The FPD's research work is organised around three interlinking thematic areas:
- political pluralism and good governance;
- socioeconomic transformation and economic competitiveness; and
- innovative communications technologies to strengthen accountability and participatory democracy.
Political Pluralism and Good Governance
Democratisation is a move from a system where political and/or economic elites make the decisions, to an ideal where most decision-making includes wider segments of society. In a democratic culture a key role of elected leaders is aggregating the preferences of citizens and making policy decisions representing the majority, while taking into account the opinions of the minority and protecting the disadvantaged.
Political parties and institutions of governance play critical roles both in representing citizens and in wielding power and legitimate authority to achieve stated policy objectives. The primary purpose of the FPD's political research is to explore and alert South African citizens to issues of importance to the successful transformation of the country. In accordance with the preamble to the South African Constitution, it is to:
- Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
- Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
- Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
- Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
Informed citizen participation is not only a right in a democracy it is also a responsibility. The FPD will continue its research into comparative best practices on the continent and beyond in order to inform and hasten South Africa's trajectory towards world-class democratic governance, economic competitiveness and social justice.
Social Transformation and Economic Competitiveness
The Nobel-prize-winning economic historian Douglass C. North defines institutions as 'the rules of the game in a society, or, more formally. . .the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction.' This definition is important when analysing the diverse social and political aspects underlying economic decisions and the organisation of economic and social activity in South Africa. Forward-looking rational economic actors must focus not only on allocations and policies today, but also on those of the future.
Designing democratic institutions involves both costs and benefits, which are sometimes variable and can be altered by non-democratic decision-makers. Determining how individuals make social and economic choices in conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty remains a challenge not only in South Africa but throughout the world.
It is well known that South Africa has an acute problem of youth unemployment. According to a recent discussion paper released by the South Africa's National Treasury , about 42% of young people under the age of 30 are unemployed compared with less than 17 of adults over 30. Only 1 in 8 working age adults have a job compared with 40% in most emerging economies. Employment of 18-24 year olds has fallen by more than 20% (340 000) since December 2008. Overall, more than 4 million people – 24% of the South Africa's potential workforce -- are currently unemployed.
Unemployed citizens are not only unable to contribute to the nation's productivity, they have unmet and potentially destabilising economic expectations. This is a time bomb for South Africa's future. Successful policy responses that lead to the alleviation of South Africa's historical inequalities are critical to a stable and prosperous future. Providing information to targeted audiences will contribute to more informed decision-making.
Communications Technology and Participatory Democracy
Recent political trends reveal the emerging importance of communications technologies such as mobile- and social media platforms in civic engagement. The lively interaction sparked by such technologies adds a new dimension to contemporary democratic politics, the potential of which is just beginning to be investigated.
As the young generation most attracted to new communications technology comprises the largest and most dynamic hope for South Africa's future, the FPD intends to conduct evidence-based research and analysis of both mobile-phone-based and social media applications to South Africa's emerging democratic culture.
Social media applications (Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube) have rapidly been adopted in many countries as a means to engage, organise and communicate with citizens. In their recent book, Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics , the authors look from a Western perspective at the issue of social media innovations in participatory politics. In Africa, this phenomenon is largely unexplored research territory. Issues raised that are relevant to South Africa include:
- social movements: pushing the boundaries of digital political participation;
- digital media and the personalisation of collective action;
- participation dynamics: intersections between social and traditional media;
- trust, confidence, credibility: citizen responses on Twitter to opinion polls;
- how youth organisations are evolving their web presence;
- online civic attitudes among the youth and the limits of civic consumerism;
- the political competence of internet participants; and
- online participation: new forms of civic and political engagement.
Engaging South Africa's young, technology-fixated generation in constructive civic debate will create a more vibrant democratic culture. The innovative approaches made possible by new technologies have huge potential to enhance participatory democracy, increasing interactive communications on issues such as accountability, transparency, service delivery and beyond.