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Key findings
  • South Africans’ ratings of current and past political systems remain largely unchanged since 2011, at an average of 6.1 out of 10 points for the post-1994 regime and 3.4 for the apartheid system. However, optimism about the political system in 10 years’ time has declined significantly (from an average of 8.2 points in 2011 to 6.8). As of 2015, white and Indian citizens give apartheid a higher rating than both the current political system and their expectations for the future.
  • On average, only 37% of citizens believe that life has improved since 1994 on a range of socioeconomic indicators, while 24% believe that conditions have remained the same and 38% that they have deteriorated. The largest proportion of respondents see an improvement in race relations (52%), while only 17% perceive an improvement in differences between the rich and the poor.
  • Among racial groups, Indian citizens are the most critical of post-1994 developments. On average, only 16% say that personal safety, economic circumstances, employment opportunities, racial relations, and disparities between rich and poor are “better” or “much better” than in 1994, compared to 39% of black, 33% of Coloured, and 29% of white citizens. Assessments of progress also differ significantly by party affiliation, age, and education level.
  • Despite expressing higher levels of dissatisfaction with these developments, white and Indian South Africans report the lowest levels of lived poverty in the country: Eight in 10 respondents in these groups “never” experienced a shortage of basic necessities in the preceding year, compared to 47% of Coloured and 28% of black citizens.
  • Despite their dissatisfaction with the rate of change, South Africans remain committed to their national identity and to nation-building efforts. More than eight in 10 “agree” or “strongly agree” that creating a united country is desirable (87%) and possible (83%).

Since South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, the government’s development plans have focused on redressing racial inequalities in socioeconomic outcomes. The National Development Plan 2030 highlights broadened access to education and other essential services, along with rising incomes, as indicators of the country’s “remarkable progress” over the past two decades: “In nearly every facet of life, advances are being made in building an inclusive society, rolling back the shadow of history and broadening opportunities for all” (National Planning Commission, 2013, p. 14).

Public opinion data from the 2015 Afrobarometer survey in South Africa show that citizens rate the current political system more highly than apartheid, as they have done since the first survey in 2000. However, a majority of South Africans believe that the country has failed to advance on a range of socioeconomic indicators, including personal safety, economic circumstances, employment opportunities, racial relations, and disparities between rich and poor. Among racial groups, Indian citizens are generally the most critical of the country’s development since the transition to democracy.

This critical attitude seems counterintuitive given that Indian and Asian citizens in South Africa enjoy significantly higher average levels of educational attainment and employment than other previously disadvantaged groups (i.e. black and Coloured citizens) (Statistics South Africa, 2015).1 Furthermore, census data indicate that the average annual income of Indian/Asian-headed households increased by 145% between 2001 and 2011 and was well above those for black- and Coloured-headed households (Statistics South Africa, 2012). Although white South Africans continue to account for a majority (69%) of the country’s high–net-worth individuals, this share has declined from more than 80% in 2007 (Fin24, 2015).

Similarly, Afrobarometer data indicate that white and Indian citizens report the lowest levels of material deprivation (or “lived poverty”) in the country.

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Rorisang Lekalake

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