The struggle against Apartheid amnesia
Every year the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IRJ) brings out its Reconciliation Barometer, and often its findings make for uncomfortable reading. This year the barometer looks back on ten years of data to identify longitudinal trends in its surveys of South African attitudes. Their findings show a decreasing desire for a united South African identity, while racial identity assumes a growing importance. Perhaps most worryingly, their results suggest that when it comes to Apartheid, there's a problem with remembering.
Media interest in 2014's Reconciliation Barometer seems higher than it's been in recent years. There are obvious reasons why this would be the case: South Africa's patron saint of reconciliation, Nelson Mandela, is no more. As the country gears up to mark the first anniversary of his death, a spate of racist attacks have dominated news headlines: most recently, CCTV footage from a petrol station in Witbank showing white bikers beating up a black petrol attendant.
The IJR touts its Reconciliation Barometer as "the only survey in South Africa at present that provides a longitudinal measure of progress in reconciliation since the transition to democracy in 1994". The way they normally carry out their research is by conducting a national opinion poll which asks a representative sample of South Africans the same questions each year on their views relating to politics, class, and race.
In 2014, however, there was no survey conducted. In this year, the IJR has used the milestone of 20 years since democracy, together with the death of Mandela, to reflect on their findings over the past decade and identify salient trends.
Every year, when the Reconciliation Barometer is released, there are complaints that the survey's results must be flawed. It is interesting to observe the kind of outrage it seems to evoke in critics, who complain that the views it maps on to race groups are worlds apart from the opinions they personally hold.
But the surveys are methodologically sound: a national sample of randomly-selected South Africans, including both metro and non-metro inhabitants.
"We are very confident that the sample is very good and well-stratified," IJR executive director Fanie du Toit said on Wednesday at the release of the 2014 barometer in Cape Town.
That's bad news for those bent on insisting that the simplistic fantasy of the Rainbow Nation is alive and well, because the picture painted by the barometer's analysis is much more complex.
Agreement with the statement: "It is desirable to create one united South Africa out of all the groups who live in this country" has declined from 72,9% in 2003 to 55% in 2013, together with a smaller decrease in agreement as to whether respondents thought a unified South Africa was possible, rather than desirable.
"The period between 2010 and 2013 witnessed the steepest decline in citizens' desire for a united South Africa," the report notes.
This decline has been accompanied by a rise in importance of both language and race as a marker of identity, with a drop in those who rate their South African nationality as their most important identity marker. The barometer summarises: "South Africans appear to be steadily moving away from an inclusive South African identity".
But accompanying this, perhaps counter-intuitively, is a consistent improvement in levels of interracial trust. Over the past decade, black South Africans have consistently been the most mistrustful of other race groups, but they have also recorded the biggest decline in levels of mistrust over that period: from 47% of black respondents agreeing that other races were untrustworthy in 2003, to 32,3% in 2013.
When the figures are differentiated by age rather than race, something revealing emerges. "It is not the case that the younger generation is more likely to trust than the older generation," the report states. "Instead, youths and adults demonstrate similar levels of agreement with mistrust".
Contact between races has also increased over the past decade. This metric is of particular interest to the IJR because of the theory that "the most effective way to reduce prejudice between groups is through interpersonal contact under the correct conditions" - one condition being, naturally, equality.
The barometer examines two types of interracial contact: whether people talk to members of another race group on a typical day, at work or elsewhere; and whether people socialise with the members of other race groups in private homes. The latter - interracial socialisation rather than talk - is still lagging behind more casual forms of contact, but both have increased.
There's a major caveat here, however. The richer you are, the more likely you are to have contact with people of other races. Poorer South Africans do much less socialising and talking across race lines. The urban middle class might be increasingly multiracial, but this doesn't hold for the LSM groups beneath it.
"These findings have profound implications for racial reconciliation in South Africa and point to one of the most serious obstacles for reconciliation policy and practice in years to come," the barometer warns.
And there's something else that's depressing.
The desire for more interracial interaction seems to be waning across race groups. A total of 31,2% of black people expressed a desire for more interracial talk in 2003; ten years later, that's down to 20,1%. For white respondents, the figure has fallen from 15,9% to 11,7%. The most dramatic decrease has been for coloured South Africans: in 2003, just over 66% demonstrated a desire for more interracial talk. By 2013, that figure has fallen by a whopping 46,6%.
In general, over the decade, the barometer has recorded "a significant shift in coloured perceptions on reconciliation". The IJR's focus group research suggests that this is at least partly attributable to frustrations among coloured South Africans with the "zebra politics of South Africa, where the focus is either on black or white South Africans".
What are we to make, though, of these seeming contradictions: that while interracial trust grows, the desire to actually hang out with South Africans of different races diminishes? That while interracial contact happens more frequently, at least for monied South Africans, there's a growing desire to move away from a united South African identity?
The glib (deeply cynical) suggestion that jumps out at you from these results is that the more accustomed to each other we get, the less we like each other.
Of course, that's not what the barometer says. Report author Dr Kim Wale suggests that "with an increase in trust comes an increase in the honesty required to confront the continued forms of inequality and injustice that remain in South Africa, thus resulting in increased disillusionment with the idea of unity".
Another interesting race-based split is found in South Africans' level of trust in national leaders and Parliament. Among white South Africans this is actually increasing. Among black South Africans, it's dropping, even though black South Africans continue to show the highest levels of trust in leadership of all race groups. It's a pity that the survey wasn't conducted this year, because it would have been intriguing to see what effects 2014's chaotic Parliamentary events would have had on these findings.
But arguably the most disturbing finding of the barometer comes in the category of what it calls "Memory Politics". The report states it baldly: "South Africans appear to be forgetting the oppressive and criminal nature of Apartheid".
This process of forgetting is not exclusive to white South Africans. In 2003, 88,9% of black South Africans agreed that Apartheid was a crime against humanity. Ten years later, this figure has dropped to 80,9%.
(One important note of clarification: that doesn't mean that 20% of black South Africans think that Apartheid wasn't a crime against humanity, necessarily. The figure also includes respondents who felt "neutral" about the assertion.)
Among white South Africans the amnesia is far more stark and troubling. By 2013, only 53% of white South Africans agreed that Apartheid was a crime against humanity (though the same caveat holds for the remaining 47%).
"It's not surprising that in that vacuum of forgetfulness you get a Steve Hofmeyr coming along," du Toit said.
Perhaps Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, who said in July that her department is considering making history a compulsory school subject, should be taking notes.
Seeking to make sense of the high levels of white denialism around Apartheid, author report Wale identified what she called a "strong sense of defensiveness" around being white in South Africa.
"White South Africans are more willing to support racial integration, but less willing to acknowledge racial injustice," she summarised.
Can the report's findings cast any light on the recent spate of racist attacks?
"It's easy to disown them as exceptions to the rule," said du Toit, who suggested that increasing levels of interracial contact might be "smoking out the racists", and "exposing people who have not adapted".
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.