Do South Africans still want democracy?

An Afrobarometer report has revealed that only three in 10 South Africans say they demand democracy and reject authoritarian rule.

FILE: A Mamelodi resident holds out his thumb outside the Balebogeng Primary School after voting in the 2016 local government elections. Picture: Reinart Toerien/EWN

JOHANNESBURG – In the wake of a robust debate around the country’s leadership and the growing perception that constitutional institutions are being used to push a political agenda, a report has shown that South Africans are not yet fully committed to democracy.

The latest findings by Afrobarometer, which were released on Tuesday in a report titled Do Africans Still Want Democracy, show that:

  • 64% of citizens say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government

  • 80% “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove” of presidential dictatorship

  • 72% are against one-party rule, and

  • 67% denounce military rule.

However, only three in 10 South Africans, which equates to 35%, say they demand democracy and reject all three forms of authoritarian rule.

These findings, which are based on interviews with about 54,000 citizens in 36 African countries, offer a sobering assessment of the current status of the country’s democracy among ordinary South Africans.

Analysis of ‘demand for democracy’ over time shows that popular support has been relatively low and stagnant since 2002, and that the proportion of South Africans who hold all four views has declined since 2011.

Popular conceptions of democracy in Africa show that people understand democracy as a system for producing concrete outcomes.

People demand democracy not only because of the way it works but also because of the benefits that it delivers – for example, poverty reduction, paid employment and material equality or law and order, good governance and free and fair political competition.

Afrobarometer notes that this decline in demand for democracy may be explained by declining trust in leaders and institutions, including accountability.

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Previous analysis by Afrobarometer showed that 61% of citizens say they would be willing to give up elections in favour of a non-democratic government that could deliver basic services like security, housing and employment.

At the same time, earlier this year the Municipal IQ released a report which reflected a decrease in service delivery protests in 2016.

This was the year of local government elections which saw the governing party, the African National Congress lose three major metros (Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane) to the main opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

Municipal IQ reports there have been at least 107 protests between January and August, compared to 164 during the same period last year.

The numbers also reflect a three-year downward trend since 2014.

The organisation has noted that it appears that disgruntled voters in these provinces took protests to the local government elections with political change in some councils.

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Additional reporting by Xolani Koyana