I do not, on principle, engage with online comments on my work. Nothing personal, but I can’t respond to everything, and neither can I justify responding to some who have taken the time to comment while ignoring others.

Sometimes, however, one catches my attention and prompts a response. This is the case with one that appeared under my piece last week on the IRR’s polling.

The comment was written by Helgard Muller (which may or may not be a nom de plume), who is evidently a regular reader, and who profoundly disagrees with us on many issues. He is not shy of expressing this. And this is excellent. One’s views are invariably familiar to and supported by one’s allies – to earn a critic is a rare compliment indeed. More power to him, as far as I’m concerned.

His comment reads:

This is a well measured and argued article. Top notch stuff. Gareth Cliff could have handled it better and made the same point without scoring an own goal/letting loose the Wokeratti. Some EQ and political IQ would have gone a long way…

My main gripe with the IRR polling question is how it is often used and reflected. Here it is done much better and the context much more accurate.

The reality is that we have such obvious pressing basic problems (think basic Maslow needs) that will always dominate the first 2-4 responses to any questions that try to rank them…

After that I don’t know how much you can read into that much smaller and narrower differences between other issues (the margin of error even at 2% bumping them up/down a lot). What I like about this article is how it tries to address that in other data.

Look, something like farm murders will poll probably the same. You could even say it is a non-issue in the IRR survey because that question was open ended…But I think it is fair to again for instance wonder if it is not covered by safety/security and for instance again the question would exclude it popping up?

The point being that statistics/surveys help inform the picture but it probably isn’t the whole picture and social reality. Again, this also talks to how the IRR uses this data and the framing of the polling question. This article being a good example vs for instance just dismissively saying only 3% identify it as a major problem…

My sincere thanks to Mr Muller! It’s not often I get told my work is ‘top notch stuff’! We agree with each other on the tonal stuff, though as I have said, that is Gareth Cliff’s style. It was well known and it’s a bit churlish to get upset about it now. Besides, we often hold that sort of searing-honesty-don’t-have-time-for-bullshit-tell-it-like-it-is-speak-truth-to-power approach in high regard – or we do until we don’t.

‘I do not feel helpless’

To her credit – in my view, anyway – Mudzuli Rakhivhane subsequently went on to declare: ‘There have been a few times in my life where I have walked away from similar experiences, feeling small and frustrated at myself for not saying anything in the moment. Pretending that I wasn’t disturbed or offended, putting on awkward smiles and venting about it after the fact. Whilst this situation has had its ups and downs, I sleep at night proud that this wasn’t one of those times. I do not feel small. I do not feel helpless. I do not have regret.’

She’s okay. Actually, I’d love to chat to her about her perspectives on the country.

As for Mr Cliff, I tip my metaphorical hat to him for the manner in which he handled the withdrawal of his sponsorship. I hope that his show will continue, as we in South Africa need more debate, even if it strays into the ‘offensive’ and even if I personally find his style off-putting. That is an aesthetic more than an intellectual judgement.

Mr Muller and I also agree that people in South Africa prioritise their material needs over questions of esteem: the principle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Indeed. And it’s not just our work that shows this, as it is reflected too in the work of Afrobarometer that I cited last week. For those seeking anecdotal evidence of ‘lived experience’, take note of those panhandling at street corners, knocking on the gates of suburbia, picking through trash, or assembled outside hardware stores hoping for a piece job.

Where that sort of deprivation exists, and where the prospects of escaping it are slim, I would wonder why there would be anything in the least contentious about the prominence of employment or living standards among the concerns of South African people. I can’t really better Mr Muller’s own words: ‘The reality is that we have such obvious pressing basic problems.’

His subsequent comments (cited above), and in a supplemental remark to that comment – assuming I understand them accurately – raise questions about the whole idea of ranking issues. In broad brushstrokes, the argument appears to be that while a survey respondent may list, say unemployment, security and education as key problems, this does not mean that something like racism or land reform (both of which poll modestly in our work and elsewhere) is unimportant to him or her.

To quote from his second comment: ‘This is the problem for me with this question. Basic needs will always trump racism if they are absent and even on a purely theoretical level most people probably think it is more important for anyone to have a job, house and security? So in some sense racism can never poll high unless it is really a very unjust system – although again I think people will settle for basic needs first…’

Reasonable

To be honest, I don’t think this really challenges the accuracy of our findings, nor may it be intended to. But the point is a reasonable one. Let me offer a response.

As Mr Muller recognises, a survey helps us to understand things. It is not a Key of Solomon to understanding the mysteries of the universe. Rather, I would liken it to a map: it represents features of a three-dimensional world in two dimensions. With proper polling methods and judicious question design, it can be very informative. For this reason, it is a staple tool for understanding social and political behaviour (and more besides), albeit with limitations. Mr Muller is correct that a survey does not present ‘the whole picture or social reality’, and we have never claimed it does. Unfortunately, many commentators do not understand this, or seemingly deliberately refuse to do so: in 2019, Verashni Pillay launched a bizarre attack on our polling for ‘predicting’ an ANC victory in that year’s election. This was despite the fact that our report had stated unambiguously that ‘this poll is not a prediction.’ (I’ll return to Ms Pillay’s critique in a moment.)

