Are we more racially divided than ever?

Thomas Johnson writes on the perceptions of an increase in "racist" incidents

Economic freedom will bring racial tolerance

In an interview on 702’s Midday Report recently about the “Middelburg coffin” incident, the host asked (paraphrased):  “Why do these racist incidences (white-on-black) continue occurring”?  At the start of the show he rhetorically stated it can only be described as “racist” (note the accused, Theo Martins Jackson and Willem Oosthuizen, face charges of assault, not racism).

Of course these incidences should be reported and analysed, but not in the shock-horror tones the media, and some media personalities, have perfected. What is required are balanced, sober assessments why South Africa today appears more racially divided and allegedly moving further apart than its halcyon, “rainbow nation” era under Nelson Mandela’s governorship.  (See Anthea Jeffery’s article on the media’s duty to report honestly without fear or favour.)

Indeed, are there comparatively more racists in SA than elsewhere, and more “racist” incidences and discriminatory practices now than 5 or 20 years ago?  The untested, popular assumption is South African whites are probably racist.  Are whites basically, genetically racist – in their DNA – or is it only an unreformed, atavistic few among them?  

What about black racism that according to many, e.g. Sobantu Mzwakali “Black people can’t be racist”, is impossible?  But when the “impossible” does happen – “Kill a Jew; Fuck the Jews”, “shoot the boers”, do what “Hitler did to the Jews”, “makwerekwere go home”, etc – why is it rationalised and reaction and outrage relatively muted? 

The Institute of Race Relation’s (IRR) 2015 survey Race: What South Africans Really Think found a total of 54% (all races combined) said race relations have improved since 1994, and 79% (black: 79%; “coloured”: 81%; Asian: 56% and white: 75%) said they experienced no racism.  (By the way, 87% agreed merit should be the main factor for job appointments, regardless of race.)

My interpretation of the finding “experience of racism” indicates racism incidences are infrequent.  But when they do occur, or I should say, when white-on-black incidences and alleged incidences occur, they instantly become hot-button issues and achieve notoriety. 

The closest the survey comes to answering which SA race group is more likely, or inherently predisposed, to be racist is to the question “What race do you prefer your child’s teacher/lecturer to be?”.  A total of 9% (black: 8%, “coloured”: 9%, Asian: 1% and white: 19%) prefer teachers to be of the same race as them (a total of 91% don’t care provided they teach well). 

The overall finding of the survey, though, “casts doubt on the suggestion whites are hell-bent on returning to apartheid”. But why is the perception white racism is worsening?  Is racism worse in SA than elsewhere?

In 2015 the trading group Insider Monkey published a list of the 25 most racist countries.  It updated the Washington Post’sracism map” that showed the most and least racially tolerant countries, responding to the question “Would you like having people from another race as neighbours”. 

The Post’s map was derived from Swedish economists’ Niclas Berggren and Therese Nilsson (2012, Does Economic Freedom Foster Tolerance, IFN Working Paper no. 918) that built on the World Values Survey (2012).  (Insider Monkey states racism is not easy to measure, and “most racists don’t know they are racist and the ones that know won’t admit it”, so an indirect measure was used.)

South Africa is ranked the 9th most racist country after, in order, India (1st), Lebanon, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Philippines, Kuwait and Palestine.  There are no European (excluding Russia, 20th), North American and Australasian countries in the top 25. 

I think the findings puts paid to the perception white countries (and white people) are particularly racist.  Britain and former colonies United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are among the most tolerant, as are Latin American countries.  Among the most racially intolerant countries – the top 25 – are in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, most of which, at one time or another, were colonial vassals.

When people are racist, misogynistic, xenophobic or homophobic it's because they have had a closeted upbringing, experiences, belief and so on, or have been indoctrinated and refuse to change their perceptions – flat-earths in a heliocentric universe.  In that case, little preaching and legislating, e.g. the “race and hate speech” bill, will change that.  So it’s naive to ask “why racism continues”.

But when racist incidences happen there ought to be no difference of approach, in law, to white or black racists, as Kallie Kriel argues.  Part of the reason for this apparent hard line attitude to white racism and alleged white racism – and comparative leniency toward black racism – is South Africa, and black South Africans, are extremely sensitive to the “historical significance [of racist terms] previously used to deligitimise and dehumanise black people.  [These] terms captures the heartland of racism‚ its contemptuous disregard and calculated dignity-nullifying effects on others” (Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng). 

Despite SA having moved politically beyond its dreadful past, I wonder how many whites really understand the significance for blacks of the echoes of the past and its racist terminology even if used carelessly without malicious intent.  But the understandable sensitivity to these terms and conduct does not justify what Kriel calls the “double standards regarding racism” in a society where black racism is on the rise

It is unfortunate some blacks and often privileged ones at that – as Rhodes and fees must fall protestors have done and gotten away with it – use race as a weapon and stigmata of victimhood.  In other cases race is used with an incendiary, political purpose against social injustice wrought by the defective economic system and governing party’s misrule.  And this is “their” party that according to SA’s democratic creation myth liberated us from oppression – “the idea of the ANC as redeemer of an oppressed and impoverished people is now in radical decline” (Laurence Piper).

Unfortunately, institutional racism in SA, including the different and even unfair ways the justice system deals with the likes of Penny Sparrow, Velaphi Khumalo, etc is entrenched and unlikely to change.  This is divisive and regressive because racism is not our most urgent social issue, but lack of economic growth and development, unemployment, and the stifling of opportunity it has brought. 

In the IRR’s survey only 5% of all South Africans think racism, xenophobia or reverse racism is the country’s “most serious unresolved problem”.  Unemployment[1] (56%) tops the response, followed by crime, housing, poor delivery, etc.  South African’s belief, born out of intuition and experience and as indicated in survey, is that economic and social well-being are far more important than racism.  This is proved, to some extent, by Berggren’s and Nilsson’s study:

“Earlier studies suggest societal factors, such as policies, institutions and socioeconomic outcomes, and sentiments towards such factors, exert an influence on people’s ways of thinking and feeling about others.  [Our] cross-country regression analysis encompassing up to 65 countries indicate economic freedom improves tolerance” particularly toward homosexuals, “a useful indicator of tolerant attitudes overall”.  Economic freedom “makes people more open-minded to people that in some sense are different from them”.

Citing other sources, Berggren and Nilsson define “tolerance as respect for diversity, and openness, inclusiveness, and diversity to all ethnicities, races, and walks of life”.  They state, for example, more tolerance is expected where there is material well-being – affluence – when there is less competition over scarce resources, and through education – socialisation and teaching.  Racial tolerance is positive in the “absence of regulation, and negative from [an absence of] legal structure and security of property rights”.

Summarising: “While tolerance towards people of a different race are not strongly affected by how free markets are, stable monetary policy and [economic] outcomes [emphasis mine] is the area of economic freedom most consistently associated with greater tolerance, but the quality of the legal system seems to matter as well.”

South African politicians and business in particular but many in society appear unwilling to honestly look at how the country has managed economic transformation since 1994.  If they did, they would find we have done poorly, the collateral consequences of which are increasing protests and unrest, and dare I say perceptions of increasing racism. This is proven by the fact the most significant protests of recent years – the Rhodes and fees protests – were not really about colonialism, race and lack of transformation, but lack of jobs, opportunity and economic growth.


[1] Unemployment hits a 13-year high.