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South Africans Unhappy with Democracy’s Performance Ahead of Polls – Survey

Are South Africans happy with their democracy?

South Africans are unhappy with how their democratic system responds to their real needs,” said Jan Hofmeyr, Policy and Analysis Programme head at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and the core partner director for implementing Afrobarometer’s work in Southern Africa.

“This does not mean they reject democracy itself, but rather they are unhappy with its current functioning,” Hofmeyr said as Afrobarometer presented the results from the survey conducted between April 23, 2024, and May 11 with 1,800 respondents aged 18 and above, selected from a database of 14 million mobile phone numbers.

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Afrobarometer, described as a ‘pan-African, non-partisan research network that measures public attitudes on economic, political, and social matters in Africa”, released its first telephonic poll. Traditionally, Afrobarometer has focused on face-to-face interviews. “But given the short timeframe before the elections, we conducted this survey by phone,” Hofmeyr said.

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“Less than half of South Africans feel connected to a political party ahead of the election. Around one-third of registered voters intending to cast a ballot are still uncertain on which party to support on May 29th,” Hofmeyr said. He cautioned about making clear predictions, saying “If you have come here to have a clear and accurate prediction of how our election is likely to turn out on the 29th of May, you might’ve come to the wrong place…  Many factors could influence the results over the next week.”

Dissatisfaction with South Africa’s Path

Afrobarometer’s poll reveals high dissatisfaction with South Africa’s current direction, with around 85% of respondents expressing this view, while only 13% felt the country was headed in the right direction.

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“The growing dissatisfaction with the country’s direction and concerns over unemployment, electricity provision, and corruption are the most intractable problems we face,” Hofmeyr said. “There has been a steady increase in the percentage of South Africans feeling the country is not moving in the right direction.”

Issues like unemployment, load shedding, corruption, and the cost of living are major concerns.  The issue of water supply is also a rising concern among surveyed individuals.

“Unemployment has increased from 23% to 33%, and the percentage of employed South Africans has shrunk from 46% to 41%. More than half of South Africans do not work, which significantly impacts societal issues,” Hofmeyr said.

Free and fair elections

The belief that upcoming elections will be free and fair has declined over time, with fewer South Africans now confident in the fairness of their elections, reports Afrobarometer.

He contrasted this with previous years: “This dissatisfaction has grown over time. In 2011, only about 39% were unhappy with the way democracy was functioning, whereas now it’s 62%. This shows incremental increases over time.”

While there was broad dissatisfaction with how democracy is functioning, Hofmeyr noted that a majority still anticipated the May 29th elections would be free and fair.

Voter Participation and Intentions

Hofmeyr provided insights on voter participation and intentions ahead of the elections:

  • 86% of survey respondents indicated they are registered to vote
  • Of those registered, 90% said they intend to vote
  • However, around 32% of registered voters intending to vote said they have not made up their minds on who to support

“So while most indicated they were registered and likely to vote, around a third of likely voters remain undecided, highlighting uncertainty about the election outcome,” Hofmeyr said.

Public’s views of recent electoral reforms

In regards to the introduction of independent candidates, at least half of South Africans view it positively, while a quarter disapprove. At least 45% supported the idea of forming a governing coalition, although 28% disapproved.

He added that at least half or 47% of South Africans do not feel a strong connection to any political party.

“However,” he said. “The African National Congress is still, by a large margin, the biggest beneficiary of party loyalty. About 34% of those indicated that they are close to a political party are ANC supporters.”

Hofmeyr concluded by saying that South Africans continue to suffer under the burden of poverty, inequality, and employment despite some major gains in the first decade of democracy. “Progress seemed to have stalled over the past decade and a half. And for this reason, there has been growing satisfaction also with how democracy has functioned in addressing this triple scourge of poverty, inequality, and unemployment,” he said.

We might see a spike in turnout, maybe not as high as before but higher than last time

Political analyst, Ebrahim Fakir, the Director of Programs at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI), commended the survey for “centering the voices of citizens” rather than focusing solely on political parties as contestants.

Fakir suggested making a “conceptual distinction” between attitudes towards democracy as a set of practices and attitudes towards democratic governance. “I think it would be interesting in the future to separate these concepts and measure attitudes towards both independently,” he said.

Regarding voting intentions, Fakir said that given previous research on declining trust in institutions, he was “not frankly horribly surprised. I don’t think much of this is attributable to disinterest, apathy, or a lack of political engagement. South Africa remains highly politicized as a culture with a massive interest in politics…”  He voiced concern over the declining trust in the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) and its connection to perceptions of unfair elections. “There is an unfortunate correlation between politicians criticizing the IEC and the significant drop in trust regarding the elections being free and fair.”

He suggested that voter turnout might be higher than anticipated due to voters’ desire to “reward or punish” political parties. “We might see a spike in turnout, maybe not as high as before but higher than last time fueled by voters’ desire to reward or punish.”

The survey was conducted by phone, ensuring all data complied with privacy laws (POPIA) and participants could choose not to participate or have their information removed. Importantly, the survey forms part of a broader panel study with a second survey that will be completed after the election – and the same respondents will participate in the second round.

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