Special Projects

South African Social Attitudes Survey

BACKGROUND

The South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) is a nationally representative, repeat cross-sectional survey that has been conducted annually by the HSRC since 2003. Designed as a time series, SASAS is increasingly providing a unique, long-term account of the speed and direction of change in underlying public values and the social fabric of modern South Africa. SASAS thus represents a notable tool for monitoring evolving issues and has demonstrated promising utility as an anticipatory or predictive mechanism that can inform decision- and policy-making processes. SASAS was awarded the National Science and Technology Foundation’s Data for Research award in June 2017 for its contribution to advancing social science knowledge in the country. The series will celebrate the successful completion of its 20th annual round in late 2023.

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

The SASAS sample is designed around randomly chosen adults within a series of designated visiting points across all nine South African provinces. For the face-to-face survey approach adopted by SASAS, the sample design used adheres to the Geographic Information Systems Method, which is the sample design used by Statistics South Africa. This is to ensure the randomness of the sample. For each annual round, the team draws a sample that will yield a representative sample of adults aged 16 years and older living in private residences. A split sample design is used, with at least two different questionnaire versions being administered to 3,500 target respondents, each in order to accommodate increased thematic content. In certain rounds of the survey series, a third questionnaire has been fielded in order to incorporate a special thematic focus. Examples include the DSI Public Understanding of Science survey in 2022, the FSCA/National Treasury Financial Literacy Baseline questionnaire in 2020 and the IEC Voter Participation Surveys in 2018 and 2021.

ADDRESSING SALIENT ISSUES

The SASAS questionnaires cover a wide variety of topics that tap into notable issues relevant to contemporary South Africa. Some questions are repeated in each round of the survey (‘core questions’) to monitor change and continuity over time. In addition, each round of interviewing accommodates rotating modules on specific themes to provide detailed attitudinal evidence to inform policy and academic debate. The latter have included international partnerships in determining the survey’s thematic content to identify key perennial topics that would provide reliable and robust measures to shape our understanding of present-day South Africa and the processes of change within it. SASAS focuses on variations in culture and social structure within the country and aspires to be an instrument for identifying and interpreting long-term shifts in social circumstances and values, rather than simply monitoring short-term changes.

POLICY REACH

During its long history, SASAS has played a salient role in the policy domain. Some past examples of SASAS policy reach include: (a) the Presidency’s macro-social review in 2006 and 15-Year Review in 2009; (b) the development of a social cohesion barometer for the EU-Presidency Programme to Support Pro-Poor Development that has been used as an input for the national social cohesion strategy and the High Level Panel, (c) the determination of energy poverty and energy-related behaviour for the Department of Energy; as well as (d) a source of empirical evidence on financial literacy to help shape the national consumer financial education strategy being prepared by National Treasury.

SASAS informs the thematic focus areas outlined by the Department of Science and Innovation. For instance, in terms of the theme of Science, Technology and Society, in recent years it has been making notable contributions towards the public understanding of science by examining attitudes towards biotechnology (2004 and 2015), climate change (2007 and 2017) and the environment (2010), indigenous knowledge systems (2009), scientific knowledge and general attitudes towards science (2009 and 2022), energy attitudes and behaviour, as well as nuclear energy (2011). Results emanating from the survey series have been widely cited and discussed in the media, including television, print media and the radio. This is partly attributable to a dissemination strategy that focuses not only on formal academic publications.

HISTORY

The design of SASAS was crafted under the advice and guidance of the late Prof Sir Roger Jowell, a South African who was one of the world’s leading public opinion scientists. The goal was to provide an empirical basis for examining and charting the socio-demographic correlates of societal values in South Africa and how these are beginning to change over time. SASAS was modelled on the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey (1972) in the United States and the National Centre for Social Research’s British Social Attitudes Survey (1983). SASAS has been led by Drs Benjamin Roberts and Jarè Struwig since 2003 and, over the last 20 years, the survey series has established itself as one of the premier public opinion polls in the country. The long-term focus has allowed SASAS to become one of the most effective research tools for assessing human and social dynamics in development in the post- apartheid period.

INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL SURVEY PROGRAMME

SASAS became a formal member of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) in 2003. The ISSP is run by a group of research organisations, each of which undertakes to annually field a module of questions on a chosen topic area. Each module is chosen for repetition at intervals to allow comparisons between countries (membership currently stands at 48) and over time. By being a member of this long-standing, cross-national collaborative programme, we have been able to add an international perspective to the national study of South African attitudes. This allows us to continually question whether our society is exceptional by identifying commonalities and differences in values with other nations. The SASAS team has also assumed various leadership responsibilities in the ISSP, including the chairing of the drafting group preparing the 2019 social inequality module, being elected members of the Digital Society 2024 and Work Orientation 2025 modules, and being voted onto the ISSP Standing Committee for a four-year term (2018–2022). The latter was extended by vote for a second term for 2022–2026.

OUTCOMES

Significant controversy followed the launch of the findings, with HSRC researchers being attacked by AIDS dissidents and asked by a cabinet minister to apologise, but the researchers were steadfast, speaking truth to power and urging South Africa to follow the science during this difficult time. The 2002 report was widely disseminated and covered by the media. In November 2007, Prof Leickness Simbayi presented the HSRC model of HIV surveillance to ministers in charge of HIV and AIDS during the SADC Leadership Conference in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The HSRC model was adopted as the gold standard for national HIV surveillance in SADC countries. The HSRC provided other African countries with technical assistance and the Botswana AIDS Impact Survey (2004, 2008 and 2013), a Swaziland survey (2006–2007) and the Mozambique AIDS Indicator Survey (2009) followed.

OTHER INTERNATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS

SASAS linkages with the European Social Survey have also been developed. We have been harmonising measures on select topics (e.g., fear of crime, xenophobia, race relations, social trust), have fielded certain common modules (e.g., trust in the criminal justice system), while also drawing on best practices in survey methodology (events data, evaluation of questions). This collaboration has benefited from support provided by the Newton Fund (UK). Since 2009, the SASAS team has also been a member of the International Wellbeing Group based at Deakin University, Australia. The group consists of more than 40 countries and focuses on the testing of the multi-domain Personal Wellbeing Index as the basis of cross-national and culturally equivalent comparisons of subjective wellbeing. The SASAS partnerships with cross-national survey initiatives provide opportunities for increasing bilateral and multilateral engagements for more detailed comparative analysis in the future.