Why racism is not ‘the’ problem - Polity

8 July 2021 - Some years back, I was feeling particularly depressed about the state of the country, lamenting where it was going and whether I had any role in it. A dear friend of mine – something of a partner-in-crime and mentor at that point, who also happened to be black – chuckled about that latter point.

Terence Corrigan

Some years back, I was feeling particularly depressed about the state of the country, lamenting where it was going and whether I had any role in it. A dear friend of mine – something of a partner-in-crime and mentor at that point, who also happened to be black – chuckled about that latter point.

‘Corrigan, you regularly walk through the centre of town. You’re one of the most logical people I know. If what you’re saying is true, do you think you could do that without people spitting on you? I’m telling you, most folks have other problems.’

As I’m sure you can tell, the issue was race relations and racism. In fact, my friend and I have had occasional verbal dust-ups about these issues. We disagree on a lot, but I’m glad to say that I’ve learned a lot from these engagements. And the friendship has endured through its ups and downs.

That point has stuck with me. South Africa is a massively challenged society. It has problems in abundance, some of them existential in nature. It is, sadly, by no means clear that it will survive – it has a fighting chance, but no guarantee. My depression at the nature of the country is probably even sharper now that it was then. But that concern – racism and irreconcilable racial tensions – does not feature as a major part of it.

The Institute of Race Relations has come under criticism for its current campaign, entitled ‘Racism is not the problem’. According to our detractors, this is dreadful; it is even racist. The Citizen gave up a hearty amount of space to this, highlighting that complaints had been laid with the Advertising Regulatory Board. Two of them.

In the current climate, where race and racism have been taken up as the country’s definitive issues by so many of its most prominent voices, to say that it is not ‘the’ problem is heretical. It is to push back against an accepted wisdom that is beyond debate. Fortunately, though, we know that what starts as heresy may ultimately be shown to be true. We at the IRR have been serial heretics since our founding, and are satisfied to have been vindicated repeatedly.

There is an operative phrase in our assertion: ‘the problem’. Not ‘a problem’. Many of our detractors have used that formulation, showing either a shoddy awareness of our position (critique us, by all means, but in relation to what we have to say, not what they might imagine we have said) or a wilful mischaracterisation of it. Where the latter is in play, good-faith engagement is impossible.

One critic took to Twitter to berate us in these terms: ‘Why is it so significant that you focus energy on dismissing racism, rather than just focusing on what you believe the “real problems” to be?’ It’s tedious to deal with criticisms of claims one has not made, but sometimes one must. We do not, nor have we ever, ‘dismissed’ racism. Racism is a problem and should be countered where it arises – irrespective of where it arises or at whom it is directed. What we are saying is that it is not the definitive problem confronting South Africa.

Since 2001, we have been conducting polling to gauge South Africans’ views on a range of things. One of these is what they felt the two most important unresolved issues in the post-1994 period were. This was an open question: respondents could list whatever occurred to them. The results have been reasonably consistent over time and point overwhelmingly to concerns about material circumstances. Some 53.4% of respondents identified unemployment as a key problem (it was far and away the top issue among African and Coloured respondents), followed at 22% by crime and security, at 18.2% by corruption, at 16.6% by housing, and at 10.9% by service delivery. These were then followed, in descending order, by water and sanitation, education, poverty and social inequality, infrastructure, the abuse of women and children, land reform, corrupt leadership, inequality and racism.

Mentioned by only 3.3% of respondents (and 3.1% of Africans), racism was simply not seen as a priority relative to others.

Moreover, only 16.6% of respondents (16% of Africans) claim personally to have experienced any form of racism in the past five years. This represents a very heartening improvement over the years – in 2001, less than half of African respondents answered in this way.

Indeed, the incontrovertible impression that our polling produces is one of a country concerned with its economic prospects, living conditions and aspirations for the future. Racism, still a factor certainly, is seen as far less important. Frankly, it’s hard to see why this would come as any surprise, not in a society in which more than half the population is living in poverty (and close to half of those struggling even to afford food), and with over 11-million of a labour force of 26.4-million unemployed.

