South Africa

SA needs ‘radical reconciliation’

By Rebecca Davis 5 December 2013

In the wake of the release of this year’s Reconciliation Barometer, an annual survey of South African attitudes now in its tenth year, you’re likely to see a number of headlines proclaiming that class, rather than race, is now the most divisive social issue in South Africa. But don’t misunderstand: the Barometer’s findings clearly state that race and class are still intimately interlinked. The other headline finding of the survey is a significant drop over the past year in confidence in government institutions and politicians. But guess who’s top of the pops in the public opinion? Why, it’s Thuli Madonsela. By REBECCA DAVIS.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) says that its annual Barometer, which asks South Africans more or less the same questions every year, represents “the world’s largest longitudinal data set on reconciliation”. As with any survey of this kind, some will be skeptical as to its representativity: its findings are based on one-on-one interviews with 3,590 respondents, from all nine provinces and both rural and metro-dwellers, aged from 15 and above.

The cover of the Barometer’s report always features a photograph chosen with care to exemplify the major theme or focus of its findings. Last year’s bore a picture of the consignment of dumped textbooks in Limpopo. This year it’s more abstract: the photograph is of a swanky building site, with an advertising hoarding featuring luxury cars. But the bottom of the picture, author Kim Wale explained, is in shadow – representing the vast gulf that still separates the haves and have-nots in South Africa.

This is very much the central theme of this year’s findings: that the gap between the rich and the poor in South Africa is seen as the biggest source of division in the country by its citizens. This in fact is not new; income disparity has been cited in this position consistently since 2003. Race is now seen as only the fourth most divisive issue: to quote the survey, “It seems that, in the perceptions of citizens, race relations are steadily improving as class relations get worse”.

But hold up, those who love to jump on class, rather than race, now being South Africa’s cause celebre. The survey’s findings also show that wealth disparity still happens overwhelmingly along racial lines. In terms of the living standards measure (LSM), there are a higher percentage of black South Africans in the lowest four LSM groups than any other race group. By contrast, fully 73,3% of white South Africans fall within the two highest LSM groups. The IJR spells it out clearly: “Material inequality is the biggest obstacle to national reconciliation, but the majority of the materially excluded are black South Africans”.

While language can no longer be accurately correlated with race (there are now more Afrikaans speakers who are black or coloured than white, for instance), it is also telling that English and Afrikaans speakers are most likely to fall into the highest LSM groups. At the bottom end of the spectrum, 51,2% of Xhosa speakers and 41,7% of Sepedi speakers fall within the lowest LSM groups.

Despite the fact that black South Africans are still worst off as a group, they still show a higher degree of confidence in public institutions than other race groups. A total of 61,6% of black respondents displayed confidence in the presidency, for instance, as compared with just 28,8% of white respondents. As a reminder of what a devout country South Africa remains, religious institutions inspire the most confidence (67%) across the board. But just behind is the office of the Public Protector – an interesting, if unsurprising, finding in a week where top ANC officials have appeared in public to criticise her.

The IJR’s Jan Hofmeyr said at the launch of the report that a “targeted onslaught” from the ANC on the Public Protector might undermine the public view of her. But the effect might also be the other way round. The survey finds that there has been a 10% drop in confidence in national government since 2012, for instance. Faith in political parties is the lowest of all, at 46,2% – not an encouraging finding for anyone trying to persuade people to get out and cast their votes next year.

The majority of South Africans also feel that their leaders do not care about people like them. White South Africans demonstrate a particular sense of disempowerment, with only 38,3% believing that they had the power to influence local government decisions. But if they feel like they lack political power, the situation is reversed in terms of white South African’s relationship with business. To quote the survey: “White South Africans feel the least disempowered in the face of big business and the most disempowered in the face of local government. Conversely, black South Africans feel the most empowered in the face of local government, and the least empowered in the face of capital”.

Depressingly, the survey reveals a correlation between LSM membership and likelihood to vote. For black South Africans, LSMs 1-4 (the poorest) revealed that they were less likely to vote than LSMs 7-10 (the richest). This trend was, however, reversed among coloured South Africans. The lowest voting likelihood was found among whites occupying LSM 5-6, whereas the group most likely to vote are rich black people.

One of the survey’s clearest findings is that if you’re regularly in contact with another race group, it’s likely that you’re materially better off. The Reconciliation Barometer asks two questions to test this. Firstly: on a typical day during the week, whether at work or otherwise, how often do you talk to [different race group to respondent] people? And secondly: When socialising in your home or the homes of friends, how often do you talk to [different race group to respondent] people?

The IJR says that the second type of contact is most important in terms of the reconciliation project, because it is “more likely to reduce prejudice and negative stereotypes”. There has been a steady increase in both types of contact over the past ten years, though many would say it’s not happening fast enough: in 2013, more South Africans “never” or “rarely” talk to someone of a different race in an everyday context than those who do so often or always. “As class position improves, so does the degree of interracial contact and socialisation”, the survey states. Within the lowest LSM groups, interracial socialising rates are low – likely an effect of the “segregation of many poor black South Africans from interracial middle-class city spaces”.

But sadly, the report also demonstrates an inequality in the willingness of black and white South Africans to reach beyond racial and cultural divides. White South Africans, of all the race groups, were the least likely (27,3%) to say that they wanted to learn more about the customs of others. Only 11.7% of white people – again, the lowest percentage – expressed a desire for more opportunities to talk to people of different races. Almost 40% of white South Africans surveyed disagreed with the statement: The Apartheid government wrongly oppressed the majority of South Africans. That’s bleak stuff.

The silver lining is that most of the South Africans surveyed think we’ve made progress in reconciliation, 62% share a desire to forgive those who hurt others during Apartheid, and 64% want the country to move forward in unity. What the IJR proposes towards this end is a concept of “radical reconciliation”, which looks at addressing exclusion which is not just economic and political, but also social and psychological.

Wale suggested at the Barometer’s launch that some of the early impetus around the notion of “reconciliation” itself is flagging. “During 1994 and the transition, people did a lot of work around citizen awareness of reconciliation,” she said. “There’s a bit of apathy now. I think that we still need to do that work of consciousness-raising on what the past means in the present, across race groups.” DM

Read more:

  • SA Reconciliation Barometer 2012: The Young and The Restless, in the Daily Maverick

Photo: A photo taken on 9 February 2010 shows residents of Siyathemba township in Balfour, Mpumalanga protesting against the perceived lack of community investment in the township by a local mining company. Picture: SAPA stringer

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