The view from outside of South Africa is startling.
Universities are on fire, white students storming a football field and attacking black students, and viral videos of heavily armed police officers shooting rubber bullets into crowds—these are the images of South Africa that have dominated international news headlines for the past few weeks. Collectively, they paint an image that is painfully reminiscent of the apartheid-era in the nation’s past.
Taken together, this has caused many outside observers to ask: Are race relations in South Africa really as bad as they seem?
The simple answer to this question is, no. Or, at the very least, that’s the answer from the viewpoint of South Africans.
On February 29th the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) released a report entitled, “Race Relations in South Africa: Reasons for Hope” where they asked roughly 2,300 South Africans about the state of racial affairs today. In the report, the IRR asked if race relations had improved since 1994, the birth year of democracy in South Africa. 76% said that they thought race relations had either improved or stayed the same. 15% of respondents thought that race relations have worsened.
These numbers tell us a few important things about the way that South Africans view race in their country. The most obvious conclusion is that, contrary to the narrative created by many news networks, the majority of South Africans think that progress has been made since the fall of apartheid. To be fair, saying that race relations “have improved”, is a highly subjective measure. “Improve”, can mean different things to different people. However, the spirit of the question is clear—the past 22 years have introduced meaningful changes in policy and culture.
The IRR report summarizes this point nicely: “”… Far from being hostile towards one another, most South Africans, black and white, occupy a pragmatic middle ground on race relations. White South Africans understand and support the need for redress. Black South Africans do not believe that their white compatriots should be treated as second-class citizens. The overwhelming majority of both groups believe that they need each other for progress to be made.”
The fact that the nation is progressing down the road of recovery is a very significant accomplishment. However, it is not, in and of itself, a reason to make wild assertions about prejudice-free state as some journalists and news outlets have been prone to do. The conversation about race relations in South Africa is complex—as it is in many states that were once under colonial rule.
The same report also recognized that while many have agreed that relations between the races have improved, it is not a perfect science. When asked if South African sports teams should be selected based solely on talent and merit and not on racial quotas, 77% supported merit based measures. 74% of black South Africans and 84% of white South Africans supported this measure. These numbers, of course, also point to fractures within racial groups with almost a quarter of black South Africans and 15% supporting the quota system. While these opinions are important, they cannot be allowed to overshadow the majority opinion. This alludes to an important nuance that often gets lost in public discussions on race in South Africa—many citizens find themselves closer to center than to either extreme. It is also true that the same people who gave the same response to a survey may hold differing opinions on how to achieve these goals or how much weight they should hold in public discussions.
This survey, by itself, does not point to a South Africa where blacks and whites get along without strain or racial pressure. There are very real tensions that are currently gripping the nation.
However, it has been noted that many of these difficulties arise at the intersections of race and economic struggle. In the report, the IRR warns that as economic inequality and unemployment rise, political groups will be more prone to use economic tension for political gain. This certainly seems to be the strategy of many of the more radical parties in South African politics.
Recent months have seen a very public and hostile wave of discontent. It is not uncommon to see Black students at South African universities with signs that read, “F*ck Whites”. The message, while blunt and shocking, is exemplary of the underlying frustration that many young people feel. This exclusion that many young people are feeling is, in many ways, entirely valid.
Currently 60% of South Africans live below the nation’s federal poverty level of 1365 rand ($87.16) per month. Many university-age South Africans struggle to enter the job market and those that do find jobs often find themselves struggling to make ends meet. Part of the remedy for addressing the recent eruptions over race is to address poverty and unemployment. This is an idea where the survey find wide agreement between all races. Both Blacks and Whites overwhelmingly agree that improved living standards and better economic prospects will help to improve future race relations.
This sentiment was echoed in a recent report from the South African Reconciliation Barometer Briefing Paper titled Perceptions of Economic Security and Well Being which found that “61% [of the respondents] noted that any attempt at national reconciliation will remain futile for as long as those who were disadvantaged under apartheid remain poor. These findings underscore the fact that perceptions about economic security and the distribution of wealth continue to play a critical role in deciding our success or failure in creating a united South African nation”. Far from being discouraging, these reports offer a place for South African policymakers to begin to address these issues. They also highlight the willingness of the population to see new measures implemented that address race and poverty as key focus areas.
The path to a more cohesive South Africa won’t be easy. But with 91% of respondents saying that the color of their children’s teacher doesn’t matter and another 85% agreeing that all races need to depend on each other for success—there certainly does seem reason to be hopeful for the future.