And contrary to our critics’ accusations, we have focused enormous energy – now, and for decades – on just those problems, as well as on practical, implementable solutions to them. Our work on labour market policy and employment, for example, would run into thousands of pages; the briefings and engagements we have held on these matters would cumulatively amount to months. Much the same could be said for any number of other social or political or economic phenomena. We invite our detractors to visit our website (irr.org.za) to have a look at some of the work we have done over the past decade. Sadly, the pandemic precludes for now the possibility of perusing our archives where the work of generations on a multitude of problems – racism included – is stored.  

Alright, comes the response, even if racism is not ‘the’ problem, it is one of them and by doing what we are doing, we are ‘denialists’. We are ‘part of the problem.’ On the contrary. The epithet ‘denialism’ carries with it the accusation that one is denying a set of established, proven facts, probably with malign intent. Yet in respect of contemporary South Africa, ’denialism’ would be better applied to a chorus of opportunistic politicians, activist analysts and predatory race hustlers – those for whom any evidence contrary to their narrative is to be scorned or ignored, and in which racism is the go-to explanation for all manner of things. If you doubt this, I urge some thought on the manner in which racism has been invoked repeatedly for decades in response to all manner of official malfeasance, whether this be the arms deal or state capture.

This is, I hasten to add, not to discount the role that apartheid played in creating the baleful problems we face, but asking whether racism provides an adequate explanation for South Africa’s woes today, and more importantly, whether a focus on race, or ‘anti-racism’, offers a solution to them.

What we offer here is evidence about South Africa’s present challenges: that racism, while certainly a problem, is nowhere near as dominant a concern in South Africa as some would assert. A failure to understand the nature of a problem is a pretty certain path to failure in addressing it. I would suggest that it’s no exaggeration to say that for South Africa, misdiagnosing what ails the country could prove fatal. If indeed racism sits at the centre of each and every pathology in South Africa, then the solution might reasonably be seen as ever greater attention to countering it or at the very least the foregrounding of race in policy. If racism does not in fact play such a determinative role, and policy nevertheless pursues it, South Africa will run down political and developmental dead-ends, squandering its opportunities and ultimately compromising its own future.

An illustration of this is the country’s empowerment laws. There is ample evidence that they are a disincentive to doing business in South Africa – particularly when they demand the surrender of equity – and little evidence that they have been successful in driving growth, building a robust entrepreneurial class or reducing poverty. (This is a fairly common problem around policies based on racial or ethnic preferment worldwide.) All too often, empowerment has meant the re-empowerment of the already empowered. It is striking that even its defenders are typically restrained in defending these policies on their record, preferring to focus on putative intent. Yet these policies desperately need to be overhauled to encourage growth, development and employment. This is going to have to involve retiring race as the ordinal consideration.

We have argued for shifting to a pro-investment, pro-growth and pro-poor framework: Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged.

Our research shows at a bare minimum that racism is not pervasive, and that there is a sizeable constituency – indeed a majority of the country’s population – that would be quite open to swapping out the focus on race for something that could actually deliver upliftment and mobility. Whatever choice is made, the implications will be profound. They already have been, and not in a positive way.

But of course, our detractors would airily declare, no one can take this stuff seriously. It’s ‘methodologically flawed.’ (That’s a weighty, serious sounding critique!) It’s just the IRR asking a tame selection of its followers to tell them what they want to hear. If this polling was done properly, the truth about omnipresent racism and the racial tinderbox that is South Africa would be exposed. Okay, let’s leave aside the fact that there are a number of other polls, done by organisations with no links to ourselves – some of them of quite different ideological outlook – that come to not dissimilar conclusions.

We’ve been confronted by this before. And the answer is the same: the polling is not done by us. It has been carried out by Markdata, a highly respected polling firm, staffed by people who do this as a profession. They are, in layman’s terms, experts. The latest poll was conducted in November and December 2020 and involved a sample of 2 459 people from across all provinces. It was structured to reflect the racial breakdown of the country, to encompass urban and rural people and to cover all socio-economic strata. These interviews were conducted by trained teams (not selected by ourselves) using the languages chosen by individual respondents. It’s not clear to me what the ‘methodological’ problem is, but then, I’m not a seasoned Twitter warrior.

Racism, we reiterate, is not South Africa’s chief problem, irrespective of how ingrained and morally satisfying this belief is to some. If South Africa is to have a future worthy of the name, it needs to attend to a slew of issues that are undermining its present – and which constitute the primary concerns of its wonderful people, and present them, by their own assessment, with their best chance of a better life. Herein, we would submit, lie the solutions to most folks’ problems.

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


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