Reasons for Hope

I am surprised that more was not made of ‘Reasons for Hope’, a national opinion survey published in March this year by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) that looked at public attitudes to race relations, jobs and other key issues in 2015.

Given the acrimonious race debate that gripped the country at the start of 2016, the IRR survey results reveal a very different picture to the social media wars and hostile, polarising debates we have witnessed of late.

The introduction to the report says: Social media, in particular, have spoken of an ‘unbridgeable gap’ that has developed between black and white South Africans. South Africans were said to have ‘no interest in reconciliation, redress, and nation building’. The white community was alleged to be wracked with racism and filled with a deep desire to bring back apartheid. Black South Africans were said to be filled with hatred for whites and a strong desire for vengeance. Threats of racial violence were made. The perception created was of a country on the verge of a race war.

Perceptions are powerful because they fuel public opinion and if this process continues unchecked, it may not take long before real damage to race relations is done.

The report emphasises that it did not rely on perceptions or the subjective opinions of individual commentators. Instead, it reported on the results of a field survey, which asked South Africans how they themselves feel about race relations:

Our field survey canvassed the views of a balanced sample of 2 245 people from all nine provinces. It covered both rural and urban areas and all socio-economic strata. Of the respondents, 78.3% were black, 9% were coloured, 2.8% were Indian, and 9.9% were white. Approximately half the respondents were under the age of 34, and their educational profile mirrored that of the country. Of those surveyed a quarter were unemployed. Of those with jobs, 2.8% worked in the informal sector and 38.8% were employed in the formal sector.

The feedback from the report is this: Far from being hostile towards one another, most South Africans, black and white, occupy a pragmatic middle ground on race relations. White South Africans understand and support the need for redress. Black South Africans do not believe that their white compatriots should be treated as second-class citizens. The overwhelming majority of both groups believe that they need each other for progress to be made.

 The overwhelming majority, when asked to name the two most serious problems in South Africa not yet resolved since 1994, answered: unemployment and crime. In total, 55.9% of South Africans saw unemployment as the most pressing problem, while 28.8% cited crime.

Racism (which included xenophobia and reverse apartheid) was cited by 4.7% of respondents.

On the subject of jobs, when respondents were asked: ‘Who do you think should be appointed to jobs in South Africa?’ and were given a series of options to choose from, only 4.7% of people supported the first option, that ‘only black people should be appointed to jobs for a very long time ahead’.

 When asked whether South African sports teams should be selected ‘only on merit and ability and not by racial quotas’, the responses showed that 77% of all South Africans support purely merit-based selections without reference to racial quotas. No fewer than 74.2% of black South Africans endorsed this view.

When asked what they made of all the talk of racism that dominates so many media headlines.

Amongst the respondents 62% said: ‘All this talk of racism and colonialism is an attempt by politicians to find excuses for their own failures’.

Asked whether they thought that better education and more jobs would make the differences between the races steadily disappear, 82.2% of the respondents agreed.

The report concludes: We hope that the actual opinions of South Africans will serve as a ‘still small voice of calm’ that helps to cut through the divisive rhetoric we have witnessed this year.

 It is important for all South Africans to read this and to hopefully start facing the uncomfortable truths, the anger, bitterness and serious economic and education problems in our country, together.

So where to start? One approach is to look at where we are right now. In a book by called Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organisation, by leadership and cultural change specialists, David Logan, John King and Halee Fisher-Wright, they describe human beings as belonging to circumstantial groups of tribes, not racial or cultural ones.

They rank these tribes in 5 Stages:

Stage 1 is titled ‘All Life Sucks’ – where people are “despairingly hostile and banding together to get ahead in a violent and unfair world”.

Stage 2 is titled Apathetic Victim’ – where people are “passively antagonistic, quietly sarcastic, resigned and judging yet never interested enough to spark any passion”.

Stage 3 is ‘I’m great (and you’re not)’ – where people hoard knowledge for themselves to outcompete others; they say they want to help others but are dismissive that others don’t have the ambition or skill.

Stage 4 is ‘We’re great’ – where large numbers have achieved a level of happiness, achievement, economic stability and inspiration and they band together.

Stage 5 – ‘Life is Great’ – is the sphere of infinite potential where the group has the capacity to make history. This is where the authors positioned South Africa during the Truth & Reconciliation era of our democracy.

Some commentators maintain it didn’t work out as we had hoped. Nevertheless, we cannot fault the sincere desire of President Mandela and the Commissioners to heal the country. As the IRR report has shown, 20 years into our democracy we still have a tremendous amount of goodwill. It says huge amounts about the majority of people in this country. It says huge amounts about what we all need to do to stop the polarisation of our society into crude racial and cultural divides.

Once we commit to this, we can far more effectively work together to start shifting from fixed positions in the various stages to hopefully achieving, and deserving, Stage 5 status some day. Maybe it is just an ideal, but I believe it is something we should strive for, and, as South African citizens, we have the power.

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 370, May, 2016. It is reproduced with their permission.

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