Inequalities keep us apart from each other
SA needs to build on the gains made over the past 15 years
Addressing the country on New Year’s Eve, President Jacob Zuma endorsed South Africa’s continuing progress since 1994 in reconciliation, nation-building and socio-economic transformation towards a more inclusive society, and in overcoming the racial and ethnic divisions of the past.
Last year also saw South Africa’s fourth free and fair democratic elections pass relatively peacefully.
Despite a slump in global and domestic economic growth in the first half of 2009, small hints of recovery became evident by the third quarter.
Of course, January is also the time of year for interrogating past shortcomings and failures, given the optimism and anticipation with which we prepare for the new year that stretches ahead.
Among these, the release of UCT economics professor Haroon Bhorat’s recent analysis of Statistics SA’s household income and expenditure data from 2005-2006 found South Africa climbing to stark notoriety internationally, assuming a position of the most unequal society in the world.
In December, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation released the results of the 2009 Reconciliation Barometer survey.
The Reconciliation Barometer is a nationally representative public opinion poll conducted since 2003, which tracks progress in aspects of reconciliation through use of a number of key economic, social and political indicators.
Conducted in March and April last year, during the run-up to elections, the 2009 barometer yielded a number of crucial findings that provided insight into the national mood early last year.
The results Barometer show that citizen confidence in a range of public institutions, which has dropped considerably in recent years, remains low but appears to have stabilised from the downward trends detected since 2006.
However, Barometer results show that only around half of all South Africans are confident in Parliament, and only 39 percent in local government. Similarly, only half of South Africans feel they can trust political leaders to “do what is right most of the time”, and close to 60 percent believe political leaders are not concerned with the views of people like themselves.
Consistent with the ongoing protests seen around the country in recent years, the barometer found increases in the percentages of South Africans who would feel justified in taking part in a strike or demonstration if they felt government was disregarding or violating their human rights.
Importantly, the survey also found growing levels of agreement with the importance of complying with the law – fewer South Africans agree that it is acceptable to “get around the law” as long as you don’t break it, or that it is not necessary to obey the laws of a government you did not vote for.
Assessing progress over the past 15 years, fewer than one in three South Africans believes there have been improvements in job creation, personal safety or narrowing the gap between rich and poor since before the transition to democracy.
Yet over the nine rounds of the survey, it is consistently findings related to interaction and integration between historically defined population groups that capture the public interest most and provoke the most emphatic debate over progress relating to national unity and reconciliation.
The barometer results demonstrate the continuation of a pattern evident since the start of the survey in 2003: levels of day-to-day contact between South Africans of different groups remain relatively low, as have levels of private social interaction.
In 2009, about one in four South Africans said they never speak to a person of another race group on a normal weekday, either at work or otherwise. Close to half of all South Africans never socialise with people of other races in more intimate settings – such as their homes or in the homes of their friends.
In spite of some fluctuation in recent years, these results are largely unchanged since 2003.
Releasing research results of this kind often prompts the quick conclusion that many South Africans have failed to transcend the stereotypes, myths and fears of the past and still consider “the other” to be a confusing and distasteful caricature.
Even though half of all survey respondents felt that race relations in the country had improved since before 1994, almost 60 percent indicated that they found it difficult to understand the “customs and ways” of other groups.
Certainly, there is truth in these conclusions to some extent. As Zuma commented on National Reconciliation Day in December, South Africans still have a long way to go to “rid the country of the remaining demons of racism xenophobia and other social ills where they still rear their ugly heads”.
However, 2009 data also tells us there is more to this story, which rings true with findings that our Gini coefficient has continued to grow.
According to the Reconciliation Barometer, close to one in three South Africans would like to talk to people of other race groups more often, if given the choice.
More than half are interested in learning more about the customs and practices of those they view as different from themselves.
Given that this is the case, where are we going wrong?
Reconciliation and national unity are complex processes – as are the catalyst and impediments to their progress. But this year’s survey results clearly show that unchecked levels of economic inequality remain a key factor in keeping South Africans apart.
A closer look at the Reconciliation Barometer results reveals that levels of interaction between people of different historic population groups are closely linked to income.
In South African households where monthly income is greatest, levels of interaction are also highest: among survey respondents with a monthly household income exceeding R16 000, more than 70 percent indicate that they often or always speak to someone of another race on an ordinary weekday.
Comparatively, only 12 percent of respondents from households with an income of R1 000 a month often or always speak to people of other races on an ordinary weekday.
Similar patterns are evident in respect of socialising in more intimate settings. While about one in three wealthy South Africans often or always socialises with people of other groups in their homes and the homes of friends, this is true of only about 10 percent of respondents from among the poorest households.
What remains the same, however, is the desire to learn and interact more across different groups.
About 20 to 30 percent of South Africans would, if given the choice, like to talk to people of different groups more often, with relatively little variation across different levels of household income. An average of 55 percent would like to learn more about the customs and ways of people they consider different from themselves.
Reconciliation and transformation are multifaceted processes. While recognising the strides the country has made so far, continued progress means far more effective work to change South Africa’s social and economic landscape, including the inequality that continues to entrench separation and exclusion.
If we are to follow the president’s call that South Africans should collectively “renew our commitment to national unity and nation-building” in 2010, this new year must bring dedicated and innovative efforts to bring about greater equality in the country.
This article appeared in the Cape Times on 13 January 2010.
Read a response to the article here.