Is RSA outdoing the USA on race relations?

John Kane-Berman compares and contrasts attitudes towards race and "racism" in the two countries

After the guilty verdict last month, Joe Biden said of the murder of George Floyd that it revealed “the systemic racism that is a stain on our nation’s soul”. That is not much of an advertisement for all his party’s predecessors in the White House, or for the Democrats when they controlled congress, held state governorships, occupied mayors’ offices, packed Washington with liberal bureaucrats, and appointed judges and police chiefs up and down the country.

South Africa, whose government, like that of the United States, buys into the “systemic racism” ideology, seems to be doing quite a lot better than the Americans. This is remarkable, given that we abolished apartheid laws long after they did. Moreover, improvements in race relations are one of the very few issues on which Cyril Ramaphosa and the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) seem to agree, sometimes at least.

Over the past 20 years the IRR has commissioned seven opinion surveys on race relations. All seven reveal that the proportion of black Africans (blacks) who think race relations have improved outnumbers the proportion who think the opposite.

In 2001, the figures were: improved 49%, worsened 23%, and stayed the same 28%. In 2020 the figures were 43% improved, 24% worsened, and stayed the same 27%. At one stage the “improved” proportion was as high as 64%. My colleague Anthea Jeffery, who has done an analysis of all our surveys, suggests that the drop in the “improved” proportion may be the result of the “constant emphasis on racism” by the African National Congress (ANC).

At the same time, however, the number of blacks who report that they have no “personal experience” of racism has risen from 46% in 2001 to 81% last year. This, says Dr Jeffery, is a “very encouraging improvement”. It certainly belies all the allegations about pervasive racism supposedly practised by whites against blacks (critical race theory taking the view that blacks themselves are incapable of practising racism).  

The IRR surveys were not confined to blacks. We found that the number of coloured, Indian, and Asian people that think race relations have improved since 1994 is higher than the number thinking they have deteriorated, as is the case with blacks. However, the opposite obtains among whites: only 32% think race relations have improved since 1994, against 35% who think they have worsened, and 28% who think they have stayed the same.

The views among whites are probably the result of two factors: affirmative action policies, which operate to their disadvantage; and the increasing anti-white attitudes expressed by the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters, and others. Whereas 81% of Africans say they have not personally experienced racism, the equivalent figure among whites is a high 69%.

All seven of the IRR surveys asked respondents to identify the most serious problems “unresolved” since 1994. They were given no prompts as to what problems they might mention. Except in one year, unemployment topped the list of issues spontaneously mentioned: usually at above 50%. Also high on the list were crime and violence, housing and shelter problems, lack of water and sanitation, and poor education. “Corruption in government” has jumped from near the bottom in 1994 to third from the top last year (after unemployment and crime/safety/security).

Land reform was mentioned as a problem by only 4% of respondents in 2001, and 4% again in 2020. Race issues were a bother for 8% in 2001 but for 3.3% last year.

It is clear from all our survey results that the ANC government’s priorities differ markedly from those of the population at large.

What of President Ramaphosa? He repeatedly berates whites, sometimes threatens to boil them like frogs, declares that racism permeates institutions, condemns colonialism and the “entitlement and superiority’ of whites, claims that South Africa is defined by racial inequality, and calls for people to stand firm against “daily acts of racism and micro-aggressions”. In this he sounds like his American counterpart.

Yet in a “letter from the president” for Reconciliation Day in December last year, Mr Ramaphosa had a somewhat different message. He argued that “true reconciliation is impossible” unless social and economic inequalities were overcome and “the playing fields of opportunity levelled”.

But he also declared that it is “equally important to acknowledge just how vastly different our country is today to what it was 26 years ago”. Although class and race divisions remained very real, they were not as “toxic as we are often led to believe”. Citing a report by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, Mr Ramaphosa said it had found that the majority of respondents believed that race relations had improved since 1994.

This is what the IRR surveys have been showing over two decades.    

Mr Ramaphosa added: “For every negative story of racism that makes the news, there are countless other positive stories of racial integration, communities living in harmony, and social cohesion that do not generate headlines.”

As for headlines, the IRR surveys show that clear majorities of all races think that “all this talk of racism and colonialism is by politicians who are trying to find excuses for their own failures”.

# Dr Jeffery’s report on the surveys will shortly be published in the IRR’s @Liberty series.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.