Democracy in practice

  • July 29, 2013
Democracy in practice

Scholar Elect Zenobia Ismail's research will look at democracy in Africa and what attracts voters to particular parties.

What is the relationship between political parties and African voters and how does this affect democracy?

Zenobia Ismail has worked on issues relating to governance and democracy in Africa for several years as a former manager of Afrobarometer which conducts surveys across sub-Saharan Africa. She is now about to begin a PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

She says: “I am interested in what attracts a voter to a particular party. It is not so ideological as it is in the UK. There is not much difference in parties’ ideological position on many of the big issues around development with some small exceptions. Some research suggests it is all about ethnic loyalties rather than government performance. I want to develop a statistical model to assess the links between voters and the parties they support. I hope to challenge stereotypes of voters in Africa.”

Her main role at Afrobarometer was to ensure surveys  were conducted to a high standard. During her time there she visited 16 countries conducting public opinion surveys on democracy and governance, on how people felt about democracy, how they rated the level of democracy in their country, their president and corruption levels. “The thing that surprised me the most was the high quality of research in different countries. Many South Africans perceive South Africa as superior to other parts of Africa,” she says. Botswana came closest, she states, to the theoretical requirements for a consolidated democracy. Zimbabwe, however, was “scary”. “If you asked questions about the ruling party in some areas you ran the risk of being beaten up severely. We would often have to delay work there if we felt there was too much tension,” she says.

Growing up

Zenobia herself grew up in a rapidly changing world in South Africa. She was born in Johannesburg in 1973. Her mother was a nurse and later school secretary and her father a salesman. Her parents divorced when she was two and she didn’t see her father after that. Zenobia went to live with her maternal grandparents in Pretoria. Zenobia grew up with a strong sense of the importance of education.

Her grandmother was a high school teacher and was well known for teaching cookery. Her mother started working as a school secretary when she started primary school and would spend many afternoons with her after school. Zenobia remembers her mother telling her that she was saving up to send her daughter to university even though her salary was very small. “From a very early age she fully believed I would go to university,” says Zenobia. Her brother and sister had both done a law degree through distance education because under apartheid the only university they could attend was too far away. They worked and studied part time while they did their degrees. In any event the Asian community, which was fairly segregated under apartheid, placed an emphasis on education and her school was very competitive. “We were all very aware that we had to do well at school to have a future,” she says.

Zenobia’s school was underfunded and there were no extracurricular activities. She was scared to borrow books from the very small school library for fear of losing them.

Eventually her family moved her to an Anglican private high school and her aunt paid the tuition fees and her mum paid other costs. On the one hand, Zenobia felt guilty about the sacrifice they were making, but on the other she was very relieved to be in a different environment. All government schools at the time were racially segregated and it was the first time she had mixed with other races. The school encouraged its students to think politically and was not restricted to the government curriculum on subjects like history. “It was the first time I was awakened to the political situation in South Africa,” says Zenobia.


When she left school she applied to do a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Witwatersrand, which had been at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement. It was a big university with over 20,000 students. She forced herself to be interested in commerce as she was hoping for a job in insurance or banking. It was 1991 when she started and things were changing a lot in South Africa. New possibilities were opening up.

She specialised in marketing and her dissertation earned her an award. She wanted to stay on to study there, but her aunt had become the first non-white woman to be appointed a diplomat and had been posted to England. She suggested Zenobia do an honours degree in England.  However, she had a few problems getting on the course she wanted. Eventually she did an MSc in management at the LSE and returned to South Africa a year later to a market research job where she worked for three years. Her academic mentor – a marketing lecturer – asked her to step into his shoes at Wits University when he started a PhD in the US. She wanted to go back into academia so said yes and ended up staying in teaching for five years.

During that time she helped to set up a successful tutorial programme to help improve students’ study skills, particularly those from poorer rural areas. Eventually the students ended up running it themselves, but in 2005 the programme was cancelled. Zenobia lost interest in teaching after that and through a friend she got a job working for an NGO on applied social research. She learnt a lot about statistical analysis. A colleague of hers got a job at Afrobarometer, but had to leave so Zenobia applied to be manager for southern Africa.

She left the organisation three years later to do a masters in African Studies at Oxford University funded by a scholarship. She chose Oxford after attending a summer school there on democratisation of Africa in 2010. It was difficult to go back to studying after a long gap, but she worked hard and won a prize for her dissertation which built on her work for Afrobarometer. She then applied to Cambridge for her PhD. Between the two courses she has been doing research projects on issues such as welfare and disability as well as working to improve research output at the Centre for Social Development in Africa which is part of the University of Johannesburg which was recently visited by President Obama.

She is looking forward to joining the Gates Cambridge community.

Picture credit: TwoWings and Wiki Commons.

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