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Brief 29: Race and Political Responsiveness in South Africa

In a 2011 experimental study found same-race favoritism amongst U.S. state legislators. Researchers found the same in South Africa: race of the constituent influenced the rate of response from the councillor as well as the completeness of the response.

Read the Full Study

Category: Public Service Provision

Tags: race, political, responsiveness, South Africa, Discrimination, equality

Date of Publication: Friday, July 3, 2015

EGAP Researcher: Gwyneth McClendon

Geographical Region: Africa

Research Question:

In diverse societies, do political representatives treat citizens equally or does racial bias interfere with their day-to-day responsiveness?

Preparer: Damaris Colhoun, Photo Credit: Diriye Amey



In a 2011 experimental study of political discrimination in the U.S., academic researchers Butler and Brockman found that, on average, state legislators demonstrated same-race favoritism, with white legislators more responsive to requests for help with voter registration from white constituents and black legislators more responsive to requests from black constituents. Would traveling this study to another nation with a similar racial history, yet different institutional environment yield the same results?

The author of this study, Gwyneth McClendon, saw South Africa as an opportunity to answer this question. South Africa shares the U.S.’s history of black-white racial segregation, though on a different timeline. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended all local and state laws requiring segregation in the U.S. South Africa’s racist political system was not formally dismantled until the 1990s when apartheid policies, arguably the most extreme form of racial segregation in the world, were abolished. How does this comparatively recent transition to full democracy influence the behavior of South African politicians today? On one hand, the lasting impact of racial categorization might suggest politicians carry personal prejudices into office. On the other hand, precisely because apartheid exists so prominently in the nation’s recent memory, racial bias is a sensitive subject, with politicians from both the dominant party, the African National Congress (ANC), and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), eager to demonstrate “non-racialism.”

Research Design:

In July 2011, emails were successfully sent to 1,229 black and white politicians from four South African provinces. Employing email as the method of communication was meant to control socioeconomic bias. Between group inequality is high in South Africa and unless given other indications, a councillor might assume a black constituent is poorer or less well educated than a white constituent. Having access to email and using grammatically correct English signified that constituents, regardless of race, were socioeconomically similar.

Each email appeared to be from a constituent living in the councillor’s district and raised a concern about a public goods provision, specifically the quality of roads or water in a municipality, both issues local councillors have some jurisdiction over. The alias used in the email address and in the body of the email, identified the sender’s race, whether Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaaner, or English. In addition, McClendon varied whether or not the constituent stated a political affiliation that matched the councillor’s, allowing for differentiation between political and racial bias.

Two months after the emails were sent, McClendon separated out the non-responders and then divided the responses into four categories: the councillor replied directly to the constituent with the requested material; the councillor replied to ask for more information; the councillor forwarded the email to a bureaucrat; a bureaucrat responded having received a forward from the councillor.

This study joins others that have employed mild forms of deception and waived informed consent to test for racial bias. The decision to use fictitious constituents was not made lightly. Because racial bias is socially undesirable behavior, politicians are less likely to engage in it if they are aware they are being studied. As a result, steps were taken to protect the politicians’ anonymity and to keep the time infringement as low as possible.


Whether or not the constituent was the same race as the councillor contacted clearly influenced the rate of response. Across all councillors, 25.2% of the same-race constituents received a response, while only 16.8% of the other-race constituents did. This racial bias persisted regardless of the racial category of the councillor, with black councillors responding to white constituents with roughly the same percentage decrease that white councillors responded to black constituents. All councillors also exhibited racial bias in how they answered constituent questions. On average, 15.6% of same-race constituents received a “complete answer” to their question, while only 10.4% of other-race constituents did.

While it might seem logical that party affiliation would influence the rate of response–councillors more likely to strategically respond to a potential supporter regardless of race–this proved not to be the case. Other-race constituents who expressed explicit support for the councillor’s party received the same rate of response as other-race constituents who expressed no partisan affiliation.

Also of note was the overall rate of response. In 2009, 2010, and 2012, McClendon had the opportunity to observe politicians from both the ANC and DA. In theory, it is a primary responsibility of municipal councillors to communicate directly with constituents. However, this study demonstrates that, in practice, this does not always happen. Across all councillors, the average response rate was only 20.9%. That compares to 56.5% in Butler and Brockman’s U.S. study and 37.2% in a similar experiment conducted in China. The discourse on government performance in South Africa portrays local councillors as dismissive of poor South Africans. McClendon’s experiment suggests councillors are dismissive of constituents regardless of socioeconomic status.

Policy Implications:

McClendon’s study provides evidence that South African politicians prioritize communication with constituents from their own race group. Racial bias was evident amongst all types of local politicians regardless of a constituent’s party affiliation or socioeconomics. This is consistent with the prediction that political systems like apartheid have a lasting impact on personal prejudices. While there are no doubt examples of individual South African politicians who make equal efforts to reach out to all constituents, a pattern of racially-biased behavior exists amongst local councillors, a pattern that matches Butler and Brockman’s findings in the U.S.