Raising the public voice

Benjamin Roberts, coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS)

Benjamin Roberts, coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS)

It is often thought that members of the public don’t have a voice; that the opinions and ideals of those who live in South Africa do not have a platform for these thoughts to be aired and heard by the head honchos who make the decisions and change the course of government and history. Such a space has been created – by the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS).

SASAS is a series of surveys that has been conducted annually by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) since 2003. It is a nationally representative survey series that measures the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of South Africa’s diverse population and shares these with policy and decision makers, as well as with the informed public. As such, SASAS shines a light on the public landscape and reveals the strands that make up the country’s social fabric.

“In 2002, we decided to create a new survey that drew on international standards and practices relating to the measurement of public opinion,” explains Benjamin Roberts, the co-ordinator of SASAS and a research specialist in the democracy, governance and service delivery research programme of the HSRC.

“We had wide-ranging consultations with local scholars and international experts to create SASAS – particularly with the designers of the British Social Attitudes Survey and the European Social Survey.”

The purpose was to chart the changing predispositions of South Africans as democracy matured, and to provide insights into, and evidence of, people’s long-term values and preferences.

Over the course of 15 years, SASAS has worked continuously towards fulfilling this mandate. Today, it is one of the longest-running opinion-based surveys in a developing country worldwide.

“We believe it is essential that we ensure the stability of this series as it makes an important contribution to our scientific understanding,” says Roberts. “We adhere to rigorous principles in how we administer these surveys, and the science behind them supports both science and society. A great example of this is our ongoing work with both the department of science and technology and the National Research Foundation on the public’s attitudes to climate change and energy.”

The 2017 SASAS survey included an in-depth, cross-national set of questions on these themes. This enabled the researchers to draw direct comparisons with the European Social Survey research infrastructure to see how South Africans’ attitudes and behavioural preferences aligned with, or differed from, those of European nations.

South Africa has also recently been elected chair of the group responsible for designing a cross-national questionnaire on attitudes to social inequality. This is part of the International Social Survey Programme, a collaboration between different nations conducting surveys that cover topics useful for social science research. The programme currently includes more than 40 countries and has allowed South Africa to play a pivotal role in shaping a global agenda on research regarding attitudes to social inequality.

“The data will be made freely available in 2020,” says Roberts. “It provides a way for us to advance not only our understanding as to what the public around the world feels about social inequality, but also brings a distinctly South African perspective to bear on the design of this important research initiative.

“It is in line with the HSRC’s mandate of social sciences that make a difference, but also has at its core the focus on poverty, inequality and transformation that drives the organisation’s research agenda.”