The role of quality of life surveys in managing change in democratic transitions: the South African case

Møller, V. and Dickow, H. (2002) The role of quality of life surveys in managing change in democratic transitions: the South African case. Social Indicators Research, 58 (1-3). pp. 267-292. ISSN 0303-8300



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The South African Quality of Life Project has tracked subjective well-being, life satisfaction and happiness, since the early eighties at the national level. In most democratic countries around the globe, the average citizen says he or she is satisfied with life in general. In South Africa this is not the case. Since the early 1980s, the trend study shows up disparities between one sector of the South African population that is satisfied with life in general and various aspects of life and another sector that is very dissatisfied. Generally, the better-off report higher levels of satisfaction and happiness than the worse-off. The most plausible explanation for the South African quality-of-life constellation is the huge gap in living standards between rich and poor, a legacy of the apartheid era, which discriminated against blacks and to a lesser extent against Indian and coloured people. Euphoria following on the first democratic elections in April 1994, which registered equally high aggregate levels of happiness and life satisfaction among all sectors of the population, was short-lived. Under democracy, expectations “for a better life for all”, the election slogans for the 1994 and 1999 general elections, has risen. South Africa has one of the most enlightened constitutions, which guarantees basic human rights and supports advancement of the previously disadvantaged. As long as South Africans perceive barriers to accessing the material rewards of democracy, they do not see justice has been done. South Africa is currently grappling with problems common to other societies in transition to democracy. Since 1994, government programmes and policies have been devised to address the critical twin problems of poverty and inequality in society. The latest round of research for the South African Quality of Life Trends Project probes popular assessments of the policies and programmes aimed at improving the quality of life of ordinary South Africans. Interviews with a panel of 25 opinion leaders in the run-up to the June 1999 general elections were followed by a nationally representative opinion survey in October 1999. The paper outlines the role of social indicators in monitoring quality of life in South Africa and reports findings from the elite and rank-and-file surveys. Generally, the winners and losers in the new political dispensation see changes from a different perspective. The disadvantaged are more likely to have seen material gains and recommend increased delivery of services and opportunities for social mobility. The advantaged, who have mainly experienced non-material or no gains since 1994, are more likely to be pessimistic about the future. It is concluded that the groundswell of optimism will sustain the majority of South Africans who are still dissatisfied with life until their dreams of the good life are fulfilled.

Item Type:Article
Additional Information:The original publication is available at
Uncontrolled Keywords:democratic transition; post-apartheid; quality of life; South African Quality of Life Trends Project; life satisfaction; happiness; social justice; standard of living; democratization; regime transition; social indicators; research methods; South Africa
Subjects:Y Unknown > Subjects to be assigned
Divisions:Research Institutes and Units > Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER)
ID Code:684
Deposited On:31 May 2007
Last Modified:06 Jan 2012 16:18
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