Cutting through racial rhetoric – jobs, service delivery, crime stutter SA’s progress

The Institute of Race Relations has published its South Africa Survey annually since 1946. It’s now a more than 900 page document that covers things like demographics, the economy, public finance, employment, assets and incomes, business and infrastructure industrial relations, education, health, social security, living conditions, communications, crime and security and politics and government. Anthea Jeffery has minced through the 2016 findings and shares a few of her outcomes in the piece below. And while racial rhetoric is being abused by politicians and commentators alike, ordinary citizens are ‘cutting through the mustard’. The survey suggesting that unemployment, service delivery failure and crime are bigger stumbling blocks to a better future, and need serious addressing. And while race relations is showing signs of improvement since 1994, after listening to President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address, racial rhetoric will still be the main form of attack on the political scene. And while the majority of citizens can see right through it, there are warning signals that the fabric of race relations, though still sound, are fraying. The real test will come in the lead up to 2019. – Stuart Lowman

By Anthea Jeffery*

Dr. Anthea Jeffery is Head of Policy Research at the IRR and author of Patents and Prosperity: Invention + Investment = Growth + Jobs, published this week by the IRR and available on the IRR website.
Dr. Anthea Jeffery is Head of Policy Research at the IRR.

In December 2016, roughly a year after Penny Sparrow’s hurtful and insulting comments equating black beachgoers in KwaZulu-Natal to ‘monkeys’, remarks of a similar kind were made in another Facebook post. Commenting on a photograph of a packed Durban beach, Sandton resident Ben Sasanof wrote that the crowded beach ‘must have smelt like the inside of Zuma’s asshole’. When critics accused him of racism for this incendiary analogy, Mr Sasanof responded with yet more outrageous remarks. He also called one commentator ‘a monkey’.

Various threats of violence against whites were also reported. Velaphi Khumalo, an employee of the Gauteng provincial administration, tweeted that whites should be ‘hacked and killed like Jews’ and their children ‘used as garden fertiliser’. Other comments by black South Africans called for whites to be ‘poisoned and killed’, urged ‘the total destruction of white people’, and advocated a civil war in which ‘all white people would be killed’.

Comments of this kind were often given splash coverage by the media, so reinforcing perceptions that South Africa might yet descend into a race war. Against this charged background, the IRR once again commissioned a comprehensive field survey aimed at cutting through the rhetoric and finding out how South Africans themselves view race relations in the country.

This 2016 field survey was a follow-up to an earlier one carried out in September 2015, so many of the questions posed in 2016 echoed those asked in 2015. Some of the 2016 questions, like the 2015 ones, were also modelled on questions first posed by the IRR in 2001, in a much earlier field survey of racial issues. The aim of repeating some of the questions posed in 2001 was to track trends over the intervening years.

Table 1 provides an overview of differences in the 2015 and 2016 survey results. Bold italics have been used to highlight divergences where the difference is five percentage points or more.

Table 1: key differences between the 2016 and 2015 survey outcomes

2016 2015
All Black All Black
Two most serious problems
(1) Unemployment 39.7% 42.0% 55.9% 58.6%
(2) Service delivery(2016), crime (2015)* 33.6% 37.4% 28.8% 26.0%
Race relations have improved since 1994 54.5% 58.7% 54.0% 59.7%
Race relations have worsened since 1994 13.4% 10.7% 20.4% 14.6%
Best way to improve lives
(1) More jobs, better education 74.5% 73.0% 78.3% 77.8%
(2) Better service delivery 21.6% 22.8% 14.8% 14.8%
(3) More BEE/AA** in employment 2.8% 3.0% 4.6% 5.1%
(4) More land reform 1.0% 1.0% 2.2% 2.1%
Job appointments on merit, not race (agree) 82.4% 79.4% 87.1% 84.7%
Only blacks to be appointed for long time 8.1% 9.6% 4.7% 5.5%
Only blacks till demographically representative 11.3% 12.9% 5.8% 7.1%
Jobs on merit, with special training 62.7% 62.8% 70.0% 71.2%
Jobs on merit only, with no such training 17.6% 14.6% 19.4% 16.1%
Sports teams to be selected on merit (agree) 73.5% 69.4% 77.0% 74.2%
Teachers’ race irrelevant (agree) 88.7% 90.7% 90.8% 91.9%
Report no personal experience of racism 71.9% 71.2% 78.5% 79.4%
Whites should take second place (agree) 27.6% 28.6% 30.2% 28.5%
Racism talk is by politicians seeking
excuses (agree) 49.3% 45.9% 62.0% 58.8%
With more education/jobs, differences
between races will disappear (agree) 71.4% 72.2% 82.2% 82.8%
Different races need each other (agree) 83.9% 83.7% 85.4% 85.1%

*Service delivery problems were identified as the second most serious problem in 2016, whereas crime was identified in this way in 2015.

