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    What America Thinks
    Struggling With a New Democracy

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, September 13, 1999

    With this column, I reluctantly surrender this space for four months to go to Harvard University, where I will be a Shorenstein Fellow in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. While I will be on leave from daily journalism, I am not taking a break from thinking about public opinion and polling.

    I will spend my time at Harvard writing about a unique project: a survey of 3,000 randomly selected South Africans conducted by the Independent Newspapers and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The project, which took me to South Africa earlier this year, examined the views of South Africans five years after the fall of apartheid. Here's a first look at some of the key findings.

    The twin banner headlines on the front page of the Cape Times on a lazy South African summer morning last February told a tale of two democracies battling their own worst impulses. Terrorists had bombed another police station in downtown Cape Town, killing a passerby. And in equally large type: "Lewinsky to Testify."

    To a newly arrived visitor from the United States, the juxtaposed headlines were at once odd and revealing. Back home, the world's most powerful and successful democracy lurched toward a constitutional crisis over what most Americans regarded as an inconsequential sex scandal. Meanwhile, South Africa, one of the world's newest democracies, struggled with issues of life and death, stability and chaos.

    The story of South Africa's political transformation has been told often and told well, notably by reporters for the Independent Newspapers group, the largest newspaper chain in the country. Now another chapter has been added by these journalists. In a multi-part series that ran in April, they reported the results of a national public opinion poll of 3,000 randomly selected South Africans who were asked in December to express their views about race, reconciliation and national unity.

    In important ways, the survey quantified the obvious: South Africans were dismayed by their country's soaring crime rate, anemic economy and continuing disparities between white and black South Africans. "It underscored South Africa's essential challenge: how to create a more equitable society without pushing underlying tensions to the breaking point," wrote Mollyann Brodie, Drew Altman and Michael Sinclair of the Kaiser Foundation in a summary of the survey findings.

    "But the strongest message that came through in the survey was an unequivocally positive one," the Kaiser team wrote. "Finding after finding underscored the South African people's commitment to democracy and national unity; their confidence in South Africa's major institutions; their realism about the pace of change; and their optimism for the future."

    The survey found strong agreement on the fundamental principles of democracy. Nine in 10 South Africans believed voting should be private. Eight in 10 supported the right of a free press. Three in four disagreed that "voting is a waste of time."

    There was one discordant note, however. A majority of those interviewed – 58 percent – agreed that "if a community supports one political party, other parties should not be allowed to campaign in that area," a view that likely reflects the deep and troubled history of intertribal and interracial conflict that still plagues some parts of the country.

    While not embracing politics, the overwhelming majority of South Africans see the need for vigorous, contested elections. Three in four agreed that "for good government, we must have strong opposition." About half – 52 percent – acknowledged that they "didn't really like politics, but it's important to keep in touch with what's happening," while 36 percent said it was important to them "to be as involved as possible" in politics. Only one in eight – 12 percent – said "politics is a waste of time."

    The survey showed that much has gone right with South Africa in the Mandela years. Nearly half – 48 percent – said public education has gotten better, while 23 percent said there's been no change. Only 29 percent said education has gotten worse, a view shared by a disproportionately large number of white South Africans whose local schools had been opened to black children. Nearly four in 10 – 37 percent – said race relations had gotten better, while 42 percent reported no change. One in five reported that relations between the races had eroded. In other important areas, the results are more troubling. More than eight in 10 – 85 percent – said crime has gotten worse. And nearly two in three – 64 percent – said the economy had declined.

    Yet the survey revealed general optimism for the future. A majority of South Africans – 54 percent – said they believed that South Africa will remain a democratic country, while 38 percent were uncertain (perhaps the most realistic view in a country where great change has come so quickly). Only 8 percent doubted democracy will survive; even among whites, only one in eight offered this pessimistic view.

    "This survey of South Africans certainly underscores South Africa's challenges but it also shows that the new South Africa has made a good beginning and there is cause of guarded optimism about the future," the Kaiser team wrote. "When viewed in the context of South Africa's history and what might have been, the survey illuminates South Africa's standing as perhaps the leading example of democratic transformation in the world."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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