Disillusion spreading among black South Africans

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The Independent Online

Six years after the end of the apartheid era, most South Africans enjoy a higher standard of living, but it has not made them happy, reveals a government survey of lifestyles and attitudes.

Six years after the end of the apartheid era, most South Africans enjoy a higher standard of living, but it has not made them happy, reveals a government survey of lifestyles and attitudes.

Living standards have risen most for black people, but they remain by far the worst off and most disenchanted social group. Despite the new democratic and social climate, people also feel a deepening sense of political alienation: three in five believe they have no say in decisions affecting the country.

South Africans may be suffering a gap between perception and reality.

The Statistics South Africa Survey is a large annual study, complemented every five years by a population census. The 1999 survey, published this week, visited 30,000 households around the country.

Unemployment was down, living conditions were slowly improving, and literacy and education levels were up, all significant achievements for a developing society in transition.

Improvements were seen most clearly in black households, although apartheid's legacy means black Africans are still well behind other race groups in terms of material wealth and educational opportunity. Three years ago, fewer than half of black households had running water and electricity, now the figures are 56 per cent and 60 per cent.

Only 17 per cent of black families have flush lavatoriesand fewer than three in five live in proper houses. Nearly all whites and Asians have them. Researchers discovered a growing sense of "disempowerment", with three in five people believing they had no say in decisions affecting their country. South Africa's whites are the most alienated: nearly two-thirds feel they have no say, against 57 per cent of blacks and coloureds.

Joblessness is 29 per cent for blacks and less than 5 per cent among whites. Of 2.4 million households below the poverty line with children under seven going hungry each day, only 43,000 (2 per cent) are white.

Perhaps these acute inequalities best explain the dejection of South Africa's blacks. Although in material terms their lives are getting better, the survey showed fewer than one in five households believing life had improved, and half felt it had stayed the same. One in three thought life was worse.

Unsurprisingly, unhappiness was highest among blacks: 35 per cent said their quality of life had deteriorated and only 18 per cent felt it had improved. More that half of whites said standards had stayed the same.

The study reflects far higher levels of disillusionment than previous surveys. Last year, the "Reality Check" study of 3,000 Africans by Independent Newspapers and the US-based Kaiser Family Foundation showed most South Africans to be relatively optimistic in assessing their lives and the country's progress.

People were worried about the economy, their personal wealth and crime, but satisfaction pervaded. Importantly, most were committed to democracy, felt confidence in key democratic institutions, and were optimistic that education, health, quality of life and race relations would improve.

But, extraordinarily, those with the most material reason to be satisfied (whites and Asians) saw themselves as "losers" in the new South Africa and were pessimistic about the future.

The worse-off groups saw themselves as "winners" and were optimistic. The study dubbed whites and Asians the "whining well", those in society who have the most but desperately fear losing it. Among them, in growing numbers, were wealthy coloureds and Africans. The great majority of "have-nots" were Africans living very difficult lives.

"Incredibly, one in three of the country's optimists are the very poor, who also comprise a third of people who perceive themselves as winners.

In stark contrast, South Africa's wealthiest people make up 82 per cent of its pessimists and 67 per cent of those who see themselves as losers. People who have the least - for whom small gains make a big difference - are the most satisfied and hopeful," showed Reality Check.

In the eyes of black South Africans, in just a year the honeymoon for a government struggling to overcome apartheid and deliver development to the poor is rapidly running out.