**AA means affirmative action

Where possible, survey questions in both 2016 and 2015 were modelled on questions first posed in 2001, so as to help track relevant trends over time. The salient differences over this 15-year period are generally much greater than those between the 2015 and 2016 surveys. The key differences are set out in Table2.

Table 2, most salient differences in 2016 and 2001 survey outcomes

2016 2001
All Black All Black
Race relations have improved since 1994 54.5% 58.7% 48.0% 49.0%
Race relations have worsened since 1994 13.4% 10.7% 25.0% 23.0%
Have no personal experience of racism 71.9% 71.2% 49.0% 46.0%
Whites should take second place (agree) 27.6% 28.6% 50.0% 53.0%
Talk of racism is from politicians seeking
excuses (agree) 49.3% 45.9% 62.0% 58.0%
With more education/jobs, differences between
races will disappear (agree) 71.4% 72.2% 82.0% 81.0%
Different races need each other (agree) 83.9% 83.7% 91.0% 93.0%

The results of the IRR’s 2016 survey again provide an important reality check. Contrary to what many commentators claim, some 72% of South Africans report no personal experience of racism in their daily lives. This percentage, though down from the 80% figure reflected in 2015, has gone up significantly from the 49% who reported this in 2001.

More than half of South Africans (55%) think race relations have improved since 1994, which is well up on the 48% who endorsed this view in 2001. Some 11% of black people think race relations have worsened since 1994, which is not insignificant, but this is also well down on the 23% who spoke of deterioration in 2001. An overwhelming majority (84%) agree that the different races need each other and that there should be full opportunities for people of all colours.

In addition, very few South Africans regard racism (linked here with inequality and xenophobia, for comparative purposes) as a serious unresolved problem. Some 6% identified it in this way in 2016, down from 8% in 2001. Instead, people generally saw the most important problems confronting the country as unemployment, followed either by service delivery failures (highlighted in 2016) or by crime (listed in second place in both 2015 and 2001).

However, that race relations still remain generally sound is no reason for complacency, as the IRR has previously warned. This is especially so given the significant decline over 15 years in the proportion of people who agree that the different races need other for progress and that there should be equal opportunities for everyone. In 2001, 93% of blacks and 91% of all respondents agreed with this proposition. But in 2016 those proportions were down to 84% among both blacks and respondents in general. Though 84% is still a very high proportion, this marked decline (of roughly 9 percentage points among blacks) could well be a response to damaging political rhetoric from politicians and other commentators.

There are many ideologues in the ruling party and the EFF with a vested interest in playing up racial incidents and portraying the repugnant words or conduct of the few as representative of the many. These ideologues also seek to identify white racism – and the white privilege this supposedly sustains – as the key reason for persistent poverty and inequality within the country. This perspective plays a useful part in distracting attention from the ANC’s many policy failures over the past 22 years.

Since 1994, the ANC has put its primary emphasis on redistribution rather than economic growth, even though a different way of dividing up the existing economic pie will never be enough to meet the needs of an expanding population. The ruling party’s policies have also failed to overcome a host of barriers to upward mobility and have often made them worse. These barriers include:

  • a meagre economic growth rate, currently standing at around 0.5% of GDP a year instead of the 6% or more required;
  • one of the worst public schooling systems in the world, despite the massive tax revenues allocated to it;
  • stubbornly high unemployment rates, made worse by labour laws that encourage violent strikes, deter job creation, and price the unskilled out of work;
  • pervasive family breakdown, as a result of which some 70% of black children grow up without the financial support and guidance of both parents;
  • electricity shortages and costs, compounded by general government inefficiency in the management and maintenance of vital economic and social infrastructure;
  • a limited and struggling small business sector, unable to thrive in an environment of low growth, poor skills, and suffocating red tape; and
  • a mistaken reliance on affirmative action measures, which (like similar policies all around the world) generally benefit a relative elite while bypassing the poor.

It is these factors, rather than white racism, that currently make it so very difficult to expand opportunities for the poor and overcome inequality between the different racial groups. As we have seen, politicians and other commentators can then use this persistent poverty and inter-racial inequality to inflame tensions. They can also take the hurtful views and actions of a small minority of individuals and project them as the pervasive views of entire racial groups. Unchecked conduct of this kind may in time have an increasingly negative effect on race relations, turning predictions of rising racial animosities into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The warning signals are thus clear. Though the fabric of race relations is still sound, it is now fraying. If the ANC persists in blaming white racism for complex socio-economic problems stemming primarily from its own dirigiste and damaging policy interventions, then ordinary South Africans will in time find it more difficult to see through this racial rhetoric. Race relations will then suffer.

However, that racial goodwill is still as strong as the 2016 survey shows it to be also gives the country major reason for hope. It is also a tribute to the perceptiveness and sound common sense of most South Africans. Despite the urgings of politicians and a host of other commentators, most ordinary people have avoided over-simplifying complex issues by blaming them on race.

  • Dr Anthea Jeffery, Head of Policy Research, IRR
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