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Why South Africa is sad – and getting sadder

War-torn Somalia spent more than two decades without a working Parliament, so why are Somalis happier than South Africans?

People who live in Somalia are happier those in South Africa – despite the large gap in development and social security between the two countries, according to the World Happiness Report recently released by the United Nations.

The report consists of surveys of 3 000 people in each of more than 150 countries conducted over three years. As part of the research, residents are asked to rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being the worst and 10 the best.

The study found that poor basic service delivery has left many South Africans feeling dejected.

Ben Roberts is a research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council and contributed to the report. He says the recent emergence of a relatively stable government may be the reason behind the Somalis’ glee.

“We do, however, observe a general tendency on the continent that countries that emerge from periods of conflict or political strife do see significant increases in happiness among citizens.

“This improvement in the political context of the country is likely to be shaping the satisfaction with life expressed by Somalian citizens, similar to the euphoric moment that was recorded in South African surveys with the onset of democratic elections in 1994,” he says.

No long-term data

But he cautions it is difficult to know for certain what’s driving higher rates of happiness in the country because of a lack of long-term data. Somalia was included in UN happiness surveys only in 2014 because of persistent civil unrest over the past two decades.

South Africa dropped two rankings since the 2015 happiness report and is now rated as Africa’s seventh happiest nation out the 44 surveyed. The happiest country in Africa is Algeria, followed closely by Tunisia in second place. Internationally, South Africa was ranked 101st out of 155 countries.

Roberts explains: “For many South Africans, the performance of democracy in the country is not fully living up to cherished democratic ideals. This, together with the lived experience of poverty for many citizens and expectations of change, are some of the likely factors underlying the trends that we are seeing.”

The report also looks at a range of national and personal factors that can affect happiness, including a country’s gross domestic product, life expectancy and the degree to which people feel they are socially supported and have the freedom to make life decisions.

Roberts says the world’s top 10 happiest countries rank highly on these criteria, as well as people’s self-reported generosity measured by recent donations, and trust in government and business, which is measured by a perceived absence of corruption.

So who is at the top of the list? The Norwegians, Danes and Icelanders are the three happiest people, the report says.

Ina Skosana was a health reporter at Bhekisisa.