After 20 years of democracy, South Africans celebrate that human rights have been realized and that society is transforming. While there is strong disappointment with the government and its leaders, South Africans retain their faith in the democratic system and do not transfer their discontent to the African National Congress (ANC). These are among the key findings of Freedom House's study of South African democracy, conducted through 27 moderated focus groups convened between June and October 2013 that included South Africans from all racial and income groups and from rural as well as urban areas.
Other findings include:
- South Africans take their human rights for granted and retain faith in the democratic system, with strong support for voting.
- The ANC maintains strong voter support, despite considerable public cynicism about government and politicians.
- Citizens expect the government to build on the substantial amount it delivered during the first two decades of democracy, even if they distrust many state institutions.
- Citizens see legislative institutions as weak, unresponsive and corrupt.
- There is an extreme lack of confidence in the police, fuelled by rampant crime and the belief that lawlessness prevails.
- Although there are exceptions, most South Africans consign the experience of pervasive racism to history, and young people have moved beyond thinking along racial lines.
The study generated an authoritative dataset that makes possible new understandings of contemporary South African democracy. This executive summary outlines and interprets the main findings of the accompanying detailed research report.
South Africans maintain the ANC in power despite frequent criticisms of lack of accountability and self-serving behaviors amongst ANC leaders in government. To justify this support, citizens displace blame for the barrage of wrong-doings that they themselves cite. Thus, even as they find reasons to support the ANC, they condemn the government, or they exonerate government leaders while condemning those who are entrusted with implementation. Significantly, they believe that national government is more trustworthy than the local.
A deep sense of identification with the ANC prevails; it is part of citizens' culture to support the ANC. A young man from Emalahleni equates ANC support with a 'car that was smashed up in an accident' which one repairs, not replaces. South Africans know their leaders have been enriching themselves; however, they believe that, should a new party come to power, the new leaders may also start amassing wealth, thus pushing citizens even further down the queue for gains from the democratic system.
The ANC has forged a post-apartheid identity which helps build citizen loyalty. Society is racially transformed -- despite smaller contemporary reminders of racial indignities -- and the ANC is seen as the
movement that delivered the country from apartheid. It has created a monopoly over associations with liberation.
The voices in these focus groups talk about the main opposition party, the largely minority-supported Democratic Alliance (DA), as too reminiscent of the racial past. It is fine as an opposition party, they indicate, but they are uncertain whether the past may reoccur should they give this party their vote. They give credit to the DA for some racial transformation within the party, but they still believe, in the words of a woman from the rural village of Viking, that the party leader 'is going to come with some stunts'. They also recognize the DA's help in forcing the government to be more accountable, but they do not reward this by switching their vote.
As for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a young man from Richards Bay says they speak the 'language of truth to power'. Many of the groups echo this sentiment. An older man from Khayelitsha argues that EFF leaders' past as part of the ANC means they represent 'loyal opposition'.
Substantial societal transformation and policy implementation in the first two decades of democracy have helped the ANC build its continuous support. Political freedoms have become ingrained in South Africans' civic personalities. Few -- particularly black-Africans -- fail to see positive changes in housing, education, health, basic services and social grants. All of these services are recognized as flawed, if not seriously deficient. Nevertheless, citizens display immense patience; like an older man in Theunissen, they use the phrase 'Rome was not built in one day'.
Many look at the government as a caring parent, accepting that this parent-government retains its benevolent status in the eyes of the people. In a notable paradox, however, citizens have also started to wonder how much this government really cares. They see the current leadership class as the new 'haves' of the post-apartheid system. In this view, the leaders care for their own pockets and those of their associates. The absence of political leaders from the communities they supposedly represent exacerbates the belief that they care more for themselves than for the people. 'This is the new inequality that is killing our democracy', said a man from Hammanskraal. Participants also expressed that the politically connected and unconnected are not equal before the law.
The search for employment informs this new cleavage. Amidst very high levels of unemployment, citizens observe jobs being taken by those who are connected to the political elite. Despite the cynicism, however, they still see prospects for leaders reconsidering their current ways. In the words of a man from Khayelitsha, 'in my heart I hope that one day government will sober up and see the difference between those who are rich and those who are poor'.
The realities of being continually disadvantaged are reinforced through deficiencies in the quality of life on the ground. Citizens are exposed to crime and to police whom they see as complicit with and sympathetic to criminals, leaving law-abiding citizens feeling vulnerable. They see suspected rapists and violent robbers roaming their streets, within a day or two of being charged. There is little prospect of a fair trial because 'the files get eaten by the dog', as a woman from the Barberton group remarked. Communities round up criminals themselves and beat them as a pragmatic alternative to the police taking an extended time to respond to calls.
In the focus groups, citizens across all provincial, racial, class and party political lines stated that the government institutions designed to be accessible and responsive -- the local, provincial and national legislative institutions -- are instead distant and unresponsive. In their place, some citizens recommend protest: 'Cause chaos and get representation' is the advice from Richards Bay. Paradoxically, this form of direct action helps citizens remain loyal to the ANC because there is a perception that it produces results. Direct advocacy in the form of complaints to the government gives people another avenue to extract more services, rather than switch to an opposition party.
Despite citizens relying on or supporting protest to improve representation, the report findings testify to the continued love affair with elections. Most citizens' disappointment with the institutions of democratic government and disillusionment with political elites do not mean that they disavow elections. Some will vote in order to make change -- either to strengthen an opposition party of choice, or in the belief that after further affirmation, the ANC will deliver more. Others vote for the ANC to protect the 1994 victory. They also support the ANC in tribute to what they see as Mandela's virtuous democracy.