A Generation of Democracy in South Africa: Insights on Political Participation from the South African Reconciliation Barometer

Nearly a generation has passed since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. At this stage, how healthy is the country’s democracy? Since the proliferation of electoral democracy in Africa in the 1990s, some critics have argued that liberal democracy, as it functions in Western Europe, is simply unsuitable for the diverse societies of Africa, especially those with a history of violence and oppression. More recently, some political scientists have noted the global decline of democratic norms in many countries, while others have warned of the imminent collapse of liberal democracy itself. The success of democracy’s growth in Africa has proved to be uneven over time and across various countries, but Africans in several countries have long struggled for greater democratic freedoms. South Africa, in particular, has a long history of pro-democracy mobilisation. However, since the establishment of democracy in the 1990s, do citizens still value the freedoms afforded by democracy and do they believe democracy is an effective political system? This paper provides novel insights into South Africans’ perceptions of democracy, specifically their attitudes towards political participation. The data is from the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), a nationally representative public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). While analysis of SARB data has previously gauged political participation in South Africa, this paper benefits from using multiple rounds of SARB surveys to track changes in public opinion over time. To supplement the analysis of public opinion data, this paper also draws on data from the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) on national elections and provides an overview of the dominant party theory and how this might affect democratic participation.