How Racially Polarised are South Africans After 16 Years of Democracy?

29th April 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

Two days ago, April 27, South Africa celebrated Freedom Day as a reminder of our first ever non-racial democratic election held in 1994. It is therefore a good time to take stock of how far we have come in the past 16 years since the heady days surrounding our first democratic election that gave birth to what Archbishop Tutu described as the "rainbow nation." From recent local and international media reports it would be easy to conclude that we have moved considerably backwards as a nation. Readers of the UK tabloid the Daily Star on 5 April were greeted with a front page headline stating that, "World Cup Fans Face Bloodbath. Race War declared in South Africa."

The spark that ignited a burning focus on race relations in South Africa was the recent murder of far right-wing AWB leader, Eugene Terreblanche. The kindling that provided the fuel was the ongoing saga of ANC youth league leader Julius Malema's singing of an old struggle song that contained the phrase "shoot the boer". While worlds apart in many respects, both leaders relied heavily on exploiting and fermenting racial division as a cornerstone of their pursuit of power.

Consequently, the ANC struggle song and the murder became lightening rods for many unresolved issues relating to race relations in South Africa. Unfortunately, as usually is the case, it was the most extreme views that hit the headlines and attracted most of the attention. A blog linked to the BBC Word Service entitled ‘Terreblanche murder highlights racist killings in SA', sought to portray this crime as part of the systematic, racially driven murder of 3 000 white farmers since 1994.

It is remarkable that such misguided beliefs continue in spite of the well-publicised report released in 2003 by a Committee of inquiry into farm attacks, consisting of academics, lawyers and a representative from the SAPS which found that:

• ‘Robbery was given as the primary motive by 90% of the perpetrators'
• ‘Most of the perpetrators were young unemployed individuals with a low standard of education. By far the majority came from dysfunctional families.
• In those cases where nothing is taken, there is almost always a logical explanation, such as that the attackers had to leave quickly because help arrived.'

This demonstrates that although real fears and perceptions drive racial attitudes, too often these are not based on a rational assessment of reality. For example, many people feel that race relations are deteriorating in South Africa and use specific events such as those described above, to defend their perception. While such events may have a limited impact, regular large-scale survey research on race relations reveals a different trend.

A Futurefact survey of a representative sample of all South Africans completed in December 2009 found that, "there is no doubt that we are certainly a more unified country than we were in 2008. " This assessment was based on the finding that over half of South Africans (54%) identify themselves first and foremost as being South Africans before referring to racial, cultural or religious identities. This is an improvement when compared to the 2008 survey during which only 46% did so. The survey found this shift towards a stronger feeling of social cohesion across all races, ages and social class.

Notably, 64% of all South Africans strongly agree with the statement "I believe that all people are my brothers and sisters and equals regardless of their race, religion and political beliefs." This is a solid increase from 2008 when 55% strongly agreed with the statement. Only a small proportion of the population, 6%, displayed signs of intolerance.

When asked to rate our comfort level with people of races different to ourselves on a scale of between 1 and 10, South Africans scored an average of 7.6. Interestingly, the survey found that comfort levels are less related to race or age, but more so to socio economic situation. The better educated and financially secure people are, the more comfortable they are with people of races different to themselves.

The research supports findings by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (concluded in 2008) that found that the majority of South Africans believed that income inequality was the primary divisive factor in South Africa and not race per se. While it is important to note that income inequality in South Africa is ‘racialised' because of our apartheid history, race is not necessarily the key driver of social division in South Africa.

Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go before we can define ourselves as a non-racial country. This journey will be all the more difficult if we wait for it to happen on its own. We must be prepared to understand, and if necessary, challenge and change our racial attitudes. One way of doing this is to break out of our comfort zones and get to know people from racial and social groups different to those that predominantly define us. The personal rewards of doing so are likely to be immediate while also contributing towards longer term social benefits.

National holidays such as Freedom Day can provide an opportunity for us to do so. So too will the Soccer World Cup when most South Africans will bridge racial and social differences in stadiums, fan-parks, taverns and homes to show support for our country. Our future continues to be in our hands and it is important to recognise that we have come a long way from being a global pariah to hosting the world's largest sporting event. It is heartening that most South Africans seem to know this.

Written by: Tizina Ramagaga, Junior Researcher and Gareth Newham, the Programme Head of the Crime and Justice Programme