OPINION | Democracy loses its glow for South Africans amid persistent inequality

South Africans believed that the introduction of democracy in 1994 would transform their lives for the better through equality of opportunities. This hasn’t happened.

Socioeconomic inequality and job scarcity, as well as unequal opportunity to quality education have created a view that democracy has not delivered a better life for all.

The country celebrates 28 years of democracy at a time when democracy is under threat globally, in the context of growing inequality and mistrust in democratic institutions.

Increasingly, scholars focus on what makes democracy valuable amid its decline. This is important given the global rise in populist and anti-democratic politics and authoritarianism.

The Human Science Research Council’s South African Social Attitudes Survey, conducted annually, shows that South Africans are increasingly dissatisfied with democracy. In 2004, when the country celebrated a decade of democracy, 59% were satisfied with democracy. Now only 32% are satisfied with how democracy is working in SA.

Are South Africans giving up on democracy, as some are asking. And what’s to be made of some political elites who are speaking out against the value of the country’s constitutional democracy?

After almost three decades of democracy, it is important to ask: What meaning do South Africans attach to the idea of democracy? This is important considering that democracies endure when there is an intrinsic commitment to democratic values and principles, even during economic hardship.

Based on my research, as well as the results of recent surveys, it’s clear that there is a sense of disempowerment among South Africans, most notably among young people. This sense of disempowerment is premised on the view that their voice, life choices, and sense of freedom are undermined by a lack of equality of opportunity.

This inequality of opportunity is seen as a form of continued oppression informed by the view that the quality of life has not necessarily improved for most South Africans.

Views of democracy

South Africans attach an instrumentalist value to democracy. This is evident in the views that democracy does not deliver, most notably among the youth. Democracy is valued more because of delivering socioeconomic goods such as social welfare, housing, and income grants. They don’t necessarily view democracy as having intrinsic value as the best political system to achieve a just society based on human rights, dignity, freedom and equality.

In other words, they value democracy based on what it can do for them, not because they believe it is the best form of government. This is evident in the growing levels of institutional mistrust and growing political disengagement  from formal democratic processes like voting. This creates a weak foundation for the sustainability of the country’s democracy in that in times of economic hardship, the legitimacy of democracy as a political system declines in the public view. Therefore,…

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