South Africans have a sound grasp of what matters, and what must be done – but our politicians just won’t listen.

The real South African miracle today – beyond the sheer feat of our enduring so many wholly unnecessary hardships – is not merely that we continue to believe in something better, but that most of us believe it is a sum of the same things.

We at the IRR know this because we have tracked public opinion on what most people think really matters, and the figures reveal a remarkable degree of unanimity.

Our 2018 field survey asked respondents how people’s lives could best be improved. We gave them four options to choose from (‘More jobs and better education’; ‘Better delivery of services such as electricity, water, sanitation’; ‘More black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action in employment (AA) policies’; and ‘More land reform’.)

As the report on the survey notes: ‘Most people saw “more jobs and better education” as the most important way to improve people’s lives, with 59% of all respondents endorsing this option. Broadly similar proportions of black and white South Africans (57% of blacks and 72% of whites) shared this perspective. Other people – 24% of all respondents – saw the key solution as lying in better service delivery. Only 8% of all respondents (and 9% of the black people interviewed) thought individuals’ lives could best be improved through “more BEE and affirmative action in employment policies”, or via “more land reform”.

The survey found that ‘88% of all South Africans – and 86% of black respondents – agree that “the different races need each other for progress and there should be full opportunity for people of all races”. These are very significant majorities.’

Almost two thirds of all respondents (64%) ‘agree that politicians are exaggerating the problems posed by racism and colonialism in order to excuse their own shortcomings. A high proportion of black respondents (60%) also agree with this statement. Indians and whites see such talk as a particular problem, with 75% of Indians and 89% of whites effectively agreeing that politicians are playing the race card for their own ends.’

Not only is there a high convergence of opinion on what matters – better education and jobs – but on the fact that these are the things that describe the route towards a future in which a preoccupation with racial difference will diminish.

As the report puts it: ‘We … asked respondents whether better education and more jobs – the well-established building blocks for upward mobility in most societies – would in time “make the present inequality between the races steadily disappear”. More than three quarters (76%) of all respondents agreed with this perspective, as did 74% of blacks.’

With good reason, the author of the report, IRR head of policy research Dr Anthea Jeffery, observes: ‘Politicians may seek to play up racial differences for their own purposes, but most South Africans are well aware of the key role of better skills and increased earnings in reducing racial inequalities and building inclusive prosperity.’

Set against these insights, as I wrote a few days ago, we could not have wished for a clearer reflection of the sterility of our politics than the revelation over the past week of just how our three major parties think about the country, and of their failure of courage in embracing change.

All three – the African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – give the impression of being unwilling to think afresh about a society so desperately in need of fresh thinking.

By no means the least consequential depiction of this wasteful condition was Son of the Soil Julius Malema’s deceptively mocking rebuttal of Helen Zille’s invitation to join her for tea and a chat.

His intended mockery of Zille – ‘I think you are lost, are you not looking for #SASSA offices?’ – was ironic. Far from portraying himself as a fearless contender, Malema only exposed the limit of his confidence. No wonder chicken memes were soon clucking their way across social media.

The EFF leader’s absence from Tea with Helen would hardly rattle the nation, yet, in a country that often imagines itself incapable of civil disagreement, something is lost when a vocal figure like Malema implies it is pointless talking about ideas. He loses, but so do we all.

The ruling party is led by a man who, to his undoubted credit, last week launched his weekly ‘From the Desk of the President’, to tell the country what he is doing about the very serious problems we confront. (‘Almost everyone I meet …’ he writes, ‘is deeply concerned….’)

What’s to fault?

Nearly two years after his elevation, Cyril Ramaphosa is still asking us to bear with him. Published as a pre-Nasrec manifesto in December 2017, the will-dos and want-tos of last week might have merited more serious attention. But, when his government has only stiffened its resolve on expropriation without compensation, National Health Insurance, prescribed assets, the mining charter, and race-based empowerment – in the face of compelling evidence that these are key agents of South Africa’s decline – a letter that says anything less than ‘We have seen the damage our policies have caused, and we are going to scrap them for the country’s sake’ is not reassuring.

Finally, the DA, which – having once enjoyed the enviable image of being an inevitable government-in-waiting – has so dithered over its liberal convictions that it is viewed derisively as merely a softer version the ANC. This year’s election result came as a jolt, interrupting the steady post-1994 growth that had made the party seem the likely author of South Africa’s post-ANC era.

Central to its fate is an argument – provocatively advanced by colleague Hermann Pretorius last week – that as long as the leadership of the party is determined by the profoundly illiberal racialist rationale that defines ANC policy-making, the DA will not regain its status as a credible alternative, and wouldn’t deserve it.

If Pretorius succeeded in focusing acute attention on a cardinal problem, the party’s response was all petulance and obfuscation: who led the DA and why it was for party insiders to settle; anything else was meddling. Others, but only by a feat of wilful intellectual contortion, pretended Pretorius’s argument was racist.

Absent throughout was anything like the serious discussion most people want – about making the most of the country’s talents, skills and ambitions as the surest path to a free, fair and flourishing society.

The pity is that where political parties are not prepared risk embracing change, the rest of society is condemned to the risks that come with changelessness.

Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations. This is an expanded version of a column published by Business Day on Monday.

If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.


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.