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Heartbeat of the nation: Unpacking the domestic perceptions annual findings

The heartbeat of a nation: South African behaviour and the evolution of national identity in turbulent times is an exploratory research project embarked on through Brand South Africa's annual national omnibus survey. With 2,500 respondents from the smallest rural to the biggest metro areas and fully representative of the South Africa population, it reveals that the year 2020 brought about many changes, both positive and negative.
During a year wherein South Africans had to get used to ‘staying at home – to stay safe’, like much of the rest of the world, the research finds special dynamics at a local and community level. There is clear evidence that many South Africans responded in a collaborative and supportive manner to help those in dire need. While economic pressures were mounting and uncertainty regarding the future was at an all-time high during 2020, the national survey clearly captures the extent to which South Africans are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty on the frontlines of social needs.

The top five ‘self-identifiers’ that South Africans still predominantly identify themselves with means that one could describe South Africans as:

Citizens who are loving, free and freedom-loving people that do not discriminate. As citizens they also strongly see themselves as African – an important self-identifier. These same citizens are also defined by their uniqueness (as individual persons), and to a lesser extent by their race and language. The latter two are the weaker identifiers, effectively debunking the narrative of a country defined by racial and economic fault lines. This, once again, reinforces the insights provided by the behaviour groups that offer an empirical and factual representation of a people whose identity transcends race and class.

In 2017, Brand South Africa embarked on a bold research endeavour that sought to develop a unique segmentation model, with the goal of gaining deeper insight into the behaviour, attitudes and values of South Africans. The development of the segmentation model and the resulting behaviour groups are important for Brand South Africa as the official marketing agency of the South African Nation Brand, as they provide key insights into the pulse of the nation, and how our behaviours, attitudes and perceptions respond to the South African lived reality. This unique approach to understanding the basis of what defines South Africans allows Brand South Africa to embark on its work of safeguarding and advancing the nation brand image by keeping attuned to the nuanced diversity that is at the heart of our collective identity.

Through the national survey, it is also evident that 71%, a large proportion, are willing to be vaccinated against Covid-19, if the opportunity presents itself. Furthermore, in terms of societal impact of not only the pandemic but the associated economic effects of lockdowns, 79% of respondents indicate that people in their communities are struggling to survive economically.

Another indirect sign of severe social stress is the fact that the percentage of South Africans that believe life has improved or that they are better off in a democracy, has dropped sharply between 2019 and 2020. It drops from 49% to 37% in 2020. This is a sign, together with the dwindling salience of one of the behaviour groups – the proud democrats - that citizens are increasingly sceptical and critical of the strength and resilience of South Africa’s democracy. However, insights gained from the social economy section prompted by a partnership with the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) revealed that our people are increasingly determined to solve key social issues through various forms of social enterprises.

Largely driven by altruistic intentions and less so by monetary reasons, those involved in the social economy represent 8.6% of the South African population aged 16 years and older. These activities are largely considered to take place in the form of NPOs, cooperatives, stokvels, volunteer groups, societies and companies established with a social benefit objective in mind. It is estimated that 3.5 million people participate in the social economy, clearly illustrating the untapped potential of this segment to contribute to South Africa’s economic recovery. It is for this reason that the research findings from the omnibus survey will be instrumental in crafting a policy framework in which social economy activities will be provided with the necessary legislative and institutional support.

In year four of the behavioural groups model, there are several important trends to note. The proud democrats, the group that values the practice of democratic principles started in position four in 2017, moved to sixth place in 2018 and down to 10th in 2019, where it remained in the 2020 analysis. This regression may strongly indicate that specific aspects that drive the idea of a nation, may be losing some of the democratic principles valued in years gone by – add to this dwindling levels of voter turnout in national elections and the proverbial ‘shine’ of democracy appears to be waning in the minds of South Africans. Although when looking at the celebrators of achievement that started in position seven in 2017, to fifth in 2018, fourth in 2019 and first place in 2020, it appears that there is a sense that people are beginning to recognise specific aspects about South Africa that are meaningful, such as sport, science, culture and art, diversity and natural beauty. However, this group places very little significance on the role of government in making South Africa special. The increasing prominence of this group may also be attributed to the decline of vertical social cohesion, which indicates the relationship citizens have with the state. Overall, the 10 behavioural groups continue to reveal some interesting insights that are intimately tied to our journey of nationhood.


For a more in-depth exploration of what defines us as a nation and track Brand South Africa’s five-year domestic perceptions research journey and reflect on key insights, dynamics and developments. Join us on 17 March at 2pm and see how the South African identity and behavioural profile has changed over time. Click here to register.

Brand South Africa
Brand South Africa is the official Nation Brand custodian and a marketing agency of South Africa, with a mandate to build the country's brand reputation, in order to improve its global competitiveness. Its aim is also to build pride and patriotism among South Africans, in order to contribute to social cohesion and nation brand ambassadorship.
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