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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The September 1992 Focus Groups

were carried out for the most part in the immediate aftermath of the Bisho massacre.

This massacre was preceded by a summer of widespread discontent. First, the breakdown of CODESA 11; Boipatong; the breaking off of negotiations; mass mobilization on a large-scale; the debate within ANC circles of the "Leipzig option," and finally the ill-fated march on Bisho.

The right-wing was making noises, and the prospects for a negotiated settlement seemed dim, although neither side (NP and ANC) had reneged on their commitment to one. In ZwaZulu/Natal the war between the ANC and the IFP continued unabated.

As did the so -called "black-on-black" violence in the rest of the country.

Thus, in analyzing the results of the FGS, these factors should be kept in mind.

Other factors to keep in mind:

Representativity of the sample

Most of the participants were "upscale" and many of them were involved in some kind of community organization.

The FGR made it clear that there was a great need for voter education in SA. The black community was not eagerly looking forward to vote in a national election, even if free and fair, (perhaps because they had little idea of what elections were, or because they were apprehensive, or because they thought elections would be accompanied by an escalation in the level of violence).

Even those who had some past experiences with elections had nothing good to say about them: "Waste of time:" " Nothing changes." That these participants should have such attitudes, is not surprising, since they were limited to voting in elections for black local councils, which were, of course, vehemently opposed by the liberation movement. Interesting that participants made little connection between elections and the problems they faced. (But not surprising: they had either been exposed vicariously to white elections which did nothing to help them, or to black local elections, where those who ran were often regarded as traitors, corrupt, or at the very least, tools of the apartheid government -- and who were often put to the torch. If local council elections were all participants had to go by, their negative attitudes towards elections would be understandable, as would their apathy.

(Since people's perceptions in 1992, were that elections made no difference in helping them get the things they wanted in life, is there a possibility of regression, of people feeling in 1999 that their earlier perceptions were in fact correct, that they were sold a "crock of bull" prior to the last election; that they voted and that little had not gotten many of the things they wanted).

Participants in their own way distinguished between democracy and voting. For the most part, democracy was perceived as the antithesis of apartheid i.e. democracy was the opposite of apartheid.

In December 1992, the mood was decidedly downbeat among the participants. The feeling was one of disappointment, and participants were more likely to say that things had gotten worse rather than better since the release of Mandela. Again, easy to understand why. What they thought would be a quick transfer of power to Mandela, after his release in 1991, had become a drudgery. . People not very aware of what was being negotiated on their behalf. A massive increase in violence. Economic deterioration. Strikes and confrontations. A government committed to change but change on its terms, a government determined to "manage the process," a government not yet fully aware of the enormous changes in store, or perhaps, too aware , and so more determined than ever to put off the inevitable day of final reckoning. A government that had underestimated the power of the forces it had unleashed, and the talent of the opponents it had chosen to negotiate with.

People worried most about violence, and blamed the government for the violence , not the liberation movement.

Participants did not believe the government was the actual perpetrator of the violence, but they did believe that the government was the instigator of the violence and that it encouraged the violence, often by setting black against black and then standing aside when the violence occurred.

Thus in spite of the changes that had taken place in the previous two years and the dismantling of much of the apartheid structures, the mood of participants was one of concern, not optimism. They were not without hope but they had seen their expectations dampened (how could Fred have said this since he did not ask participants about their expectations) and had not seen any change in the quality of life in their communities. In many ways they found that their daily lives had become more difficult rather than easier.

"Discussions in the 14 sessions in this research project indicate that without an extensive and effective voter education project, 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."

The reasons?  lack of information about the voting process and how to vote, and a lack of commitment to voting as a way to bring about change.

In the FGR one can determine the first glimmers re concern about crime.

But among participants one can also see the seeds of early disillusionment. Participants had become tired of the political posturing, glib-talk, double -speak -- and nothing changing.

(Given that a lot had happened since 1991 -- starting with the unbanning of the ANC and SACP, the release of Mandela, demonstrations on a scale hitherto unheard of, an end to detention without trial, the repeal of all apartheid legislation, freedom of association and freedom of speech -- people's monies were either remarkably short-lived, or they had suppressed their memories of apartheid, or they were in some kind of denial and had not yet "unrepressed" themselves, or because many of the "petty" apartheid laws had been flouted for years. Or because for the majority the repeal of apartheid laws were something abstract, something that had no tangible impact on their lives, that did not affect the way the way they lived in any substantial way).

Violence was the major reason people thought things had gotten worse. Also, the decline in the economic situation -- lack of jobs and higher prices. Africans thought their children were too involved in political strife, and worried that their absence from school would put them at a disadvantage with whites, coloureds and Indians who went to school every day. Another "lost generation?"

Yet they were also conscious of the greater freedoms they enjoyed re political expression, freedom of movement, freedom to buy houses, unbanning of political parties.

(Thus, when people said "nothing had changed" etc, they were referring to the material conditions they lived with, and these, it would appear, were of more concern to them than the more amorphous benefits of free speech etc, which once granted quickly came to be taken for granted).

The one constant: the hopes they harbored for their children. Constant references to education, for better schools, better teachers, and equal education for all races. Participants talked about saving minds; the path of upward mobility ran through the school house.

