What Drives Citizen Participation in Political Gatherings in Modern South Africa? A Quantitative Analysis of Self-Reported Behaviour

Abstract

Community and public gatherings are an important component of political participation in sub-Saharan Africa. Formal and informal community meetings and rallies are instrumental to the practice of politics in many parts of the continent. However, little multidimensional research has focused on the drivers of this form of political participation in an African context. This study will examine determinants of participation using South African data from the nationally representative 2015 voter participation survey. Despite its unique history of colonialism, South Africa represents a microcosm of major trends in African politics. Our results show that cognitive awareness of politics is the main determinant of participation in political gatherings. Attitudes towards municipal performance also had a statistically significant impact on the behaviour of this kind. The effects of education and economic status were found to be contrary to theoretical expectations. The implications of our findings for research into collective forms of political participation are discussed in the conclusion.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A simple calculation reveals that the share of voters who participated in the 2014 national elections was roughly 54% of South Africa’s voting age population (i.e. all citizens within the legal voting age). Approximately three-quarters (73%) of the country’s voting age population was registered to vote in 2014. Voter turnout in municipal elections has always been much lower in than national elections. In South Africa’s 2016 municipal elections, turnout was 58% of all registered voters. This level of turnout however represents a significant improvement from what was observed in the 2000 municipal elections, when only 48% of registered voters participated.

  2. 2.

    An imbizo (plural izimbizo) can be translated from isiZulu to mean a summoned gathering or assembly. In the precolonial period, such gatherings were called by traditional leaders to discuss matters of state with the common people.

  3. 3.

    Eze’s (2010) paper on “Ubuntu” is relevant here. In it, he argues that Ubuntu is a discourse that is partially reliant on an attempt by people to organise a philosophy of political progress through cultural nationalism. To the extent that this philosophy, as a discourse, is able to project a formidable function, Eze followed the writing of others in his analysis to argue that this philosophy produces a reflection of a reality is the pragmaticality of contemporary circumstances (also see Gade 2012).

  4. 4.

    In the SASAS sampling frame, recreational areas, industrial areas as well as military camps, old age homes, hospitals, hotels at schools and university were excluded prior to the drawing of the sample.

  5. 5.

    One of the key limitations of this study is that the VPS dataset does not contain data on which political party a respondent currently supports or has previously voted for. Consequently, we could not create a variable that captured political party affiliation or identification.

  6. 6.

    To test if the relationship between our Political Gathering Participation Index and economic status was non-linear, we look at levels of participation amongst different LSM categories. The results suggest a clear linear correlation between the LSM indicator and our participation index. If we look at the relationship between LSM and each individual variable in our index, we find that each is negatively correlated with LSM. Pairwise correlation analysis reveals that committee meetings has the strongest correlation with LSM, followed by ward committee meetings, meetings of political parties, election campaign rallies, functions held on national public holidays, government izimbizo and public marches.

  7. 7.

    A number of scholars (e.g. Kaase 1999; Levi and Stoker 2000; Hooghe and Marien 2013) have suggested that unconventional political participation should theoretically be associated with political trust. To test this thesis, we used five items on trust in the following government institutions: (1) national government; (2) provincial government; (3) local government; (4) politicians; and (5) political parties. Reliability and validity testing suggest that these variables loaded well onto a single index. The index is ranged 0–10 with the higher value indicating the higher level of trust in the political system. A pairwise correlation matrix test between our Political Gathering Participation Index and this political trust index reveal a weak but statistically significant association. Multivariate testing revealed confirmed the weakness of this relationship. Political trust was not correlated significantly with participation when controlling for cognitive awareness.

  8. 8.

    For a discussion of the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, please visit https://rsf.org/en.

  9. 9.

    Freedom House currently ranks South Africa as ‘partly free’ in terms of press freedom; for a discussion of their reasons and methodology see Freedom House (2017).

  10. 10.

    The use of social media to coordinate political activism amongst young people was evident in recent university protests known as #FeesMustFall. These protests were over access to higher education—for further discussion of these protests, see Booysen (2017).

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Correspondence to Steven Gordon.

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Gordon, S., Struwig, J., Roberts, B. et al. What Drives Citizen Participation in Political Gatherings in Modern South Africa? A Quantitative Analysis of Self-Reported Behaviour. Soc Indic Res 141, 791–808 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-018-1851-1

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Keywords

  • Political participation
  • South Africa
  • Cognitive awareness
  • Political gatherings
  • Local government