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

8 Feb 2016

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