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Zuma isn’t exactly Mr Popular

A top cop involved in investigating the controversial R70 billion arms deal of 1999 has maintained ANC and government officials " including President Jacob Zuma " most likely received bribes to influence the awarding of multimillion rand arms contracts. File Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams

A top cop involved in investigating the controversial R70 billion arms deal of 1999 has maintained ANC and government officials " including President Jacob Zuma " most likely received bribes to influence the awarding of multimillion rand arms contracts. File Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams

Published Mar 22, 2015


The people’s verdict on the president doesn’t paint a very pretty picture, writes Susan Booysen.

If the people of South Africa could vote on the National Assembly’s motion of no-confidence in President Jacob Zuma, and his government, what outcome might we have seen this week? Judged by public opinion surveys the answer is: “At best scraping by on 50 percent.”

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When we imagine public opinion polls as “virtual referendums” in which all citizens participate, neither Zuma nor South Africa’s core state institutions under the Zuma watch fare well.

The polls ask citizens at regular intervals how confident they are that the president of South Africa, national, provincial and local government, the South African Police Service (SAPS), and many other institutions of democracy are doing their work well.

Sound random sampling enables us to know that all South Africans are being heard. Besides these quantitative poll “votes”, qualitative surveys like focus groups have been enlightening us on citizens’ arguments behind the percentages.

This brief review of major public opinion surveys unpacks how ordinary South Africans across the country view the president and his government.

Space prohibits full details of reference to all polls, or details of sophisticated methodologies to explain the differences between surveys and the demographic breakdowns of the “votes”.

Suffice to say that for this “people’s vote”, I focus on top-notch surveys, all with sound procedures.

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The government and the ANC also use several of the research companies cited. They may even draw on the exact data sets to inform decision-making.

At the heart of the matter, Zuma is the figurehead of state and government. The ANC puts him forward as “the best we have for the job”. TNS-Global tracks the public’s satisfaction with the performance of the president among the country’s metropolitan citizens.

The latest available data, from August last year, shows that the president falls far short of the electoral endorsement level that the ANC gets.

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A total of 48 percent said they do not approve of the president’s performance, while 44 percent approved (8 percent were uncertain or did not share their opinions).

Ipsos monitors perceptions of the president’s performance in all locations. Its last year’s score is marginally higher at 51 percent, despite the ANC backbone of rural support bolstering these scores.

Ipsos and TNS track the performance and give scores that cover the whole of the Zuma period as president of South Africa. In both polls, Zuma’s highest score was when he started his presidency in 2009. It has been downhill since.

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The only exception, for both polls, is that the first post-2014 election rating was a touch better than before the election. As Ipsos’s Mari Harris notes, it is common worldwide for leaders to get improved ratings immediately after an election. Sustained recovery is another issue. The TNS survey reports that Zuma’s approval rating has dropped 9 percentage points since 2009.

For Ipsos, the slide downward has been a staggering 26 percentage points. At one point early last year, before the modest post-election recovery, a mere 34 percent of the TNS survey’s metropolitan South Africans approved of the president’s performance, while 58 percent disapproved.

Across the time-board, Zuma’s poll-based approval ratings lag far behind the ANC’s 62 percent electoral endorsement. Obviously, polls are not actual elections and many factors except approval or disapproval enter the election decision, but Zuma’s remark that “the ANC is in trouble” comes to mind. Could he have been thinking of these disconcerting multi-poll assessments from the people?

Political parties often benefit from charismatic and inspiring leaders who pull in greater ratings than their parties.

The polls say the ANC can hardly rely on such a benefit. Based on credible poll findings, a prominent Joburg pollster told me just before last year’s election that should the ANC “discard” its leader, even just days before that election, it could add up to 8 percentage points to its election tally.

That could have returned the ANC to its 2004 result heights.

As important as the presidential ratings are, citizens’ perceptions of the institutions of the state complete the picture.

In South Africa, the bulk of the institutions are commanded by the ANC and are subject to presidential power, formally or informally. How do our state institutions fare in the polls? They are doing poorly and are often in precipitous decline.

Professor Hennie Kotzé’s World Values Survey (WVS), released this week through the Democracy Development Programme, reports declining confidence in a cluster of public institutions that define the South African state. The Institute of Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) results match these trends.

WVS shows that confidence in “the government” (47 percent), police (45 percent), armed forces (58 percent) and the courts (50 percent) in 2013 were at their lowest since the first post-1994 measurement of 1995.

In the decade from 2003 to 2013, the IJR measurement of confidence in the Presidency and national and provincial government declined from 77 to 55 percent, 73 to 55 percent and 65 to 52 percent respectively.

While the absolute measurements of IJR are higher than those of the WVS, the overall trend in both cases is one of serial and serious decline. And these are mere snippets of information.

There are vaults full of comparable data. The precipitous declines in confidence tell the tale of the seachange that set in with the advent of the Zuma state.

Confidence and trust are building blocks to state legitimacy, and the erosion is tangible.

The ANC is keen to argue that the people are not concerned about corruption and that the media and opposition parties construct this agenda. In contrast, focus group results in the 20 Years of Democracy study that I conducted in late 2013 showed many citizens were desperate to have a government not as tainted by corruption as their own.

It is clear, too, that the situation has been worsening over time. Afrobarometer trend analysis shows that in 2002 just over 10 percent of South Africans believed there was corruption in the Presidency.

By 2011, that figure approached 40 percent. Even worse, beliefs that government officials generally and local government officials specifically were corrupt at that time reached the 50 percent mark for both institutions.

Research by Jos Kuper’s future-fact late last year (representative of all communities in South Africa that are larger than 500 people) shows 81 percent of these citizens believe it is the duty of the media to expose corruption among politicians and business people.

The futurefact index of confidence in public institutions reveals that the Constitutional Court and the Public Protector are the two public institutions that citizens trust best.

Journalists also do well – the citizenry in general has far more confidence in journalists than in local government, SAPS or the ANC.

Perhaps the only solid support the ANC has is from within.

As with all political parties, the ANC scores far higher on the confidence index when its supporters are the only ones asked. This is compatible with the Ipsos finding that seven of every 10 ANC supporters evaluate their president’s performance as very or fairly well. However, less than a quarter of ANC supporters (23 percent) believe the president is doing his job as president of the country “very well”.

Elections tell us which political party is best trusted to take South Africa forward for another five years. The 2014 election has indeed been a considerable endorsement of the ANC. Nevertheless, as revealed by the world of people’s poll voices, public opinion surveys taken during the Zuma era show a wall of declining ratings for his government.

The poll findings are important and unfiltered assessments. Polls are honest in reflecting the state of citizens’ assessments when they are less inclined to express themselves along party political lines, to defend the ANC’s victory over apartheid, or endorse the present-day reincarnation of the liberation struggle. They are candid glimpses into the hearts and minds of South Africans.

Just as well there isn’t an anonymous button, without electoral implications and not recorded by security agencies, on every cellphone for citizens to give their verdict in no-confidence debates.

* Booysen is professor at the Wits School of Governance.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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