On August 13, the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) project hosted a webinar entitled, ‘The State of South Africa’s Democracy: Insights from Afrobarometer and the South African Reconciliation Barometer surveys’. The webinar sought to present and explain South Africans’ perceptions of democracy. Afrobarometer and SARB project leaders, Dominique Dryding and Mikhail Moosa presented their findings. These data-driven presentations were balanced with the expertise of the IJR’s Inclusive Economies project coordinator, Jaynisha Patel, and the Democracy and Development Programme’s executive director, Dr Paul Kariuki.

Gugu Nonjinge, the Afrobarometer Communications Coordinator for Southern Africa, served as the moderator for the discussion. She opened by introducing the panel and noted the importance of the subject matter given. She also noted that the webinar sought to discuss the impact of poverty, unemployment, and inequality on perceptions of democracy in South Africa.

Dominique was the first to present with a presentation entitled: ‘Are South Africans giving up on democracy?’ She drew on the data from the Afrobarometer survey in South Africa which was conducted in September 2018. Much has happened since the data was collected; the country slipped back into an economic recession, the Zondo Commission was underway, as was the removal of the public protector, university protests continued making headlines, Eskom and SAA were in dire straits, 2019 saw South Africa’s lowest voter turnout since the start of democracy in 1994 and COVID-19 shook the world. Given these events and the national and global impact of COVID-19, the aim of using this data was to determine what perceptions of democracy were before Covid-19 and which democratic values appeared to be deteriorating.

The data shows that South Africans are amongst the least supportive of democracy when compared to the rest of the continent, ranking 30th out of 34 countries surveyed by Afrobarometer. Further, while the rejection of authoritarian regimes remains relatively high, the rejection for authoritarian regimes has dropped in recent years. Additionally, South Africans feel that they have lost ground when it comes to some democratic freedoms and their satisfaction with the way democracy works in the country has declined steadily since 2011.

Overall, the findings suggest that South Africa was entering into a democratic recession well before COVID-19 arrived on its shores. Dominique argued that this has been a result of the failure of democracy to meet the expectations of citizens both politically (i.e. good governance) and economically (i.e. reducing unemployment and poverty) which was expected as the country transitioned from apartheid.

Mikhail followed by presenting findings from the 2019 SARB survey. After briefly sharing the SARB survey methodology and defining democracy, Mikhail discussed the 2019 national elections as a moment of crisis in South Africa’s democracy, recording the lowest voter turnout. While the ANC continued their domination at the polls and received substantially more votes than any opposition party, the overall number of votes for the ANC has declined in recent years, despite the increasing population. Further, with a record number of unregistered voters, it has become clear than rather than voting for an opposition party, more people have opted out of voting. Interestingly, as voter turnout for national elections decreases, there has been a steady increase in voter turnout for local elections, suggesting increased interest in local-level politics.

Mikhail then explained that politics also happens outside of the electoral processes and despite decreased engagement with elections, South Africans have turned to other forms of political engagement. These include attending community meetings, contacting local councillors, signing petitions and/or protesting. The SARB findings also show that the majority of South Africans do not believe that political leaders care about what people think and that once elected to parliament/ politicians lose touch with the people. Adding to this negative trend, the majority of South Africans also perceive voting to be meaningless and that their vote does not matter. Mikhail concluded by discussing the prospects for South Africa’s democracy in the future, noting that the 2021 local government elections are critical. He predicts a decrease in voter turnout as people’s faith in electoral politics declines.

Jaynisha followed, with a presentation entitled: ‘Inclusive Development, Democracy and Trust’. Jaynisha argued for the inextricable link between inclusive development and democracy. She posited that restoring democratic participation and trust can be done by pursuing policies that put South Africa on a growth path of inclusive development.

Jaynisha argued that it is the extractive nature of our democratic institutions that yield the weaning enthusiasm for South Africa’s democracy. The social contract which exists between the elected government and the people is being undermined by development which is extractive and exclusive. She explained that equitable growth is essential for democracy as it is a more sustainable type of growth. The alternative creates an economy more vulnerable to shocks. This is demonstrated by the negative correlation between GDP growth in the country and the incidences of social unrest.

Jaynisha then made an argument for pluralism, saying that it can be used as a mechanism to restore faith in South Africa’s democracy. The move to deepen elitism was felt recently when the lockdown regulations did not consider the informal sector, which makes up 30% of South Africa’s labour force. Jaynisha concluded by arguing that if we allow the elite to extract from the many then we are allowing the few to undermine our democracy and the democratic institutions which they serve South Africans through.

Dr Kariuki was the fourth and final speaker. He opened by noting that democracy is not just a conceptual idea, it is a lived reality for most people. Echoing what was presented in the earlier, presentations, Dr Kariuki noted that democratic disillusionment was a result of goods promised at the end of apartheid not being realised in the democratic era. While a portion of citizens has experienced these democratic goods, the majority have been sidelined.

Dr Kariuki then argued that citizens still have the power to transform the democratic disillusionment through the ballot box. He insisted on the need for citizens to exercise their right to vote if they hope for change. He stated that exercising this right was the only way to come back to the principals of democracy that are valued in society, such as the rule of law, public participation, and collective governance. He then went on to explain that a re-contracting of the social contract, between citizens and the state, needs to take place with citizens’ interests replacing that of elites. In doing so we will be able to mitigate the risk factors which have increased the fragility of South Africa’s democracy. Dr Kariuki concluded by noting that if this does not take place, coupled with high levels of inequality, unemployment and chronic poverty, South Africa is headed for a social revolution.

By bringing together unique perspectives and data sources, this webinar was able to unpack the state of South Africa’s democracy. It was well attended and in addition to the fruitful discussion which followed, it garnered substantial media interest. Thank you to all those who participated and helped behind the scenes.

Dominique Dryding, Project Leader: Afrobarometer at IJR