(One would have thought that this recognition would have formed the basis for a national cohesiveness among the people, a willingness to sacrifice some in the short run in order that their children could reap the benefits, yet, when one looks at later years and the increasing demands that workers made on their own behalf, this idea -- that we must all sacrifice together in the short run, even when the global downturn began to take effect --was not a rallying point).

The fears they expressed also focused on education: that they wouldn't get the education they needed to get the jobs they needed to live a better life. Fear, too, of economic collapse, continued violence and chaos, the creation of a "culture of violence," the failure to inculcate the young with the right moral values, coupled with a fear that their children would not be able to overcome their sense of inferiority.

(The concern with the economy must be seen in the context of the precipitous decline in the SA economy during these years when uncertainty, the continuing squeeze of financial sanctions, escalating strikes and political work stoppages. See report that Derek Keys gave to De Klerk and Mandela : If they didn't get down to serious business, there would be no business for the new SA to inherit. As regards their fears of a culture of violence becoming pervasive, they were prescient, as crime quickly filled the vacuum left by the decline in political violence, as the guns stored during struggle days were unpacked and sold to whomever could afford them, which unfortunately , most could. In an almost subconscious way people were seeing glimmers of the future, and they did not like what they were seeing. Most of their incipient fears became a reality).

Important: for most, voting was something they had only seen on the news; it was an intellectual construct, one removed from their reality. There was no democratic tradition among nonwhites in South Africa, and virtually no experience with voting. Thus, never having had the experience of it, they could not associate the act of performing it with any change in the circumstances of their lives. Participants did not see voting as something that would materially affect their lives.

Widespread lack of trust in the NP government, and , therefore, in the integrity of the electoral process. Participants do not want to participate in a sham, much less in an election that legitimizes a white South African Government.

(In retrospect, it seems odd that this issue was not sufficiently addressed at the time. Elections were not about electing a democratically elected government; they were about the transfer of power from whites to blacks, about establishing the legitimacy of black rule. Had the NP put together a coalition that somehow emerged victorious, De Klerk reassuming the Presidency, and the ANC legitimately lost because it could not put such a coalition together, even though it emerged with a plurality of the votes, all hell would have broken loose. The ANC would not have accepted the validity of the results; there would have been screams that the elections were neither free or fair, and the problems encountered in the vote count and the administration of the election itself would have become sufficient grounds to declare the election neither free nor fair. The very criteria that were used to hail the results would have been used to condemn them. Had the NP attempted "to steal" the election, it would have triggered a genuine revolution among the masses and international opprobrium of the first order)

What stands out in these focus groups is the extraordinary emphasis people put on education as the route to a better life for their children. In this context, no one talks about politics or voting. The connection is at best tenuous.

The dominant symbol was democracy. More than anything else, this represented what the participants wanted from the political system.









majority rule

choosing leaders

rule of the people

equal rights







white minority domination

Democracy was seen as the antonym for apartheid. It encapsulated the opposite of apartheid. The primary reason for democracy's motivating power was the way in which it represented for people the antithesis of apartheid. Participants did not see democracy as a means, but an end; not as a process, but as a set of goals, accomplishments, results. They thought of democracy in terms of the things it created, rather than as a means to bring them about. The concept of democracy not only conveys to non-white South Africans the powerful imagery it does in other cultures, but it contains a number of specific reference points as the opposite of apartheid. As a result, apartheid had an emotional impact that went beyond the norm in other parts of the world.

(Dangerous thinking, because democracy is a process. Does the fact that democracy has not brought about the things people wanted in any significant measure mean that people are becoming disillusioned with democracy rather than with the government? If democracy is associated with ends accomplished, and not the means used to get there, does this mean that people could sanction the use of undemocratic means to achieve what are perceived as democratic ends? Or in the last four years have people gradually been weaned away from the association of democracy with ends met and do they now associate them more with the processes that must be used to achieve desired ends? And in the event of failure to reach those ends , do they blame the processes for holding things up or do they blame those who are charged with implementing the processes? If democracy is associated most of all with the opposite of apartheid, do people retain their adherence to democracy because they believe that the in the absence of democracy apartheid would return? Hence, are whatever affinities they have for democracy the result of fear, of negative perceptions that to reject it would mean a return to the bad old days? Where are the positive reinforcements for their beliefs, especially if their beliefs are misplaced?)

(Again freedom is associated with its opposite: oppression. But this is a very truncated view of what freedom is and has more to do with the absence of the concrete and experienced manifestations of oppression than with positive and tangible manifestations of freedom).

People across the board are opposed to having to use ID cards -- if voting --a mysterious process they are almost totally ignorant of, and intimidated by, is contingent on getting an ID card, then they will not vote.

(Where are people on this issue today with the requirement that they must have a bar-coded ID -- not any ID in order to vote?)

Participants would vote for

Education , Jobs, Housing, Peace (44)

For Democracy in South Africa (32)

For a Better future for our Children (29)

To End Apartheid Forever (15)

To Support your Candidate and Party (8)

For a New South Africa (5)

So We Can Stop the Violence (2)

(Why did violence rate so poorly? Were people so inured to violence that it no longer surfaced as an issue they felt voting could effect or did they believe that voting or no voting the violence would continue i.e. that the violence was not about not about voting? Especially since crime was one of people's main, if not the main preoccupation of participants? )

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.