Many in the chattering classes will tell you the ‘Rainbow Nation’ – a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe South Africa in all its diversity – is dead. 

The Rainbow Nation (and ‘rainbowism’) was a concept which accepted that South Africa was a diverse country where all its people, no matter their background or race, could belong and make a contribution to the country. 

However, there seems to be a growing belief among ‘opinion leaders’ that racism is still one of South Africa’s major problems, mainly owing to recalcitrant whites who are holding on to their ill-gotten privilege for dear life, and that rainbowism is a dying and failed ideology.

But is this assessment true and correct?

Many would argue that rainbowism is still going strong and is perhaps stronger than it ever was. 

Some will point to clashes between black and white people, such as the recent running battles between black and white parents at a high school in Witbank, as evidence that those who think race relations are improving are hopelessly naïve. 

But events such as this, or last year’s Battle of Brackenfell, where an alleged racial incident saw clashes between people of different races, show how rare these incidents are. When they do happen they are headline news and social media users talk about little else.

And there’s the rub – South Africans of different races have millions of interactions every day without incident. People of different races interact in shops, in workplaces, in pubs and restaurants, as friends, and in romantic relationships, with very little animosity the vast majority of the time. 

The evidence for this was abundantly clear before Covid-19 upended the world and resulted in the end (for now) of mass gatherings at music festivals and sporting events in South Africa. But prior to the emergence of this virus, anyone attending events such as these would have seen South Africans – in all their multihued glory – enjoying themselves with no animosity to others who have differing levels of melanin in the skin.

In addition, instances of explicit anti-black racism are now so rare, that when they are captured for posterity they make headline news and the people who thought it acceptable to express racist sentiments become household names. Ask the late Penny Sparrow, Vicki Momberg, or Adam Catzavelos.

And surveys conducted by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) bear this out. Racism was constantly identified as something that should be low down on the list of priorities of the government.

Most serious unresolved problems

In the latest IRR survey, conducted last year, respondents were asked what the two most serious unresolved problems were in South Africa since 1994. Over half identified unemployment, with 56% of black respondents saying that was the most serious problem facing post-apartheid South Africa. Some 22% of respondents identified crime as the most serious issue still facing democratic South Africa.

And this is not unsurprising when nearly half of South Africans are unemployed (using the expanded definition of unemployment) and when over 20 000 people are murdered each year.

Racism was identified by only 3.3% of respondents as being a serious issue (and only 3.1% of black respondents).

When respondents were asked if they had personally experienced racism, the findings also seemed to indicate that racism was on the retreat. Respondents were asked if they had personally experienced racism in the past five years – less than 20% said they had. Restricted to black respondents, the proportion of black South Africans who said they had experienced racism was also below 20%.

In addition, most South Africans are of the opinion that race relations have improved or remained the same since 1994, with just over 69% holding this view, and a quarter believing they have worsened. It is somewhat concerning that 24% of South Africans believe that race relations have worsened since the end of apartheid but, at the same time, over twice as many people disagree.

And it is not only IRR surveys that find this. The latest Reconciliation Barometer released by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation had a similar finding with more South Africans believing that race relations had improved since 1994 than those who believed that they had deteriorated.

And you dear reader, when you go about your business every day do you find that people of different races are hostile to you or deliberately unpleasant? In my ‘lived experience’ I do not find this to be the case. And judging by the column inches devoted to people like Catzavelos and others, it is likely that those who are tasked with telling us what and how to think generally agree.

One of the evils of humankind

Now, this is of course not to say that racism is not a problem. I am sure that in the hearts of some South Africans is antipathy towards people of a different race and there is no need to rehash the horrors of apartheid and the racial discrimination that came before it here. Racism is one of the evils of humankind and South Africa was unfortunately a leading exponent of it in the 20th century.

Nevertheless, given the history of this country, race relations are remarkably sound and this is something to be celebrated. Instances of racism, whether on the part of people such as Vicki Momberg or Velaphi Khumalo, should not be held up as evidence of hordes of bitter whites refusing to accept their loss of power or large numbers of angry blacks furious that European interlopers refuse to leave these shores. Rather, they should be seen as what they are, rare instances of vile racism which the vast majority of South Africans rightly reject.

Racism is a problem in South Africa – but it is not the problem.

And this is why the IRR supports the view that racism is not South Africa’s most pressing problem. While racism is a problem in South Africa it is not THE problem

Reports of the death of the Rainbow Nation have been greatly exaggerated and – despite the efforts of some – rainbowism is still in rude, rude health.

[Photo: JACLOU-DL / 7405 images]

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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.