There is something quintessentially South African about how the controversy over a talk show host’s exchange with one of his guests has come to be a dominant story as the country heads towards municipal elections.

This should not be surprising, since the issue of racism was involved, and that is something that invariably stirs passions.

The spark for all this – assuming you missed it – was an exchange on The Burning Platform between Gareth Cliff and One South Africa’s Mudzuli Rakhivhane. When Ms Rakhivhane raised issues of race and racism, Mr Cliff responded that research had shown racism to be ‘at the bottom of [people’s] list of priorities and concerns.’

Ms Rakhivhane countered: ‘They [perhaps you?] obviously don’t experience the kind of racism that I experience on a daily basis.’

Mr Cliff waved this away: ‘Your personal experience is completely anecdotal and unimportant to all of us, sorry.’

To this, Ms Rakhivhane shot back with a response that straddled the gulf between admiration and resentment. Thank you, presumably for the candour. ‘I appreciate the fact that you think that the experience of a black woman in this country is unimportant and irrelevant.’

(Those wishing to see the show in its unadulterated form can find it here.)

The fallout is well known. Nando’s pulled its sponsorship and Mr Cliff has been pilloried in some quarters, supported in others. This is how these things go. What prompts my interest is that the research to which he referred was that of the IRR.

This has become part of the story, and not always in a complimentary manner. On an interview with Newzroom Afrika, Teresa Oakley-Smith, managing director of human resources and change management firm Diversi-T, pointed directly at us as an organisation ‘which is run fundamentally by the DA and produces these bogus surveys about how unimportant race is.’

Arrant nonsense 

The idea that we are ‘run fundamentally by the DA’ is of course arrant nonsense, and there is not a shred of evidence she could produce to back it up. It also misstates the conventional smear, which is that we are running the DA. (Incidentally, Nando’s is listed as one of Diversi-T’s clients on the latter company’s website. It’s a small world indeed.)

More interesting is her description of our polling as ‘bogus’ and as showing how ‘unimportant race is.’

Her sentiments were echoed by Malaika Mahlatsi in Sowetan, who said: ‘And in true racist form he used a 2020 report by the Institute of Race Relations – a right-wing organisation that conducts “research” with flawed methodology that is aimed at producing racist work.’ (Mr Cliff actually referred to ‘endless’ reports, the latest of which was published in May 2021.)

This semi-critique has been doing the rounds for years, in various guises. Typically, as here, it is not attended by any real evidence, save vague allusions to ‘methodology’. I’ve argued before that this is a smelly red herring.

Manipulating results is actually rather more difficult than a casual observer may assume. Our surveys are not conducted by us, but by reputable polling companies, whose own credibility is on the line when they undertake this work. Our latest poll was conducted by MarkData Ltd, in November and December 2020 and involved a sample of 2 459 people from across all provinces. It was structured to mirror the racial breakdown of the country, to encompass urban and rural people and to cover all socio-economic strata. These interviews were conducted by trained teams in the languages chosen by the respondents.

Baleful misunderstanding

Rebecca Davis of the Daily Maverick tried to spin this by describing the polling as having asked ‘fewer than 2 500 South Africans’ for their views. This reveals a baleful misunderstanding or misrepresentation of how polling works. The principle is that within a certain margin of error, a properly selected sample of people will reflect the views and attitudes of a wider population. There is nothing mysterious or contentious about this. A sample of the size and composition used in our polling is not only quite acceptable, but quite good, accurate to within about 2% – and the benefits of getting ever greater precision must be weighed against the costs involved, and are hardly worthwhile anyway because minor shifts in perceptions and attitudes are inevitable, even over a matter of days.

We have not been alone in attracting this criticism. Robert Mattes, now at the University of Strathclyde but for many years one of South Africa’s foremost opinion polling gurus, addressed this in a very readable piece in the Mail & Guardian in 2005.

‘Bogus’, at any rate, our surveys are not.

Beyond the supposed ‘methodological’ problems, our detractors seem mortified that racism seems to occupy a somewhat lower priority than enlightened opinion assumes. Since 2001, we have interrogated what people regard as their priorities among the issues facing the country.

In our 2020 poll, respondents were asked to identify the two most important problems unresolved since 1994. More than half (53.4%) identified unemployment in first place. In second place, at 22%, was crime and security. In third position, at 18.2% was corruption. Thereafter came housing, service delivery, water and sanitation, poor quality education, poverty, infrastructure, abuse of women and children, land reform, corrupt leadership and inequality. Racism and discrimination came in at the bottom, named by some 3.3%

Material wellbeing 

What does this say? Not that racism or discrimination is ‘unimportant’, but that as matters requiring attention, they are outdone by others. Consistently, these results have highlighted a widespread focus on material wellbeing.

