Time and trust are bedfellows that South Africa is in short supply of. The column inches and headlines of the year 2015 have been riddled with doom and gloom and corruption scandals. South Africa is running very short on time, patience and understanding from citizens, who are more and more ready to bypass the system in order to achieve their desired outcome. It looks as though we have run out of time and trust in our leaders is at an all-time low.
On Tuesday this week, Afrobarometer, a “pan-African, non-partisan research network”, released its survey and report on how South Africans perceive their elected leaders. Afrobarometer operates across 30 African countries assessing the public’s attitude on democracy, governance, and economic conditions. Afrobarometer’s team in South Africa is led by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, interviewed “2,400 adult South Africans” in August to September. Previous surveys were conducted in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011.
The focus in our constitutional democracy seems transfixed, almost obsessed, on the President, our own Number One, and so much of the reporting has focussed on how South Africans don’t trust President Jacob Zuma, and perceive him to be a liability. Public opinion does not seem to correlate with the fact that Zuma and the governing ANC were returned to office in May of last year with a majority of 62%. This is a reminder that numbers are not always a fair reflection of what South Africans actually think when they are in the voting booth. Our elections are not simply about numbers and polling.
The Afrobarometer report suggests that, of those surveyed, 62% did not approve of the President’s performance, and that there was a noticeable difference in the response between urban and rural respondents. The obsession with Number One speaks to the notion that big men and women are often perceived to be more important than the democratic institutions that are actually required to serve the citizens. It also means we have not spent enough time building sound, independent and sustainable institutions that make citizens feel their interest are being served.
We as a citizenry, from our various walks of life, allowed complacency, hope, legend, the “miracle 1994 moment”, and often our own interest to take root. Where we are is not the fault of the ANC voters, as some would argue, but rather this current turbulence is the convergence of a passive citizenry and leaders who have lost their way.
The focus of the Afrobarometer survey, however, is not on Zuma, but rather on how South Africans feel about their elected leaders, and this would include those who are not in the governing ANC. The Afrobarometer report suggests that there is a growing level of dissatisfaction with our Members of Parliament (42% approval), and our local government councillors (36% approval). Simply put, in the past year of those surveyed a majority disapprove of the performance of the President (62%), local councillors (61%) and MPs (54%).
Anyone who doesn’t suffer from selective and/or historical amnesia will not be surprised by the findings of Afrobarometer, as they would remember that in 2013, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation released the South African Reconciliation Barometer, and reported that there was a “drop in citizen’s confidence in governance institutions, especially national government (10.8% decrease since 2012), as well as a 13% increase in the percentage of citizens who feel that government does not care about people like them”.
The writing has been on the wall for some time, South Africa has become a hotbed for exclusion, inequality and a growing sense that elected leaders are no longer performing but more concerning is that they do not care about citizens – they are out of touch.
The status quo or a business as usual approach cannot be the answer to confronting these perceptions and lived experiences. There are two dominant narratives that are emerging, one being that South Africa has lost its way and needs new leaders, and the second is that South Africa is not teetering for balance, but rather it is at the abyss of disaster. The problems have been described in a multitude of colours and languages, yet we stubbornly wait on the precipice, and there is no quick fix.
As long as citizens feel unable to influence and direct the centres of power in government and in the private sector, they will continue to feel excluded, and feel that they have no other option, but to resort to some form of protest. We have seen this trend in the disruptions and the rise of a new and alternative voice, and the movements of #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall, where citizens are bypassing the traditional centres of power.
This trend, if made mainstream, will be far more disastrous than any polling figures of Zuma. DM