By Luke Spiropoulos

The South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), run by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), is a very important tool for people who are beginning to ask questions about social cohesion and, more especially in this case, race relations in South Africa.

The first of a set of released data from this survey produces some interesting insights into the nature of South Africans’ perceptions of race relations – as opposed to a great deal of data on people’s actual experiences of desegregation and racism. It is for this reason, and because of the small sample size (given the many subcategories of race, gender and age needed for analysis) – 2 219, that this survey should largely form a starting point for many other enquiries into the constituent elements of the survey.

In the category of personal experiences that are dealt with, lie four interesting sets survey of questions. First was about the personal experience of racism. 35,6% said that they had never experienced racism personally. 60,2% said that they had at some point experienced it; of those, 11,9% said they experience it all/most of the time. Indian respondents were most likely to identify with the latter category, except in the age group 25-34. The writers of the report themselves suggest that the sample size of Indians is probably too small to claim representivity in this finding.

Importantly the survey would have a difficult time achieving consensus on what constitutes an experience of racism given racism’s diverse, often subtle, forms and manifestations. What it can do, is tell us that at least 11,9% of people have either experienced some very gross and obvious forms of racism or have a well-developed sense for the presence of racism – this opens up a range of possible further, more nuanced research, both qualitative and quantitative.

A second question of this variety relates to the extent to which those who have experienced racism at some point, felt comfortable to confront it. This was broken down into two parts – comfort in confronting racist speech, and in confronting racist behaviour. People generally found it more difficult to confront behaviour than speech, but were 10-12% more likely to confront both in people who they were familiar with. Nevertheless 44,6% of respondents found it difficult to confront even those they were familiar with if they exhibited racist behaviour – a sad, if not totally surprising, indication of the challenges facing anti-racism in South Africa.

The third of these types of questions regards personal interaction and follows the SARB’s long standing interest in the theoretical foundations of “social cohesion” and “social capital” involving attempts to measure trust and various qualities of personal interaction that might engender greater trust.

For this reason, they measure the incidence of interracial interaction and where those interactions take place. Their finding is that the majority of this interaction (39,3%) takes place in public places – places of work and study and in commercial spaces (shops etc.). These are, by and large, impersonal spaces where people are required to interact and within which the nature of that interaction cannot be ascertained. More than 50% of the respondents did not ever interact across race lines in homes, the most intimate spaces, indicating a limit to the quality of interactions.

Further enquiry might look at the nature and “quality” of work-place interactions over a large range of people. Interestingly interaction was unevenly distributed across race groups according to the study. Indians and Whites were most likely to experience interaction across forms while Coloured people were least likely. This also mapped onto income levels – the higher the Living Standards Measurement (LSM) of the respondent, the more likely they were to interact across race lines. This suggests that in some ways class can trump race or, more presciently, that people can buy their way into interracial interaction (though the quality of that interaction is, again, less obvious).

Many respondents, in spite of their lack of cross-racial interactions, claimed to desire an increase in those interactions (69% in public places, 61% in homes). Interestingly this dropped off when people were asked if they would like more interaction in communal and religious gatherings (55-56%). Also, Indian respondents (the abovementioned small sample) expressed the greatest desire to interact more, except in religious circumstances. The latter may have to do with insularity of religious activities associated with Indians (Hinduism having very little evangelical features, for example) – but certainly points to interesting limitations in peoples desires to cross certain personal lines.

Fourth was a more abstract question: “How much trust do you have in other race groups?” This requires both a brutal honesty with oneself and the elision of several different factors influencing “trust”. For example, if you are Black African and are honest enough to know that you trust Coloured people, but not Indians, what answer would most effectively represent your sentiments? Nevertheless the responses indicate a fairly serious lack of trust (and thus of potential social capital) between races – 68,9% of Black Africans, 67,6% of Indians, 62,9% of Coloureds and 58,6% of Whites say they have little to no trust in other race groups.

The rest of the SARB’s report constitutes questions about respondents’ opinions about the state of the country, its attitudes and the progress of reconciliation.

Of most interest to institutions like the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation include the opinion (61,4%) that the country’s race relations have been consistently been getting worse since 1994 (most intensely in the Eastern Cape with 78%).

Similarly, racial divisions were counted in the top two causes of social division in the country (first being economic inequality). More importantly, racial divisions were 8% more likely to be viewed as the number one, and 12% more likely the number two, cause of division than they were two years ago. This is complicated, however, when inverted to query the most likely cause of affinity between people – language, rather than race, is the number one reason people feel affinity for each other (while this tracks race to some extent, it is not the same thing). The extent to which people recognised the relationship between language affinity and ethnic affinity/division was not explored in this report.

Class received 13.4% likelihood of affinity – this is a surprisingly high, and very interesting, level of class-based self-identification for South Africa.

A potentially worrying affinity, at 12,7%, is with “South Africans”, in as much as this might point to the strong thread of xenophobia present across South African class and race categories in other survey data.

It should be borne in mind that these sorts of attitude based questions, especially those that speak to South Africa’s broader social divisions, are all products of a national discourse. Responses are impacted by a combination of the tone and focus of media content, social media discussions, personal experience and processes of reinforcing repetition and conversation in various contexts.

Another point of interest for entities like the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation is the relationship people expressed towards concepts like “reconciliation”, in particular the place of reconciliation today. An explicit link was drawn between popular perceptions of this word, especially its relationship to things like the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and concepts like “non-racialism”. They point out that 59,2% of South Africans believe that reconciliation is continuing to progress and while large numbers agree that reconciliation is still needed, it is a smaller number than those who think that there is much division (and much of it racial).

More interestingly, there is a surprisingly large proportion of people who are neutral on this question. What this report never explores is the possibility that it is the word ‘reconciliation’ itself that has become passé in dealing with the questions of unity etc. This is borne out by responses to meanings of reconciliation which place terms like “oppressors” and “enemies” – immediate post-conflict related ideas – high on the list while they tend to put more contemporary issues like anti-racism fairly low down on the list.

A related question involved people’s attitudes to the TRC as a basis for reconciliation – a small majority supported this claim and many were neutral (57% and 29,1% respectively). What was more surprising, was that whites were least likely to think that this was a good basis for reconciliation. Also very interesting, was the extent to which generation did not have an impact on these patterns – while the youngest (18-24) and oldest (65+) respondents were most sceptical about the TRC, the margins were small. Again, this was underwritten by a broad desire for future nation building, reconciliation etc, but a popular caveat was provided that none of this would be possible without greater economic equality, and a broad pessimism about the likelihood of cohesion/reconciliation ever taking place.

This together provides an interesting combination of feelings – strong, broad based desires for a better, more cohesive and reconciled nation with more contact and more trust, with a deep pessimism about the likelihood of that hope being fulfilled. It also suggests a certain disregard for old terminology and systems in the path to achieving such goals.

There are many findings here that deserve more investigation, especially those which open up space for anti-racism work. Others deserve further investigation because they show a certain lack of clarity of what sort of society the desires for more contact and cohesion would produce. Would it be one in which people have more contact at work and at home, but find it difficult to imagine sharing community and religious functions, for example? As always, the SARB has immediately begun to provide much food for thought from the very first report.

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