Certainly, it stands to reason that if we request a greater number of answers to a question on the most important problems facing the country than we have asked for (two in the case of our last poll, or three in the case of Afrobarometer or the Human Sciences Research Council), we will see certain issues being identified more robustly than is the case now. So, yes, there are probably many people for whom racism – or for that matter, water supply or land reform – features as a concern that is not captured in the current results.

To which one might respond: How many responses should be sought? Three? Four? Fifteen? Thirty? Or perhaps until we can enumerate a sufficient proportion of respondents listing racism? For any individual, the list of matters of consequence will likely be long indeed.

Most pressing

But that is the point of prioritising: it is not to produce an endless or extensive list of issues, but to identify those that are most pressing. It asks respondents to focus their minds and identify what matters to them above other things. In this case, where does the Schwerpunkt of public concern lie? What issues weigh most heavily on ordinary people – or perhaps on any given subset of them? This is important, since in policy making and practical governance, trade-offs are inevitable. It is pretty much impossible to address all things at once. (Somewhere on my list would be an efficient and cost-effective postal service, though I’d take an unemployment rate of 20% far above that…)

And from this perspective, I reiterate the argument made in my piece last week that not only is our polling research credible, it is not dissimilar to that done by others.

This being the case, I would suggest that it is time to look sceptically at some of the claims made by prominent commentators as to the place of race in our politics. Stephen Grootes, for example, wrote in the Daily Maverick earlier this year that race is ‘the dominant issue in South African politics’. Just last week, The Wrap (‘brought to you by Verashni Pillay and the explain.co.za team’) commented on the Gareth Cliff saga – and specifically DA leader John Steenhuisen’s supposed facial response – that ‘(it’s) startling that a whole opposition party leader doesn’t realise how much race matters to voters, whether he agrees with them or not. It doesn’t just show up his and Cliff’s lack of empathy, it questions their competence as public figures if they can’t grasp something so basic about the citizens they’re speaking to.’ (I wonder if there is something other than a ‘whole’ opposition leader? A fractional one? A divisible one? But I digress.)

These bald declarations about the primacy of race should not be taken as necessarily correct, however intuitively correct they may seem to some. Perception and reality do not always match easily – and some within our commentariat seem at times unable to pull them apart.

Racial connotations

On the latter point, let me return to the 2019 contribution by Ms Pillay. Along with our pre-election polling, she took aim at our polling in relation to land reform – claiming that ‘black people don’t really want land reform’. The context, of course, was the drive on property rights through Expropriation without Compensation, which has been phrased largely in terms of land reform. This too is an issue that has become loaded with racial connotations.

In fact, our polling did not show that ‘black people don’t really want land reform’, but that it is not a major priority, with our latest poll showing that around 4% of South Africans viewed land reform as a priority in 2020, up from 2% in 2018.

Ms Pillay went on to claim: ‘This [is] despite the far more thorough and respected research produced by the Human Sciences Research Council’s South African Social Attitudes Survey. The HSRC has been conducting this survey annually since 2003, tracking social, economic and political values among a representative sample of South Africans, and it shows that over the past 15 years, most South Africans have supported the idea of land reform in principle.’

I looked into this. It seems her source was a media statement by the HSRC entitled ‘Symbolic support for land reform as a redress policy in South Africa’. An intriguing title – and so is her use of the words ‘in principle’, which also appear in the media statement. The latter shows that indeed there is a comfortable majority in favour of land reform (67% overall agreement with the statement: ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree that government should redistribute land to black South Africans?’). But the very statement also noted: ‘In late 2017, land reform issues were mentioned as a national priority by fewer than 5% of South African adults. From a rank order perspective, land did not even feature in the top ten cited priorities, being placed 14th by adults. This pattern also did not alter appreciably over the last fifteen years, with the percentage citing land reform as a national priority varying in a small range between 2% and 4% over this period on aggregate.’

Hence, one surmises, the description in the title of ‘symbolic support’. There is an agreement with the concept, but it doesn’t mean a great deal to individuals’ perception of their own prospects. It’s not a priority. The HSRC’s findings on actual prioritisation, on what people want to be done, are consistent with our own. At a very generous assessment, Ms Pillay misunderstood the information. This is surprising, to say the least, for a journalist of her experience. It is unhelpful and misleading to robust public engagement.

ANC’s own polling

Afrobarometer’s polling puts land as a first priority for 0.5%, a second for 0.5% and a third for 0.4%. We were also given a look at the ANC’s own polling some months back, which put land reform at around 13th position.

And incidentally, the most recent publicly available data from the HRSC on priorities that I could find, for 2016, puts racism as a top three concern for 7% of the population. Unemployment was listed by 78%.

