Race Trumps Views

Try as we might, it is difficult to pigeonhole South Africans into one or another viewpoint. We’re a pretty jolly lot, but we don’t like outsiders much; we’re conservative in many ways but hedonistic bar none; we’re kindly toward one another, and more violent than most. For an opposition trying to come up with vote-winning policies, nothing is obvious.

Futurefact, a survey company, finds South Africans fairly consistent the past few years. It puts the largest group as enthusiastic about the country and its prospects (41%), followed by “solid citizens” (15%), those of conventional views to life and then those “influential” in shaping society. Pessimists make up only 13% of us.

Fully eight out of 10 people agree that “we can’t keep blaming the past for all our problems”, the same percentage as think our democracy more or less strong. But we’re too hard-nosed to be myopic in our optimism, and we’re quite happy to dish it out to government and politicians in general.

So two thirds of us worry about a lack of a strong opposition in parliament, and think that government “is moving away from the democratic principles they fought so hard to implement”. Even harsher, almost as many people think that ANC leaders “don’t care about the people anymore” and, worse, that the ruling party is becoming “the enemy of the people”.

This should please the Democratic Alliance, a grouping led by liberals but disparate in its supporter make-up and increasingly showing internal strains over how best to position itself. Yet nothing is simple for the DA.

Addressing its parliamentary caucus last month, historian Hermann Giliomee suggested that its natural constituency is “conservative blacks disgusted with BEE” and pointed out that “As a country we are schizophrenic: a highly progressive constitution lies at odds with the values of a deeply conservative citizenry”.

And conservative we are in many ways. The last census to ask, in 2001, had 84% declare themselves religious. The vast majority (even including 60% of hardcore ANC supporters) want strikes by teachers, nurses and policemen banned. Eighty percent of South African want a “strong leader” to impose national order. Given that 59% of us reckon, says Futurefact, that South Africans are “superior” to other Africans, it shouldn’t surprise us that most want African refugees consigned to camps near our borders, according to the SA Migration Project.

Yet South Africans drink themselves into the world’s top ten per capita, sit in the same league for murdering each other, support a thriving adult entertainment industry, and tolerate without a whimper new law to allow consensual sex between minors.

We’re also generous. Just last year, a third of South Africans donated to charity, 14% volunteered at hospitals or schools, and a big majority would do “whatever” they could to make this country a better place “for all its people”.
This schizophrenia plays out across our society, often in defiance of simple racial identity. Except in one area – politics. Here, seemingly without heed to what we think on societal issues, or government performance, we stick to political parties in traditional racial ways. Depressingly for DA strategists, Futurefact finds that black African support for the official opposition fell from 9% in 2008 to just 3% by 2011.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 4 June 2013)