Mondli Makhanya and the monster in our midst

John Kane-Berman says a recent govt-backed survey supports the SAIRR's earlier claims on prevalence of racism

News on racial discrimination too good to print

Well, well, well! Towards the end of March the editor of City Press, Mondli Makhanya, accused the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) of burying its head in the sand and ignoring "the big monster that lurks in our midst".

The said monster was the "disease" of anti-black racism that is supposedly to be found all over the country, supposedly typified by Vicky Momberg. Mr Makhanya said he found it hard to believe the IRR's finding that 77% of black respondents to a survey had said they had "never personally experienced racism". Where, he asked, did the IRR find these people?

The answer is that a representative survey of 708 Africans found them all over the country. Conducted in December last year, the IRR survey confirmed the results of one carried out in 2016 which reported that 72% of 2 291 respondents of all races said they had had no personal experience of racism.

Now a very much larger "baseline survey" has found that the proportion of people of all races saying they had been victims of discrimination in the past year is only 9%. The survey covered all types of discrimination, but of those who experienced one or another kind, only 45% cited race as the reason they felt discriminated against. So not even half the 9% of victims of discrimination experienced racial discrimination, as opposed to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, political affiliation, language, or other criteria. Forty-five per cent of 9% is 4%.

The results of the baseline survey showing that only 4% of adults feel they have been victims of racial discrimination were published in an advertisement in the Mail and Guardian at the end of last month. The full report was published by the Foundation for Human Rights and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. Funding came from the European Union. Almost 25 000 interviews were conducted across the country.

Among other things, the advertisement asked, "Do you experience discrimination?" Underneath it highlighted the answer: "Approximately one in ten (9%) respondents indicated that they had suffered discrimination in the past year."

Even more interesting was the finding that Africans were less likely to have experienced racism than Indians, Asians, coloured people, and whites.

Before the baseline survey was conducted, the draft questionnaire was circulated among government departments, so-called Chapter 9 institutions, and civil society. This was done after consultation with Statistics South Africa. That is about as official as you can get.

When the IRR published its own results and commented that "these are vastly encouraging figures for they indicate the problem of racism is less acute and intractable than many commentators assume", Mr Makhanya dismissed the IRR conclusions as "essentially denialist". Yet now we have the results of a very much larger survey conducted with government backing which discovers that there is even less experience of racial discrimination in South Africa than the IRR's own surveys found.

So perhaps the denialism boot is on the other foot. The baseline survey suggests that the IRR was indeed spot on with its comment that racism is less of a problem than many commentators seem to assume. Both the IRR and the baseline survey give the lie to a recent claim by an "African-American" columnist in City Press that "South Africans are like the rest of us who experience the daily terrors of racism".

It is possible to define racism in such a way as to make it seem pervasive. Poverty, inequality, unemployment, poor education, and other ills can all be blamed on racism. They frequently are. This is what Essop Pahad, then a minister in the Presidency, did when the IRR published its earliest survey finding in 2001 that most people thought unemployment was a far bigger problem than racism. He dismissed the finding as "foolish", and said that racism was the cause of unemployment.

That was 17 years ago. Although many commentators (and politicians) still find it expedient to blame all the country's problems on racism (or colonialism), they reflect not the truth but a minority viewpoint contradicted by evidence.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.