Imminent race war? - Saturday Star

15 June 2019 - From rhetoric on social media and pronouncements on talk radio to the ravings of politicians, you could be forgiven for thinking South Africa was on the brink of a race war. But the truth is anything but.

Marius Roodt

If you believed what some in the chattering classes say, South Africa is split between recalcitrant whites, armed to the teeth to protect their stolen wealth, and a resentful underclass of vengeful black people ready to finally rid the country of the European interlopers.

From rhetoric on social media and pronouncements on talk radio to the ravings of politicians, you could be forgiven for thinking South Africa was on the brink of a race war.

But the truth is anything but.

Research conducted by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) last year shows that the vast majority of South Africans want to work together to build a prosperous society for all.

If racism were indeed the scourge many claim it to be, one would think that combating it would be a priority for most South Africans. But it is very low down the list of priorities citizens think the government should focus on. Job creation was flagged as the primary issue for most people, with just over a quarter of respondents saying that this should be the government’s top priority. Fighting corruption and an improvement in the education system were identified as the next two priorities for the government, with 14% and 11% of respondents identifying these two issues, respectively.

Only two percent of respondents thought ‘fighting racism’ should be a top priority for the government, while only one percent thought the policy of affirmative action should be accelerated. Land reform, which at first glance might appear to be a racially polarising issue in South Africa, was identified by only two percent of respondents as something the government should prioritise.

In contrast, asked what they thought would most improve their lives, a majority of South Africans (59%) said higher levels of employment and improved education. Only eight percent of respondents thought land reform and accelerated black empowerment would help them.

And judging by the experiences of our respondents, racism is not the scourge that it is often claimed to be. Only 42% of respondents to our survey said that they had personally experienced racism. This was even lower among black respondents, where just over one-third said they had personally experienced racism.

At the same time, the vast majority of South Africans believe that South Africans of different races need one another if the country is to progress. When asked whether they thought that ‘different races need each other for progress’ and that ‘there should be full opportunities for all’, some 88% of respondents agreed with that sentiment.

Furthermore, the appetite for retributive measures seems fairly low. Over three-quarters of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘with better education and more jobs, inequality between races will disappear’. Broken down by race, over 80% of white and coloured respondents,74% of black respondents, and 75% of Indian respondents agreed with this statement.

This would seem to indicate that there is a fairly large ‘moderate middle’ in South Africa who agree on many issues around race. The recent election results would also seem to reinforce that. The African National Congress (ANC) maintains a pretence of trying to occupy the South African centre, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) is explicit in working to be the party of the centre. Between them, these two parties received over three-quarters of the vote.

Votes for radical, race nationalist parties, or those which explicitly state they stand for the interests of a particular group were actually fairly low. It is true that Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) grew its share of the vote to 10% in the May election, but it is arguable that as much of the vote for the EFF is a protest vote against the ANC, as it is for the EFF’s radical policies. At the same time, a number of commentators have pointed to the rise of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) as a sign of growing white anxiety and even white nationalism in South Africa. Like the EFF, the FF+ probably benefited from an anti-DA protest vote, rather than voters being particularly attracted to the FF+.

South Africans have far more in common than we are often led to believe and, broadly speaking, want the same things. The vast majority want improved education, lower rates of crime and corruption, more jobs, and more housing. Conversely, the proportions of South Africans who want land reform or affirmative action to be speeded up are much lower.

Just as the democratic breakthrough of 1994 was achieved only because the moderate majority of South Africans chose to work together, with radical elements (whether black or white) broadly excluded, the only way we will become a prosperous society today is if the moderate majority unites.

As our polling shows, most South Africans broadly agree on most things. And it is in this moderate majority that South Africa’s salvation lies.

Marius Roodt is head of campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom. Stand with the IRR by clicking here or SMS your name to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).   

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