Is the public losing faith in democracy?

Despite years of economic growth, life is not improving for most South Africans. This has shaken people’s confidence in our democratic institutions, according to an annual audit by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR).

The study, which tracks the feelings of 3500 ordinary citizens, found an alarming slump in public confidence in the country’s leaders and representative institutions. Public approval of the government’s performance has declined by more than 20% on: transparency and accountability; cost of living; correct appointments; implementing affirmative action; reducing crime; controlling inflation; narrowing the income gap. “Public trust is the key to the operation of a healthy democracy, and it is hemorrhaging away while leadership scrambles for the spoils,” says outgoing IJR executive director Charles Villa-Vicencio. One of the contributors to the audit, political science lecturer Ralph Mathekga, said that if people were indifferent to democracy, this opened the way for leaders who were indifferent too. “This is one of the risks that South Africa is facing,” he added. Mathekga said the problem lay with the economy’s failure to lessen the burden on the poor. “The whole structure is not bad, but we need to direct the economy towards a more distributed pattern so that democracy can be seen to benefit ordinary people,” he said. “I think that what’s happening in countries like ours is a revolution of rising expectations,” said audit editor Susan Brown. “We’ve seen extraordinary improvements in service delivery, but people expect to be in line with those who’ve benefited the most. “They measure themselves against the BEE glitterati. That makes for real social unrest. People are seeing inequality and want the government to tell them why.” The drop in public confidence also comes despite significant improvements in service delivery. The audit shows public approval for the government’s performance in service delivery dropped only 7 percent and remained high at 67,8 percent.

The audit found that citizens want more communication from their leaders. IJR political analyst Jan Hofmeyr said development backlogs were so huge that the government could not rely on service delivery alone to strengthen trust in South Africa’s democratic institutions. It had to take citizens into its confidence to explain problems such as inequality, the failure of education, and the task of job creation.

The audit also expresses concern about the “hollowing out” of the public sector as people leave for the private sector. “Between 30 percent and 20 percent of posts in all provinces are empty,” said Brown. Negative perceptions of the public sector rendered it unable to retain highly skilled and competent people.

“We have extremely shaky institutions that are supposed to be delivering extremely important services,” she noted. Villa-Vicencio’s successor, Dr Fanie du Toit, posed the question: “Will our institutions be strong enough to survive our next set of leaders? Will they be strong enough to put up with the vagaries of politicians? This study is saying we need to be very careful.”

*Used with permission from Consumer Fair January February 2008 edition (Published by the National Consumer Forum)