Uniting South Africa – the pragmatic middle is the future

Terence Corrigan | Jun 14, 2019
Working together, South Africa’s multi-hued, moderate, middle-of-the-road pragmatists, committed more to their children’s future than to ideology, can not only stave off the prospect of doom, but build a worthwhile future for all.

One of the towering intellects of the past century, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, once described a paradigm shift of the modern age: ‘One of the great revelations of the age of space exploration is the image of the Earth finite and lonely, somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.’

It is a profoundly important observation, the earth as an interdependent unit, imposing on its inhabitants the imperative to cooperate for their mutual survival and prosperity. It is also a sobering one. ‘Fanatical ethnic or religious or national identifications,’ Sagan remarked, ‘are a little difficult to support when we see our Earth as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and the citadel of the stars. There are not yet obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilisations like ours rush inevitably headlong into self-destruction.’

These sentiments resonate in South Africa. With a history written in the idiom of separation and division, its present can all too frequently appear to be a cauldron of resentment and fury, pressure mounting towards a conflagration. This is, at least, if much of our political debate is to be taken at face value.

South Africa’s political culture and its institutions are not geared towards rewarding conciliation. Quite the contrary. Appeals to racial solidarity are common. They have emerged as a major theme in the discourse surrounding the country’s land politics and specifically the drive towards expropriation without compensation. No less a figure than President Ramaphosa has played on this, drawing an implicit distinction between ‘our people’ and (the unnamed) ‘their people’. That he holds an office whose responsibilities should enjoin him to be the president of the whole country seems lost.

It is also the dominant narrative drawn from our social media interactions. In a society in which racism remains a point of acute sensitivity, the vociferations of a Penny Sparrow (comparing black people to monkeys) or a Velaphi Khumalo (threatening a holocaust) touch something particularly raw and sensitive. Stung by such sentiments, from the parapets of their Twitter and Facebook accounts, an army of the semi-anonymous will assemble to give (for them) low-risk battle.

And officialdom has played its part, too. Last year saw the first case of imprisonment for race-motivated crimen injuria. The Human Rights Commission bemoans the endemic racism in the country (without any evident introspection of what that says of itself, given its own mandate), while the country’s National Action Plan complains about the supposed enduring prevalence of all manner of discriminatory pathologies – although it offers no analysis of why this is the case.

Concern about what this portends for our collective future is understandable. Yet it is also correct to interrogate just how much this reflects the broad realities of the country, or merely the ideological obsessions of politicians, of toxic online echo-chambers or the hubris of officials.

The realities of South Africans’ attitudes towards one another are surprisingly different from what one might conclude from our noisy public debate. Our recent report, Reasons for Hope 2019: Unite the Middle, based on representative survey evidence from 2018 shows that far from being at one another’s throats, most South Africa were moderate in their attitudes towards one another, and in some respects, similar in what they aspire to for themselves and the country.

On probably the most important and revealing question – whether different races needed one another for progress, and whether there should be full opportunities for all – just short of nine out of ten (88%) respondents agreed. Among African respondents, agreement was at 86% (10% believing that this was not necessary), while among minority groups, well over 90% (including every Indian respondent) were in agreement.

Fewer than half of respondents (42%) reported that they had personally experienced racism, with Africans significantly less likely than members of minority groups to report experiencing it.

When questioned on what needed to be done to improve people’s lives, the bulk of responses from across the board focused on employment, education and high-quality service provision: these accounted for a comfortable 83% of responses overall, and some 81% of those from African respondents. Minority respondents recorded even higher levels of assent. Solutions premised on race-based redress (such as more Black Economic Empowerment, affirmative action or land reform) came in at under 20% among all categories of respondents.

Interestingly, when asked how job appointments should be made, there was little support for explicitly race-based measures (17% among all respondents and 21% among Africans, with single digit endorsements by others). Some 22% of the total felt that merit alone should be the criterion, while a majority – 58% of the total, and majorities in all groups – felt that merit should predominate, but that special training should be made available to assist the country’s disadvantaged. This gives the lie to the suggestion that race-based measures are broadly popular, and that those who reject them are indifferent towards the consequences of past policies (and, it might be added, the failure of post-apartheid endeavours).

Overall, this depicts a society in which a comfortable eight out of ten people are at ease with their racially diverse neighbours, in which goodwill rather than hostility is the dominant sentiment. South Africans have a pragmatic conception of the problems that confront them, and what needs to be done to address them – which is more likely to involve cooperation than confrontation.

But there is a darker side too. The survey found some support for the notion that South Africa is a country for black people, with others needing to wait their turn.

Opinions on the overall direction of race relations were also divided. While 57% of the country’s people saw an improvement since 1994, 14% said they had stayed the same and 26% that they had become worse (the balance not having a view or refusing to give one). Positive sentiment was strongest among Africans (64% believing that things had improved, 13% that they had stayed the same and 20% that they had worsened), while those from racial minorities were more inclined to see things as worsening than improving – a concerning 51% of coloured people, 44% of Indians and 47% of whites believed that race relations had become worse.

These trends, in apparent contradiction to the more positive picture to emerge from the bulk of the survey, should raise concerns. They seem to indicate – at least in part – that the racial nationalism emanating from the African National Congress and Economic Freedom Fighters, and endorsed by many activists and commentators, may be having an impact, both on the views of part of the African population and on the perceptions of minorities.

Unchallenged, this has the potential to further degrade what is at present a significant asset for the country – the good sense and goodwill of the vast majority of our people. And it is only by maintaining that orientation that South Africa has a chance of attaining the prosperity and progress that it so desperately needs.

That is why we at the Institute of Race Relations are calling on all those South Africans – the multi-hued, moderate, middle-of-the-road pragmatists, whose views of the future are coloured more by a commitment to their children’s future than to ideology – to join us and all those like themselves in our campaign to Unite the Middle.

To quote Carl Sagan again: ‘A new consciousness is developing which sees the Earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed.’

We believe that this describes South Africa, too – and that the efforts of the country’s middle can not only stave off the prospect of doom, but build a worthwhile future for all of us.


Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.


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