Uniting the middle ground of moderate citizens is the key to a free, open and prospering South Africa.

A hitherto unknown – though certainly not unremarkable – South African has gained national and international attention for what he described in a BBC radio interview this week as ‘the small thing I did’.

Nobody would have known about Khayelitsha petrol attendant Nkosikho Mbele had it not been for the response of Monet van Deventer, the recipient of his ‘small’ act of kindness in paying R100 of his own money to put petrol in her car after she’d discovered she had left her bank card at home. 

Everybody is familiar with what happened next – an extraordinary outpouring of generosity after Van Deventer launched a crowd-funding campaign as a means to reward Mbele, generosity which, by mid-morning yesterday, had raised more than R495 000.

It’s not every day that the small things South Africans do for one another trigger responses of this kind – but what is also likely true is that for most people, the motive for being pleasant, kindly or generous is summed up by Mbele himself in his response to the BBC’s asking him what he hoped listeners would learn from his experience. 

‘When you do something for someone,’ Mbele said, ‘no matter how small it is, don’t do something to want something back, do it from your heart.’

This sentiment, which is as true of Van Deventer’s gratitude, aligns with a world view that is far more common across South Africa’s social landscape than might be supposed from habitual assumptions about the fractures and dividedness of our society, particularly across lines of race and class.

It is true of the respectful and cooperative feelings of what the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has measurably determined to be the ‘moderate middle’ of South Africa, the 80% of citizens who reject racially divisive ideas and policies and believe the country can only succeed by matching the common interests we all share. 

We know this from our extensive polling of public sentiment, the latest report on which is to be released soon. 

Titled Unite the Middle, the report captures the results of our latest – 2018 – field survey, the fifth in a series of opinion polls on race relations commissioned by the IRR since 2001. The outcomes of these opinion polls are not strictly comparable, as the methodologies have changed to some extent over the years, but broad trends can be discerned.

It shows that South Africans are fairly united in what they think the government’s priorities should be – job creation, combating crime and corruption, and improving education. (Seventy-four percent of black respondents believe that, ‘with better education and more jobs, inequality between the races will disappear’.) Most people do not regard racism as a major threat.

The results show that most – six in ten – South Africans believe race relations have improved since the end of apartheid in 1994, with a similar proportion saying they had never personally experienced racism.

Perhaps the most positive finding is that nearly 90% of South Africans (86% of black respondents in the survey) believe the different race groups need each other for the country to make progress. 

Author of the report, IRR head of policy research Dr Anthea Jeffery, concludes that ‘racial goodwill remains strong’, and that this ‘is an important and very positive phenomenon’. 

‘It is also a tribute to the perceptiveness and sound common sense of most South Africans. Despite the urgings of politicians and many other commentators, most ordinary people have avoided over-simplifying complex issues by blaming them on race. This provides important reason for hope – and a vital foundation for building an increasingly stable and prosperous society.’

Uniting this middle ground of moderate South Africans is the IRR’s key objective in intensifying its efforts to focus policy-makers’ attention on measures most likely to produce positive results for the country. These include reforms or new policies that improve our woeful education outcomes, that make it easier for the jobless to get a foothold on the ladder to a middle class life, that free the private sector to grow and innovate and deliver jobs, and that replace existing largely ineffective race-based empowerment measures with practical non-racial measures that address disadvantage directly.

Emboldening the moderate majority does not mean pretending disparities are inconsequential, or that lingering, and disabling, disadvantages can be glossed over – on the contrary, the IRR argues that without these grave deficiencies being effectively overcome the country will never achieve its potential as a free, open and prospering society. And our research shows an overwhelming majority of South Africans agree. 

Michael Morris is head of media at the IRR.

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IRR head of media Michael Morris was a newspaper journalist from 1979 to 2017, covering, among other things, the international campaign against apartheid, from London, and, as a political correspondent in Cape Town, South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Day.