Researching Quality of Life in a Developing Country: Lessons from the South African Case

Valerie Møller
Institute of Social and Economic Research
Rhodes University
Grahamstown 6140, South Africa

Paper prepared for the Hanse Workshop on Researching Well-being in Developing Countries, Delmenhorst, Germany, 2-4 July 2004

South Africa serves as a social laboratory for studying quality of life in developing countries. It is a nation characterised by varying levels of development, vast income inequalities, and cultural diversity in terms of language, religion, ethnicity and settlement patterns. It is this rich mix that lends itself to experimenting with the development of concepts and instruments to adequately capture the essence of quality of life and its measurement.

This paper reports on the South African Quality of Life Trends Project, which commenced in the late 1970s, and spans over twenty-five years. The project, currently managed by Rhodes University’s Institute of Social and Economic Research in Grahamstown, has tracked the satisfaction and happiness of South Africans against the backdrop of changes occurring in society before and after the coming of democracy. There may be lessons to be learnt from its successes and shortcomings which have become evident with the wisdom of hindsight. Reporting divides the project into three phases: the experimental, consolidation, and analytical phases. The conclusion sets out the future research agenda.

The experimental phase was devoted to identifying and defining key concepts, developing a theoretical model to guide the research, and fine-tuning the research instrument. The classical works on quality of life by Andrews and Withey (1976) and Campbell, Converse and Rodgers (1976) were used to guide this effort. The first phase identified typical South African concerns for the majority of the population using focus group materials. These materials yielded close on 400 concerns which were reduced to 35 in successive rounds of research for the final instrument.

The paper outlines the rationale underlying select critical decisions taken at this stage that influenced the course that the research project would take in later phases. These include the selection criteria for items (salience, item-whole correlations, policy relevance, etc.), phrasing of the items (personal), the number of items in the instrument (sufficient to cover major policy concerns), evaluation scale (5-point labelled Likert scale), sampling (inclusive in contrast to the official enumerator’s policy at that time), reporting format (positive: percentages satisfied with life and domains of life; a profile of indicators rather than an index), and focus on subjective rather than objective indicators of development. The flaws in this reasoning are also discussed.

The consolidation phase. Under the consolidation heading, the paper discusses select findings on cultural and technical artefacts that might have influenced the gaps found between satisfaction levels in the population. Concerns about the possibility of a cultural bias in a multicultural research setting were dispelled in 1994 when all South Africans registered satisfaction levels comparable to those found in western and developed countries after the first open elections. Reference is also made to the importance of consistency in recording formats in longitudinal studies that might be overlooked in sample surveys administered by interviewers.

The full instrument has been applied three times. There are longer trendlines for the global indicators on life satisfaction, happiness and expectations for the future. Results over time are striking. Citizen satisfaction peaked in 1994 in the month after the first open democratic elections. Under apartheid, levels of life satisfaction and happiness reflected the imposed racial hierarchy of power and privilege with whites mostly satisfied, blacks mostly dissatisfied, and Indian and coloured people falling somewhere in between. In May 1994, a month after the first open elections, black and white and rich and poor were equally satisfied with life for the first time; approximately four in five South Africans stated they were satisfied with life overall and happy. However, post-election euphoria was short-lived. Satisfaction levels have since returned to ones reminiscent of those under the former regime (Møller, 1998). Levels of dissatisfaction are particularly pronounced in the domains of income, social security, and access to jobs.

In the consolidation phase it was possible to identify four key features of quality of life in South Africa:

1. There is a vast discrepancy between the levels of satisfaction of black and white and of rich and poor in society.
2. Optimism correlates negatively with current happiness. Black and poor South Africans expect to be more satisfied with life in future, albeit from a low satisfaction base, while better-off whites and Indians tend to be more pessimistic.
3. There is a close match between objective and subjective indicators, that is, between perceived well-being and standards of living.
4. Overall life satisfaction and domain satisfactions appear to be sensitive to changing circumstances in society. Importantly, satisfaction seems to increase with rising levels of living.

Once the pattern of quality of life became apparent in the trend study, inquiries were launched to explore in greater depth the quality-of-life situations of specific categories of the population, in particular those of the socially excluded. Qualitative and quantitative studies of unemployment, leisure, and the life course, and the application of research techniques such as focus groups and time-use diaries, were used to explore coping skills and personal development in situations characterised by depressed standards of living and limited life chances.

The analytical phase. Research into development takes cognisance of material, relational and symbolic dimensions. In the 1990s these dimensions became the focus of separate studies conducted for the quality-of-life trends project. Examples refer to research among beneficiaries of the ambitious Reconstruction and Development Programme, perceptions of life quality and achievements in intergenerational households, and the importance of top-down factors such as national pride in boosting personal well-being. As South Africa approaches its tenth year under democracy, the project has shifted its attention to international comparisons with other societies in transition. A special study of the quality of life of the emergent black economic elite only became feasible in the late 1990s when national sample surveys produced sufficient numbers in this category.

The future research agenda. Which direction should quality of life studies for South Africa take in future? A major omission of the South African Quality of Life Trends Project is its exclusive focus on individual quality of life. The democratically elected government’s ten year review and the third national elections in 2004 have focussed South African minds on the quality of society in which the good life can be achieved for the masses. There is broad consensus that solutions will have to be found to widespread poverty and inequality, crime and corruption, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. These societal level issues will affect individual quality of life just as race relations cast a shadow on individual well-being in the past. No doubt, exploring the many factors still retarding human development in South Africa will occupy quality-of-life researchers for many years to come.