Hidden discontent

2011-03-30 00:00

SOUTH Africa is a fairly successful functioning democracy and it has a slowly developing economy, but it is also one of the most unequal societies in the world. As we approach the local elections on May 18, we are bound to ask how the "poorest of the poor" feel about things. What are their views of their current situation, and of our democratic dispensation? Those who are at or towards the bottom of the economic ladder are often mentioned by political analysts, and occasionally by politicians, but their experiences and opinions seldom make it into the media.

On April 1, however, there is to be published a report which gives us some valuable insights into the lives, thoughts and feelings of the poor. The document is called the "2010 Democracy Perception Barometer Report", and it is produced by Pacsa, the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness, a faith-based NGO with aims and sympathies that are not in any way exclusive. (Pacsa played a distinguished part in the anti-apartheid struggle, and one of the city's main streets is now named after its founding director, Peter Kerchhoff.)

The report is the result of a careful and nuanced study of the views of a cross-section of people, 330 of them, living in six areas that fall within the uMgungundlovu District Municipality: Nxamalala, Gezubuso, Mafakatini and KwaMpande (in the Msunduzi Municipality), Ndaleni (in the Richmond Municipality) and Trust Feed (in the uMshwati Municipality). Of these areas, Ndaleni is urban or peri-urban; all the rest are rural — though not as intensely rural as places far from a major town. The aim of the study is above all to probe the attitudes of poor people towards the democratic dispensation that has been in place since the mid-nineties.

The questions put to those interviewed were carefully thought out and open-ended: the aim was not to constrain but to allow people to express themselves fully. Needless to say there were some differences of view, and there were differences between the majority views in the six different area­s; but certain general tendencies of thought and feeling emerged clearly. Most of the respondents showed a perhaps surprisingly mature awareness of the main principles of democracy — intellectual and physical freedom, the opportunity to express one's views, equality before the law, human rights — and most agreed that real human and social gains had been made in these respects in the last 15 years. But as poor people, most of them unemployed and largely reliant on social grants, they were bound to judge the new democratic dispensation mainly on the effects that it had produced on their lives; and this had been disappointing. To them democracy was seen as a varied package that included socioeconomic elements, and the failure of these parts of the package tended largely to downgrade everything else.

In response to further questions and probings, most of the respondents said that they were unhappy about the general direction in which South Africa was going, largely again because they felt themselves to be victims of current realities. Many of them also felt that, as rural people, they were marginalised, that the government was concerned above all with city dwellers. But were things getting better? Many said a grudging yes, but they stressed that the main problem, employment, had still to be tackled.

How did most of them feel about local democratic structures?

They were pleased to have the vote, but seemed not really to see it as a means of producing change. This may be because in their areas the African National Congress is seemingly unchallengeable. While conceding that improvements had been made, in some areas more than in others, they felt that their elected representatives were largely inadequate, insufficiently alert to the needs of their constituents. In some cases they may have been hoping for more than could possibly have been delivered, but no doubt much of their discontent is justified.

I cannot summarise the whole report, which is 37 pages long. It can be accessed, from April 1, on the Pacsa website (www.pacsa. org.za).

The report makes the point that the people in these six areas, marginalised and vulnerable as they are, are not very likely to express their discontent by means of direct confrontation of the authorities. But in various parts of the country, as we know, very angry protests have taken place. As we move towards the elections on May 18, it is salutary to remember that there are millions of South Africans whose lives of poverty and misery are unlikely to be greatly affected by the election results.

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