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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

South Africa Focus Group Research 1992- 1997

The story is the stuff of lore: how South Africa's apartheid regime, under the leadership of FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC and the SACP, released Nelson Mandela; how both the ANC and the NP government committed themselves to a negotiated settlement; how negotiations took place in circumstances of increasing violence "black-on-black" was the euphemism of choice -- which the ANC held the government accountable for its complicity in and failure to bring under control and, white right-wing violence attempting to prevent the inevitable surrender of power and the reins of government to the black majority; of the roller-coaster negotiations that nearly came to naught on many occasions; of of General Constand Viljoen's decision, at a crucial moment to forswear violence to achieve the Afrikaner volk; of Gathsha Buthelezi's decision to throw his electoral hat into the ring at the last moment, thus averting possible civil war; of the "miracle" itself the election days on April 23rd and 24th 1994 when South Africans of all races went to the polls peacefully and without intimidation, equal citizens according to the interim constitution all parties had agreed to and elected the country's first black-led government. What many had confidently predicted -- that the Afrikaners would hold on to power as long as they had the resources and firepower to do so -- became, overnight, extant, reams of punditry consigned instantaneously to one of history's many trash bins.

But the April '94 election, miracle or not -- but once having been so designated forever to be referred to as such -- was in many respects a paradox: the paradox of a people who struggled for decades for the right to vote, to have themselves recognized as citizens of the country they and their descendants had inhabited for innumerable centuries, but who at the same time believed that having the right to vote and participating in elections would do little to change the circumstances of their lives.

Having secured the right to the franchise they had fought for so tenaciously, it appeared that many were prepared to squander their hard won victory by refusing to exercise their right. The liberation movement had blithely assumed that once the "masses" were freed, they would rush to vote on the designated election dates to cast their ballots for the government of their choice. It was, as is often the case where the obvious is so unquestioned, an assumption that in-depth probing of the would-be newly enfranchised electorate found to be false; that far from seeing elections as a panacea for their ills, the-would-be electorate had either negative attitudes toward elections or tended to the opinion that elections did not change things, and that there was therefore little point in voting.

And thus the first lesson the liberation movement had to learn: for the masses, there was no correlation between democracy and voting, or for that matter between freedom and voting. or between voting and change. On reflection these lack of associations are not surprising. For most non-whites, voting was an intellectual construct far removed from the realities of their daily lives. Never having had experience of it, they could not associate the act of performing it with any change in the circumstances of their lives. Indeed, voter education programs had either been so lacking or so ineffective in the two years following the unbanning of political opposition that focus group research (FGR) among 14 different social and economic strata of blacks at the end of 1992 concluded that " without an extensive and effective voter education program, voter turnout among non-white South Africans in a national election held within the next year would likely be disappointingly low, perhaps not exceeding one in two potentially eligible voters."1

This essay examines the results of a number of FGR reports carried out between September 1992 and October 1998 with a view to ascertaining the dynamics behind the transition in South Africa and to see the nature of transitions in emerging democracies, and whether there are conclusions we can draw and lessons we can learn that can be applied to other countries undergoing similar transformations.

It is important to bear in mind that social policy research is only as good as the data it draws on , the quality and experience that the researchers bring to their work, and that even the best of work refers to feelings and attitudes that exist at a point in time, and that extrapolation of findings without strict adherence to these considerations is foolhardy at best and erroneous at worst. With these caveats in mind, we will wander into the

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.