Races mixing it up

unnamedLast month’s mourning on the death of former President Nelson Mandela had an almost Diana-esque mawkishness about it. Yet on the surface at least, it seemed to show cross-racial unity of national pride and purpose, similar to the patriotic fervour we’ve sometimes seen during sporting occasions.

But, given the hangover of segregation, how united are South Africans really, and how do they see themselves in relation to each and to the country? It depends somewhat on where you look.

In 2012 the Presidency, using survey results collected by Markinor, reported that only 39% of people thought that race relations were improving, compared to 72% at century’s turn. But these results also showed that 88% of us were proud to be South African, up a bit from 84% a decade earlier. That doesn’t mean that race relations are getting worse, or even that they’re as high a priority to ordinary folk as they once were.

December saw the release of the annual SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey, issued each year since 2003 by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Conducted nationally, this in-depth study shows a remarkable confidence in how we feel about South Africa and growing racial reconciliation. Not everything gives cause for confidence though, and the institute comes to some debatable conclusions about what the results mean.

There is a marked decline in citizen confidence in some state and governmental institutions. The three things people have most confidence in are religious institutions and then the Public Protector and the Constitutional Court. They are least confident in political parties, the police and local government. The Presidency, parliament, and national and provincial governments get the thumbs up from just more than half.

Perceptions of economic security are recovering from a 2008/9 decline that coincided with global economic shocks, but three quarters describe themselves as poor or struggling. The institute emphasises the obvious point that whites perform better overall in current Living Standards Measures than others, but fails to note longer-term trends of progress in this regard.

From this failure it draws tendentious conclusions about a need for “radical reconciliation” which, when you decipher the academic gobbledegook, seems to mean greater dirigisme in economic and social policy. A closer look at how economic growth lessens racial inequality might have focussed minds better.

Very good is news that 55% of respondents desire and think possible a united country. Race is no longer the thing that most take as their defining identity (down from first place to third, after language and ethnicity, in just a year).

Despite the geographic separateness of many, 56% report daily interracial discussion as happening “always”, “often” or “sometimes”, and fully a third report interracial socialising. Unsurprisingly, the higher one’s economic mobility, the more this gets. Most want to keep or increase their cross-racial interaction.

Most South Africans of every race want reconciliation, with 63% of black Africans wanting to “forget apartheid and move on”. Employment equity ideologues will be horrified to learn that only 49% think government should use race to measure progress.

The proportion of people who think the workforce should be racially representative was 60% last year, down from 71% in 2007; the proportion thinking it should be representative of gender falling to 60% from 82% in that time.

– Paul Pereira. First published in The Citizen, 10 January 2014.