That’s ridiculous, we’ve been told. Back in 2001, when the first poll in what was to become this series was published, Minister Essop Pahad denounced us as ‘these foolish people’.

So, presumably, our work is contradicted and refuted by others? Not really.

Afrobarometer is a highly regarded polling project that operates throughout Africa. It has conducted eight ‘rounds’ of an extensive survey in South Africa, stretching back some two decades – coincidentally more or less the same time period as our own. Its most recent eighth round was conducted by Plus 94 Research in May and June this year, with a sample of 1 600 respondents. (This is fewer than 2 500.)

Of interest here is its inquiry into priorities (‘In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing this country that government should address?’). Respondents were able to choose three responses – first, second and third – which were reproduced in three tables in its report. While not exactly comparable to ours, as the spread and breakdown of issues tabulated was larger, the overall pattern was hardly much different.

Wide margin

Across each of the three choices, unemployment dominated by a wide margin: 30.7% for the first choice, 18.6% for the second and 12% for the third. Behind it, four issues occupied the next four places: crime, corruption, education and housing.

‘Discrimination/inequality’ – which seems to be its proxy for racism, and some other things – came in near the bottom: 1.3% as a first choice, 1.3% as a second, and 1.4% as a third. Cumulatively, that is very close to what we have found.

If racism is also reflected under the heading ‘Political instability/political divisions/ethnic tensions’, we get 0.1% as a first choice, 0.1% as a second, and 0.2% as a third. Even combined with ‘Discrimination/inequality’, it makes little material difference to the relative attention given to racism by the respondents.

Perhaps the only real question is why this should be in any way surprising, with an unemployment rate of 34.4%, and opportunities unavailable for a burgeoning population. It’s also been a panicked obsession of successive governments – in rhetoric and policy-document terms, in any event – so why it should not feature as the seminal concern of those suffering from it is unclear to say the least.

Other points of contention are our findings regarding the experience of racism: ‘Have you personally experienced any form of racism over the past five years?’ Here we find that 16.6% answered in the affirmative. This represents a substantial decline in the perceived experience of racism over the years.

Unbelievable, right?

That’s completely unbelievable, right? ‘Bogus’, in fact. ‘Racist’, even.

Well, let’s look at Stats SA’s Governance, Public Safety and Justice Survey: 2018/19, published in August 2019. Since its dataset contained some 18 970 ‘records’ – this is more than 2 500, and should more than allay the concerns of the Rebecca Davis school of statistical analysis.

It also, if anything, paints a more positive picture of people’s experience than our own polling. While 59.4% of respondents said that discrimination based in race exists in South Africa (I would have expected that to register somewhere in the mid-90s…), the proportion of the population who reported having experienced discrimination based in race in the past two years stood at 6.8%. That would be less than half of what we found.

Stats SA puts the proportion of those who experienced discrimination across all fields – race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation et al – at 13%.

By contrast, 24.9% of respondents benefited from an act of kindness from someone of a different race in the past twelve months, while 30.4% reported having performed one. I think that’s nice; we seem to be doing more to help than to hate one another.

I reiterate: this is Stats SA, one of the few respected and professionally run state bodies, using an extraordinarily large data set. Maybe it’s ‘bogus’ too, though I think the statistical probability is well below 1%.

Another regular contributor to the information pool is the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s SA Reconciliation Barometer. Its latest report deals with a survey conducted by Ipsos in July and August 2019, involving 2 400 respondents. (That is also fewer than 2 500.)

Comparisons

This is occasionally invoked as a counter to our own polling. I would say that comparisons between theirs and ours are difficult because the SA Reconciliation Barometer asks somewhat different sets of questions, looking for somewhat different information, and presenting it rather differently too.

Their queries on racism, for instance, ask about ‘daily’ experiences across five distinct areas of activity: public transport; social gatherings; public recreational areas; places of work or study; and commercial spaces. Respondents then indicated whether they experience racism ‘always’, ‘often’, ‘sometimes’, ‘rarely’ and ‘never’.

If one combines the ‘always’ and ‘often’ as a signifier of a hard-core perception of regular racist experience, then 12.1% report such experiences on public transport; 13.1% at social gatherings; 14.6% in public recreational areas; 15.1% at places of work or study; and 15.6% in commercial spaces.

Conversely, if we take the ‘rarely’ and ‘never’ as being indicative that racism is not a common or notable experience in people’s lives, this is true for 69.4% in respect of public transport; 66.3% in respect of social gatherings; 62.3% in respect of public recreational areas; 59.2% in respect of places of work or study; and 59.7% in respect of commercial spaces. In fact, for each of these areas, the single largest response given was ‘never’.

