 on the continent that Freedom House currently classifies as “free” (Freedom House, 2015).1 Despite this success, 2015 is best remembered for its political turmoil, including corruption scandals, a combative atmosphere in Parliament, and nationwide student protests against higher education tuition. In December, these events culminated in large protest marches under the banner of #ZumaMustFall to demand President Jacob Zuma’s resignation following the economic fallout from his unexpected replacement of the country’s well-regarded finance minister (Telegraph, 2015).

Recent analysis of public opinion data from the 2015 Afrobarometer survey in South Africa shows significant declines in approval of government performance on a wide range of high-priority issues as well as in citizens’ confidence in President Zuma (see Afrobarometer dispatches No. 64 and No. 66). The 2015 data also indicate that South Africans have grown more dissatisfied with the state of the country’s democracy in general. Although public disapproval of alternative political systems is high, outright support for democracy has declined since 2011, and a majority of citizens would be willing to give up elections in favour of a non-elected government that would provide basic services. Furthermore, there have been corresponding declines in the proportions of citizens who believe that South Africa is a democracy and who are satisfied with its implementation.

Race continues to be a leading source of differences in South Africans’ attitudes toward democracy. Black citizens report significantly higher levels of support for democracy and its current institutionalization in the country. However, they are also are more willing to give up regular elections in return for basic service provision, indicating a lack of full commitment to the system.

Figure: Extent of democracy and satisfaction with democracy | South Africa | 2000-2015

Rorisang Lekalake

Rorisang Lekalake is Afrobarometer assistant project manager for Southern Africa, based at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town,