MICHAEL MORRIS: South Africans united in their desire for better

On the face of it, it’s a failing country whose citizens, rich and poor — the poor more than the rich — would dearly want their children to find new lives abroad.

Michael Morris
On the face of it, it’s a failing country whose citizens, rich and poor — the poor more than the rich — would dearly want their children to find new lives abroad.

Fellow columnist Jonny Steinberg wrote about this last week (“Far from exploding, SA wishes it could deflate the balloon”, February 10), drawing on the same figures that I have in mind: a recent report from the Social Research Foundation (SRF), based on a 2022 telephonic survey of 3,200 randomly selected and representative registered voters (national margin of error: 1.7%).

One main takeaway — “the saddest piece of information I have come across in a long time”, as Steinberg writes — is his interpretation that in “a country of 59-million people, four out of five of the adults walking the streets wish their children could emigrate”.

One fascinating feature of the survey is that while 68% of South Africans who earn R20,000 a month or more would “prefer” their children to live and work abroad, this rises to 89% for those earning between R5,000 and R8,000 a month.

It seems a grim indictment, and it is. Yet a gleam that’s visible even in this damning data lends credence to an optimism that might ordinarily seem groundless or wishful, and certainly unrealistic.

After all, what good could there possibly be in the SRF’s “tentative conclusions” that two-thirds “of registered voters would prefer their children to live and work abroad and just over three-quarters of registered voters would prefer their children to study abroad” (with “variances according to income level or party affiliation” being judged as “not profound”).

And that the data “lends itself to the conclusion that voters perceive there to be more opportunity and better education available for their children overseas”? Particularly striking, in fact, are the perceptions by party affiliation.

On the question of whether you would want your child to live and work abroad, the “yes” vote across the three biggest parties is high — ANC (65%), DA (74%) and EFF (58%). The results for wanting your child to study abroad are not only higher, but arguably counterintuitive: ANC (83%), DA (73%) and EFF (86%).

The political divide in SA is invariably read as a near insurmountable obstacle to change. Yet these figures — aside from revealing high and remarkably universal levels of dissatisfaction — seem actually to reinforce the idea that most South Africans really do share common ambitions, and that there is a common interest.

I asked former senior Institute of Race Relations colleague and now the chair of the SRF board, Frans Cronje, what he made of a more optimistic reading of popular sentiment.

“Yes,” he said last week, “I agree. It is very encouraging. What the polls show is that, across SA and its many divides — rich and poor, black and white, ANC supporters and DA supporters — people have a great deal more in common than what sets them apart. Very often, people want exactly the same thing.”

Steinberg examines this too, and concludes: “A despairing country does not wish to despair, after all. It wishes for a future in which its children will be OK. That wish will always be available to mobilise; it is a resource that never goes away.”

It is worth bearing in mind that when adults say they really would like their children to study, and live and work in a different country, they are thinking less of a geographic relocation than living in an SA that is not failing them as it is today.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.