'Politics is a waste of time': an analysis of who agrees with this statement
In the build up to the national and provincial elections on 8 May there has been much public debate about voter apathy. Specifically, concern has been expressed about the large percentage of unregistered voters, the possibility of disappointing turnouts and the way in which particular sub-groups of voters are less inclined to vote (eg: Carrim 2019, Naki 2019, Pillay 2019).
Data from the GCRO’s most recent Quality of Life survey (GCRO QoL V) can be used to further explore these themes. The survey, which ran from 2017 to 2018, interviewed 24 889 people across Gauteng. In one particular question, respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement ‘politics is a waste of time’. For the province as a whole, 42% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘politics is a waste of time’, while 45% disagreed with the statement (see Figure 3 below). We consider how the results vary spatially, by socioeconomic status and in terms of demographic indicators.
The results vary spatially across the province. Map 1 shows that in many affluent wards, respondents showed less political disaffection on average. For example in many wards around Centurion and to the west and north of Sandton, less than 30% of the respondents agreed with the statement ‘politics is a waste of time’. Interestingly, there is no ward where less than 14% of the respondents agreed with the statement.
Meanwhile, in inner city wards, township wards and rural wards, respondents were more inclined to agree with the statement ‘politics is a waste of time’. In parts of Soweto, Diepsloot and Soshanguve, more than 40% of the respondents agreed with the statement. In wards with the darkest shading, more than half the respondents agreed that ‘politics is a waste of time’. This includes some wards in or near Hammanskraal, Daveyton, Tembisa, Tsakane, Katlehong and Orange Farm.
Map 1: Agreement with ‘Politics is a waste of time’ by ward
Variation by socioeconomic status
Figure 1 offers more detail on this spatial variation by breaking the results down by type of dwelling. Respondents living in informal settlements and in backyard shacks were the most likely to agree with the statement ‘politics is a waste of time’ (47% and 44% respectively). Meanwhile, those living in flats, townhouses, a room on a property and in a complex were less likely to agree with the statement (39%, 36%, 36% and 29% respectively). To some extent dwelling type is a proxy for income, and as we shall see in the next figure a lower income is associated with an increase in political disaffection.
Figure 1: Agreement with ‘Politics is a waste of time’ by type of dwelling that the respondent lives in (excluding housing categories that represented less than 2% of the respondents and ‘other’).
Figure 2 shows the breakdown of responses by income category. Only 26% of those earning more than R51 201 per month agreed that ‘politics is a waste of time’ whereas 45% of those earning less than R3 200 per month agreed with the statement. At least in the context of this survey question, affluent groups seem to be more invested in ‘politics’. Yet it would be incorrect to assume from this that people in poor wards are more dismissive of politics. After all, as the Quality of Life survey shows, residents of low income areas more likely to know who their councillor is. The increased likelihood that lower income respondents agree with the statement should be contextualised within a general dissatisfaction with government particularly in areas with poor socioeconomic conditions.
Figure 2: Agreement with ‘Politics is a waste of time’ by monthly income
Figure 3 disaggregates the data by race over time. In the 2013-14 survey, all groups had similar levels of agreement: 43% of African respondents, 47% of coloured respondents, 46% of Indian respondents and 44% of white respondents agreed that ‘politics is a waste of time’. In 2017-18, African and coloured had not moved far from 2013-14 levels. However, in 2017-18 Indian and white respondents were about 10% less likely to say that ‘politics is a waste of time’ than they were in 2013-14.
Figure 3: Agreement with ‘Politics is a waste of time’ categorised by race group.
Gender and age
There is almost no variation by gender; 42% of women agreed with the statement ‘politics is a waste of time’ whereas 41% of men agreed with the statement.
There have been a number of commentaries on whether or not younger voters are disillusioned or apathetic (Mabasa 2019, Ndaba 2019). Results by age (Figure 4) show a reasonably similar distribution over the age groups, although respondents aged 20-35 were marginally more likely to agree that ‘politics is a waste of time’ and pensioners were the least likely to agree with the statement.
Figure 4: Agreement with ‘Politics is a waste of time’ categorised by the age groups of respondents.
These results are of interest because there is a relationship between the way in which respondents answered this attitudinal question and whether they reported voting in the 2016 local government elections (Figure 5). Almost half of those who said that they did not vote in 2016 agreed with the statement ‘politics is a waste of time’ whereas those who did vote were less likely to agree with the statement. To be clear, this attitude does not predict voter behaviour because a significant percentage of people who did vote in 2016 also said that ‘politics is a waste of time’, and there may be important differences between how respondents reported voting and whether they actually voted.
Figure 5: Agreement with ‘Politics is a waste of time’ based on reported participation in the 2016 elections.
Edits and input by: Christina Culwick, Julia de Kadt, Christian Hamann, Graeme Gotz, Bonolo Mohulatsi and Alex Parker.