Are South Africans happy?

Tim Cohen

One of the oddities of living in a developing country is a real dearth of data on what people really think. To read the press or listen to the radio, it’s easy to develop what might be described as a snapshot view of where South Africans minds are at. Often, the media seems dominated by people with a particular axe to grind or a particular hobby-horse of one kind or another.

Some of this is natural. Newspapers all over the world tend to serve constituencies. But where media consumption is generally low, you often get this uneasy feeling that there is a gap between real public opinion and a generalised view of the dominant editorial position of the publications concerned.

This happens everywhere, but in most developed countries, the particular views of newspapers or even the media are balanced by regular polls which provide a counterbalancing and stabilising force. Politicians in developed countries are massively guided by opinion polls; in some cases, it would seem, almost too much so, which results in tendency toward short-term solutions.

In developing countries, the problem is almost exactly the opposite: politicians have to rely on their instincts or anecdotal conversations or on expert opinion on which to base their policies. Sometimes these instincts or opinions are spot on, but often they are wildly wrong. Ideas have a tendency to become entrenched and the ebb and flow of public opinion seems to slide under the dominant political ethos without seeming to really affected it much.

Opinion polls have their own problems, but they at least aim to achieve a scientific and objective view. So I was intrigued recently by a rare poll into the views of a cross-section of South Africans. How would these views compare to the picture a Martian might get by reading the press?

The initial results of a survey called FutureFact 2007 reveal that South Africans are a lot more content than the mainstream media suggest.

The first interesting topic where a disconnect is visible concerns optimism. Read the press, and your impression might be of a nation of manic depressives. The economy is turning, the politics is changing, the Zimbabwean collapse is causing widespread anger and bile from all sides of the political spectrum.

But actually, across all classes, the mood is not pessimistic at all. In response to the statement: “My quality of life in SA is much better than it would be elsewhere”, almost 90% of the upper-middle-class respondents in the survey agreed. The same proportion of middle-class respondents agreed too, while 84% of working and lower-class respondents were also optimistic. (Respondents were asked to place themselves in a particular class.)

Views of government were also less negative than it might seem, although the survey was taken last year, before the ruling African National Congress conference in Polokawane where new leadership was installed.

About 87% of working-class respondents agreed with the statement, “While the government has made a lot of mistakes, it has done more good things for the country.” Once again, the higher up the income scale, the higher the score. Just on 90% of the middle class and upper-middle class also agreed.

The big difference between classes was apparent in answer to the question: “Are you satisfied with your life?” Barely 50% of working-class respondents said yes. The proportion increased the higher the socioeconomic group. Middle-class and upper-class respondents responded with 73% and 82% levels of satisfaction respectively.

On reflection, these findings seem intuitively correct and not necessarily at odds with one another. In a developing country, financial well-being is the most crucial variable. Compare these results to findings in developed countries, where often richer people are no more satisfied with their lives than middle-class people.

Yet, the survey also reveals findings that should be a concern to government. Almost six in 10 of the respondents in the upper and middle classes have no desire to leave the country, but about a third are “seriously thinking about it”, as are 19% of the middle class. The proportion declines at the working class level to about 17%, but still, that level seems very high. The proportions increase among the higher educated.

Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of the survey is the level of entrepreneurial spirit, with most respondents indicating that they prefer to provide an income for themselves rather that wait to be provided for by government. Respondents were also reportedly optimistic about their prospects for class mobility, compared with developed countries.

On reflection, this too is not untypical of developing countries either. People can see opportunities and economic growth all around them. The desire to participate in this growth constitutes a powerful force, creating a kind of “lets soldier on” kind of spirit. I think this is because despite the problems reflected in the press, the opportunities seem to be there – if you can only avoid the potholes!

Tim Cohen is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of South African publications. He is currently contracted as a columnist to Business Day and the Weekender, where he worked for most of his career, and financial website Moneyweb where he writes on business and corporate activity for an associate site called Dealweb. He was the 2004 Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year.