Thus, if we accept that unemployment is a major concern for South Africa’s people and warrants a corresponding policy response, concerns about the prevalence of racism or the importance of race have a bearing on the nature of that response. If these feature prominently, that would likely point towards a strategy in which – in terms of public demand – racial considerations are foregrounded: more race-based empowerment, race-specific business support, increasingly aggressive affirmative action, intrusive inspections for compliance by officials along with conferences and public messaging about racial matters.

If, however, these do not, then the possibility is open to a strategy aimed at mobilising what is likely to be a wider set of resources towards the more focused goal of encouraging job creation: facilitating entrepreneurial uptake by as many as possible, encouraging the expansion of existing firms, incentivising employment and lowering the costs and risks of providing it. That will likely mean abandoning some, if not most, of the race-orientation existing in policy today.

This is why we have conducted campaigns around racism with the messaging we have. To say that ‘Racism is not THE problem’ is not to deny that racism is a problem. Once again, let me state that this does not mean that ‘race (or rather racism) doesn’t matter’. What it does indicate is that racism not seen as dominant or broadly determinative, certainly not to the degree that much of our public commentary assumes. It is about putting its prominence in the public mind into perspective. Our messaging was intended to spark interest, to challenge the prevailing narrative and to get people talking. The IRR is, after all, an advocacy organisation rather than a purely academic one.

For whatever it’s worth, I don’t expect questions of race and racism ever to vanish from South Africa. Our history has marked them in our consciousness. The question for me is how we recognise them, appropriately rather than obsessively, and then factor them into our efforts to resolve the country’s myriad problems. The latter have seen us facing a disastrous crisis of economic retardation and state failure.

Enormous role

Race and racism clearly a played an enormous role in creating the problems that bedevil us today – but whether they can be deployed to offer a solution is doubtful. It seems to me that measures such as EWC will only destroy investor confidence, while proposed affirmative action requirements will be yet another disincentive to employment, if not to doing business entirely. For the polling evidence, it’s pretty clear to me that there is no extensive public clamour for these measures. This is a very damaging path South Africa’s government is choosing to take.

Finally, let me say that while the evidence suggests that South Africans are clearly focused on their material upliftment rather than on issues of esteem and ideology, we should not dismiss the threat posed by racial or ethnic tensions. We can confidently expect that a poorer economy and collapsing state will spur conflict, and among those dimensions may well be the racial or ethnic.

But the converse does not necessarily hold true. Neither the general moderation of ordinary people nor the prospect of material prosperity – assuming we can achieve it – are a foolproof prophylactic against the possibility of their being inflamed and manipulated.

A relatively small part of a polity can constitute an extremely dangerous and disruptive force, and we should not be blind to the fact that opinion polling shows that there are certainly people who report real or perceived racism, and also those who see no need for amity among the country’s people. A minority to be sure, but a presence. And let us remember too that it is all too often the relatively educated and upwardly mobile who see their interests served by divisive racial and ethnic entrepreneurship.

The point here is that it would be advisable to treat the country’s challenges with the respect and seriousness they deserve – and in proportion to their order of  magnitude.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Beware that a one-dimensional focus on race, a tendency to exaggerate its weight in the public mind and as the signal driver of our realities does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hyperbole is seldom constructive. Be willing to debate and argue in good faith, and take the injunction to have the ‘hard conversations’ earnestly – there is much to be learned from those with whom we disagree, even if their views contradict the ideas we hold fondly. And do not discount the importance of evidence, for if that is discarded, it’s difficult to imagine any engagement retaining any coherence.

Unfortunately, we’ve moved a concerning distance down this road, carried by people who should know a great deal better.

In 2008, in the wake of a painful controversy at the University of the Free State, a committee was convened to investigate issues of racism and transformation at universities. The report, the Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions, makes for disturbing reading, not only for the myriad claims of abuse and insult that populate its pages, but for the committee’s approach to its task.

Prof Crain Soudien, the committee’s chair, gamely told the media: ‘This report is vulnerable because at no stage have we been able to verify what people are claiming.’ It is truly staggering that a committee heavy in academics and PhD holders would be satisfied with a report whose evidence they had ‘not been able to verify’. Doing so would seem to be necessary and foundational to understanding the realities that policy would need to address. That this report dealt with institutions of immediate professional concern to the committee’s members makes this all the more incomprehensible.

The report tried to deal with this by claiming that it was recording ‘voices’. Whatever merit that might have would have been cancelled by the fact that this frankly was a weak evidentiary basis for any sort of response – if indeed responding to verifiable realities was the goal. Perhaps at some level, it was not.

Moving away from reason

More recently, Rhodes University academic, Anthea Garman, has made the argument for expressly moving away from reason and argument (or logos) towards considerations of character and disposition (or what she terms ethos and pathos). Her position seems to be that truth is really a manifestation of power, and that some voices may rightly be excluded from participation. It’s hard to see any meaningful discussion taking place on this basis.

I fear that the tenor of public debate – if indeed it can be called that – may well increasingly come to compromise our ability to deal with, or even to understand, the malaise that confronts us.

[Image: Papaioannou Kostas on Unsplash]

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.