Incidentally, one of the more intriguing findings in the 2019 survey is a series of questions about what would make reconciliation impossible. While all, reasonably enough, achieved comfortable agreement, it was interesting that the proportion of respondents who felt that it would be impossible as long as ‘we do not address racism in our society’ was, at 66.4%, the lowest of all.  ‘Gender-based violence continues in our society’ stood at 72%; ‘we continue using race categories to measure transformation’ at 72.8%; ‘people who were disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor’ at 73.3%; ‘political parties exploit social divisions for political gains’ at 74%; and ‘corruption continues in our country’ at 84.4%. This does not, and should not be taken to, discount racism, but the order in which these factors are placed dovetails with evidence from elsewhere.

Occurrence of racism

Don’t misunderstand: the SA Reconciliation Barometer would seem to point to a more common occurrence of racism than either our polling or the work of Stats SA. It also has some interesting things – some disconcerting things – to say about interracial interaction and trust within the population. But its results nonetheless do not seem to show racism as an omnipresent crisis or determinant of South Africans’ lives in the here-and-now.

Afrobarometer’s polling falls somewhere between ours and Stats SA’s on the one hand and the SA Reconciliation Barometer on the other, probably tending towards the latter: discrimination based on ‘ethnicity’ over the past year was ‘never’ experienced by 63.5%, ’once or twice’ by 12.3%, ‘several times’ by 13.1% and ‘many times’ by 9.7%.

We have also asked whether the different races need one another for progress and a secure future. Some 71.6% agree that they do; 8.7% disagree; and 19.2% neither agree nor disagree. This is very positive, though one suspects that it would be deemed a species of ‘race denialism’.

Our reading is that it denotes a general moderation and pragmatism in attitudes about race. Whatever the frailties and tensions that attend interracial interactions may be, they are countered by a great deal of mutual respect and aspirations for something better. Thus, Afrobarometer shows that an overwhelming majority of South Africans have no objection to living alongside people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds – many actively welcoming it. The SA Reconciliation Barometer underlines that South Africans desire reconciliation as a worthy goal and one that can be attained. They also evince some clearly non-racial attitudes: 81.6% want their ‘children to think of themselves as South African’; 79.7% believe that ‘people should realise we are South Africans first, and not think of themselves in terms of other groups they belong to’; and 69.9% believe that ‘even though we have differences, there is more that unites us as South Africans than keeps us apart’.

Contentious interview 

This brings us back to the subject of the contentious interview.

I listened to it very carefully. In the confused exchange, Ms Rakhivhane remarks: ‘To say that it is something that no one cares about, I’m sorry, that’s really offensive.’ To my mind, it’s not offensive so much as inaccurate. Her perspectives and opinions are important in that they assist her to make sense of the world. They inform her participation in politics. This is the case for all of us. Anecdote can be revealing and important. It is, however, by no means immune from interrogation. Whether her experiences reflect a larger pattern is another matter; and on its own, anecdote is a poor foundation for policy.

Ms Oakley-Smith, meanwhile, was not entirely incorrect in her contention that local government was about more than just service delivery. She – in line with some other commentators – have pointed out that it needs to assist in creating employment and so on. Though whether she understands it or not, without a solid administrative foundation, none of it will be remotely possible. Too many municipal governments are teetering on the edge of disaster. Some have already gone over it. They lack the capacity to manage their own affairs, let alone public services, and can offer nothing to assist in any of those higher-level developmental functions that were originally envisaged for them.

Effective governance involves making difficult choices. Not everything is available or accessible at any one time. And it’s precisely how these various issues interact with one another that polling seeks to establish. We would suggest that the evidence is fairly clear on how South Africa’s people see it. None of this is to say that race is ‘unimportant’ in people’s consciousness and in the country’s history, although it does raise serious questions about the nature of public demands, the advisability of the policy choices made and the possibilities for policy reform.

Rude and dismissive

As a personal observation, I was not overly impressed with Mr Cliff. I found him rude and dismissive, but he is well known for behaving thus, and he is hardly alone in the media world in doing so – those familiar with his show should have expected nothing less. 

If it was up to me, I would have preferred a more restrained and probing approach. I wish too that Ms Oakley-Smith’s interviewer had shown the professionalism to challenge her on the unfounded claims she made. I wish that a good many journalists would take the trouble to understand the material they set out to attack.

But perhaps sober engagement and fealty to facts are expendable in the service of a lively broadcast.

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