Support for authoritarianism has increased; confidence in governmental institutions decreased, says political analyst

While there is support for democratic rule and the current political system, support for authoritarianism has increased and confidence in government institutions has decreased in South Africa, Stellenbosch University senior political science lecturer Dr Cindy Steenekamp said on Sunday.

“In 1994, South Africans welcomed democracy with open arms. But today this embrace doesn’t seem to be as tight as we would like it to be. It appears that we aren’t quite so sure what to make of our democracy,” she said.

In a recent study, Steenekamp, for the first time, mapped the characteristics of a democracy community in South Africa by looking at people’s commitment to democratic values and their support for the country’s democratic regime and political authorities. Her research question related specifically to the persistence of democracy and how this had been impacted by the political attitudes and behaviour of South Africans since 1994. The findings of Steenekamp’s study were published in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy.

She analysed data from the last four waves of the World Values Survey (WVS) conducted in South Africa between 1995 and 2013 to measure the level of political culture in the country, the support for the democratic regime and the political process, as well as the level of institutional trust in political parties, government, and parliament.

The WVS was a valuable worldwide network of social scientists studying changing values and their impact on social and political life over time. During each of the four periods, face-to-face interviews were held with representative samples of adult South Africans in urban and rural areas in their preferred language.

Steenekamp said the analysis of this data revealed that while there was support for democratic rule and the current political system, support for authoritarianism had increased and confidence in government institutions had decreased.

“On the one hand, support for democratic rule is fairly high, despite a sharp decline between 2006 and 2013, and higher than support for authoritarian rule. Support for the current political system is steadily increasing.

“At the same time, however, support for authoritarianism has more than doubled since 1995 and is nearing the 50 percent threshold and confidence in governmental institutions is decreasing and, in 2013, dropped below 50 percent for the first time since transition,” she said.

“The fact that the gap between support for democratic rule and authoritarian rule has narrowed from 71.3 percent in 1995 to 25.2 percent in 2013 does not bode well for the persistence of a democratic community in South Africa.”

Steenekamp said confidence in various governmental institutions, such as political parties, parliament, and the government, decreased by more than 20 percent between 1995 and 2013.

She also noted that data showed a decline in South Africans’ positive attitude toward law-abidingness, despite the fact that they generally condemned unconventional forms of political behaviour, such as protest action and the use of force to gain political goods.

Steenekamp said there could be different reasons for these contradictory results. “One could argue that commitment to democracy has not become fully entrenched in our value system as a result of the socio-economic reality that plagues the country. Although the black middle class has grown since 1994 the challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality remain. Despite the provision of basic infrastructure and social welfare, the majority of South Africans are yet to substantially improve their living standards.

“Also the changing nature of party politics, especially within the ANC, and rampant political corruption are likely responsible for South Africans’ loss of confidence in the state and political leaders. The increase in unconventional political behaviour (ie, protest action in response to poor service delivery) is a direct result of citizen dissatisfaction with the state.”

According to Steenekamp, the levels of discontent and civil disobedience could become the dominant political resource used by the people to mobilise public opinion and influence policy makers. “Protest action has a negative effect on the persistence of a democratic community and culture once it becomes violent.”

It should not be forgotten that unlike an authoritarian regime, a democratic government such as South Africa’s needed the support of its citizens to maintain its legitimacy. She highlighted the importance of a political culture conducive to democracy and said “democratic institutions alone will not keep our democracy stable and effective”.

– African News Agency (ANA)