South African Hopes and Fears Twenty Years into Democracy: A Replication of Hadley Cantril’s Pattern of Human Concerns


Fifty years have elapsed since Cantril (1965) published his work on The Pattern of Human Concerns. His line of inquiry has stood the test of time. In late 2012, the nationally representative South African Social Attitudes Survey replicated Cantril’s 1960s questions and methodology to elicit South Africans’ hopes and aspirations and worries and fears for self and country and their ratings of where self and country stood—past, present and will stand in future. Although Cantril’s ‘ladder-of life’ scale is still regularly used as a measure of subjective well-being, to our knowledge his full line of preliminary questioning has not been fielded again to date. Our study found that South African aspirations for self were mainly material ones for a decent standard of living and the means to achieve this goal. Hopes for the nation concentrated on economic and political progress to consolidate South Africa’s democracy. A large number of personal and national hopes were mirrored in fears that these aspirations might not be met. Cantril’s method also allowed us to review the main concerns and ratings across the diverse groups of citizens that make up the ‘rainbow nation’. There was a substantial degree of consensus on top hopes and fears but levels of standing on the Cantril ladder of life were still graded according to apartheidera inequalities with black South Africans scoring lower than other race groups. Nonetheless, the majority of South Africans rated their present life better than 5 years ago and projected life to get better in future. Such optimism may place considerable pressure on the state to deliver on personal and societal hopes as the country enters its third decade of democracy.

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  1. 1.

    The thirteen countries in the original Cantril study were: United States, West Germany, Yugoslavia, Poland; Brazil, Nigeria, India; Israel, Egypt; Cuba, Dominican Republic, Panama, Philippines. Japan featured as an addendum.

  2. 2.

    An allusion to Alan Paton’s (1948) apartheid-era novel of the same title.

  3. 3.

    The apartheid-era nomenclature is still in use officially to monitor progress in redressing past disadvantages and to determine quotas for affirmative action measures. South Africans still refer to these groupings as markers of identity in everyday life although the country’s constitution affirms South Africa as a non-racial society.

  4. 4.

    We are following Cantril when using a 5 % cut-off point based on weighted national datasets. South African percentages are based on respondents who could give multiple responses relating to their concerns. The percentages reported here and in other tables in the text are rounded for clarity sake.

  5. 5.

    Following Cantril, interviewers were instructed to move their finger rapidly up and down the ladder when reading out this and the following questions.

  6. 6.

    The 1996 and 1999 waves provided broad response categories; the last round of questioning in the 2010 wave was open-ended.

  7. 7.

    At the height of the apartheid era, the most commonplace fear was that the country might become ‘another Beirut’, referring to the bloody civil war in the capital of Lebanon. Similarly, the spectre of a ‘second Zimbabwe’ may represent the worst-case or doomsday political scenario of the post-apartheid era.

  8. 8.

    Only 1 % of black and coloured respondents, respectively, mentioned a hope for self of good governance. Their mentions will not feature in footnote 1.

  9. 9.

    For a more detailed and extended report on method and results, see Møller and Roberts (2014b).


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The idea of replicating Cantril’s line of questioning was sparked by Richard Easterlin. In the book to mark his winning the prestigious IZA Prize in Labour Economics in 2009, Easterlin (2010, p. 254) notes that: “Analysts sometimes try to infer time series change by comparing the responses to “ladder-of-life” questions of the type asked in the recent Gallup World Poll to Cantril’s (1965) results. To assume the recent responses are comparable to Cantril’s is questionable. Before presenting respondents with the ladder-of-life question, Cantril’s interviewers conducted a lengthy in-depth interview probing the respondents’ concerns about the best and worst of all possible worlds (Chapter 1 and Cantril 1965, pp. 22–24). The recent ladder-of-life questions have no counterpart to this lengthy preamble.” This work is based on research supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa’s grant UID 77926 for the South Africa-Algeria research cooperation programme on ‘Quality of Life in South African and Algeria: A multi-method approach’. We are grateful to co-researchers at the HSRC for including the Cantril questions in the 2012 SASAS; and to research partners at the University of Oran, Algeria, and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, for their collegial support. Views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the NRF or others.

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Correspondence to Valerie Møller.



See Tables 4 and 5.

Table 4 Average PERSONAL ladder ratings—past, present, and future—by respondent characteristics and differences between past & present, and present & future ratings
Table 5 Average NATIONAL ladder ratings –past, present, and future – by respondent characteristics and differences between past & present, and present & future ratings

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Møller, V., Roberts, B.J. South African Hopes and Fears Twenty Years into Democracy: A Replication of Hadley Cantril’s Pattern of Human Concerns. Soc Indic Res 130, 39–69 (2017).

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  • Cantril ladder of life
  • Human concerns
  • Hopes and fears
  • Perceptions of progress
  • South Africa