Inequality: South Africa’s greatest divide

Progress in reconciliation and nation-building requires dedicated work to build a more equal society, writes KATE LEFKO-EVERETT.

The early months of a new year traditionally inspire reflections and commendations on the successes of the past year, of which there have been many for South Africa.

Last year saw South Africa’s fourth free and fair democratic elections pass relatively peacefully, given that political stakes were high. 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.

Addressing the country on New Year’s Eve, President Zuma also endorsed the country’s ongoing progress in reconciliation, nation-building and socio-economic transformation, and in overcoming the racial and ethnic divisions of the past.

Of course, these are also the months for interrogating past shortcomings and failures, given the optimism and anticipation with which we prepare for the year stretching ahead.

Among these, the release of UCT professor Haroon Bhorat’s recent analysis of income and expenditure data found South Africa climbing to stark notoriety, assuming a position of the most unequal society in the world.

In December, the IJR released the results of the 2009 Reconciliation Barometer survey: a nationally-representative public opinion poll conducted since 2003, which tracks progress in reconciliation through a number of key economic, social and political indicators.

Conducted in March and April, during the run-up to elections, the 2009 Barometer yielded a number of critically important findings that provide insight into the national mood early last year.

Results show that citizen confidence in a range of public institutions, which has dropped considerably in recent years, remains low but appears to have stabilized from the downward trends detected since 2006.

However, results also show that only around half of all South Africans are confident in Parliament, and 39% in local government. Similarly, only half feel they can trust political leaders to ‘do what is right most of the time’, and close to 60% believe political leaders are not concerned with the views of people like themselves.

Consistent with the ongoing protests 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 last fifteen years, less than one in three South Africans believe there have been improvements in job creation, personal safety, or addressing the gap between rich and poor, since before the transition to democracy.

Yet over nine rounds of the survey, it is consistently findings related to interaction between historically-defined population groups that captures public interest the most, and provokes the most emphatic debate over progress in national unity and reconciliation.

Last year’s Barometer results demonstrate the continuation of a pattern evident since 2003: day-to-day contact between South Africans of different groups remains low, as does private social interaction.

About one in four South Africans never speak to a person of another race groups on a normal weekday, either at work or otherwise. Close to half never socialize with people of other races in more intimate settings – such as their homes, or in the homes of their friends. These results are largely unchanged since 2003.

Research results of this kind often prompt 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. Although 49% of survey respondents felt that race relations have improved since before 1994, almost 60% find it difficult to understand ‘customs and ways’ of other groups.

Certainly, there is some truth to these conclusions. As President Zuma commented on National Reconciliation Day, South Africans still have a long way to go to ‘rid the country of the remaining demons of racisms, 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?

Though the catalysts and impediments to reconciliation are complex, last year’s survey results clearly show that unchecked economic inequality remain a key factor in keeping South Africans apart.

A closer look at survey results reveals that levels of interracial contact are closely linked to income. In the wealthiest households, levels of interaction are also highest: in households with a monthly income exceeding sixteen thousand rand, more than 70% of respondents often or always speak to someone of another race on an ordinary weekday. Comparatively, only 12% of respondents from households with an monthly income of less than one thousand rand regularly speak to people of other races.

Similarly, in more intimate settings, one in three wealthy South Africans often or always socialize with people of other groups in their homes and the homes of friends, while this is true of only 10% of respondents from the poorest households.

Further, more South Africans view economic class as the most significant social cleavage in the country, than those who attribute current divisions to race, language, political parties, religion, or disease.

What remains the same, however, is the desire to learn and interact more across different groups. Around 20-30% of South Africans would, if given the choice, like to talk to people of different groups more often, with relatively little variation across income levels. An average of 55% would like to learn more about the customs and ways of people they consider different than themselves.

Reconciliation and transformation are multi-faceted 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 still entrenches separation and exclusion.

If we are to follow President Zuma’s call that South Africans should collectively ‘renew our commitment to national unity and nation-building’ in 2010, this year must bring dedicated and innovative efforts to ensure greater equality in the country.

Kate Lefko-Everett is Project Leader of the South African Reconciliation Barometer. A version of this article appeared in the Cape Times.

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