Five SA myths debunked by the Reconciliation barometer

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation has released its 2015 SA Reconciliation Barometer, which surveyed more than 2 000 adult South Africans on race relations and reconciliation in the country. Despite the yearly release of the barometer, myths around reconciliation and rainbowism continue to make waves in the country. Here’s how the statistics from the reconciliation barometer counter some of South Africa’s favourite myths in the “new” South Africa.

1. Rainbow nation

Stepping into the possibilities of a post-apartheid South Africa, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu coined the term “rainbow nation” to describe a democratic South Africa, where all people accept one another. Former president Nelson Mandela further popularised the term in his presidential inauguration speech in May 1994.

“We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,” Mandela said.

The ANC continued to use rainbowism to forge nation-building in democratic South Africa, but as the 2015 reconciliation barometer indicates, the country still has a long way to go. According to the report’s findings, 67.3% of South Africans have little to no trust in people of a different race group. More than 50% of respondents said they hardly interact with other races with the exception of in their workplaces or while shopping.

The report indicates that protests, which rumble through the country almost daily, demonstrate the discontent in the country; a clear sign that South Africa is not yet a nation at peace with itself.

“Hardly a day goes by on which people, mostly black and poor, somewhere in the country do not rise up to say that their living conditions have become untenable. That they feel neglected. That they have reached a breaking point, where enough is enough,” the report says. 

2. The “new” South Africa
The “new” South Africa is meant to encompass a free and equal nation that has eradicated apartheid from its lifeblood. Writing for the Africa is a Country website, Sisonke Msimang debunked this myth earlier this year when it was discovered workers were being forced to carry a passbook in Worcester, a small community in the Western Cape. 

Msimang pointed out that during apartheid the passbook – or dompas – was “arguably the most visible aspect of the system of apartheid”. Everyday race relations in the rest of the country, too, tell a story of how remnants of apartheid have survived in the “new” South Africa. 

The reconciliation barometer found that 61.4% of the South Africans surveyed said race relations in the country had stayed the same or worsened since 1994. According to the report, yes, apartheid’s racist laws have been dismantled, but the maintenance of apartheid spatial planning and social and economic inequality have paved the way for racism to exist without the laws.

“Since South Africa’s first democratic elections, institutionalised racial discrimination has been removed from the statutes, but the apartheid geography of our cities and towns – as well as the distributional patterns of our economy – have largely remained in place to reinforce the template created by the architects of apartheid. Legislation is no longer required to sustain apartheid,” the report says.

3. Born-frees
If incidents of racial segregation at Curro School in Roodeplaat still haven’t done away with the myth of generations “born free”, then perhaps the statistics will. The so-called born-frees are meant to be a generation of young people born either towards apartheid’s end or after its demise, with no lived experience of South Africa prior to 1994. They are hence described as being born free and account for around 40% of the population. 

But survey respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 said they still experience racism all or most of the time in their daily lives. Indians accounted mostly for this response with just more than 15% saying they experienced racism. In 2012, the reconciliation barometer found that more than 21% of black youths said their friends and family had experienced racism in South Africa. 

4. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white (colour-blindness)
Earlier this year, students in opposition to the Open Stellenbosch movement – which protests against racism and the language policy at Stellenbosch University – launched the #WhereIsTheLove campaign to “spread love” and remember “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it”. The campaign triggered a backlash for silencing the experiences of black students at the university.

The idea that South Africans should embrace non-racialism to promote reconciliation has long been a mantra of the “new” South Africa. But as the reconciliation barometer shows, racial identity matters in South Africa because divisions still exist along racial lines. Among the report’s key findings is that only 35% of South Africans say they experience no racism in their daily lives. Race and language are identified as markers for who gets included in daily interactions and who is excluded.

“Put differently, over 55% have responded that they primarily associate with people that look and speak like them, which does not offer the possibility of inclusion for outsiders,” the report says. 

5. Get over apartheid  
Forgetting the past has become synonymous with national reconciliation for some South Africans. But the reconciliation barometer demonstrates that the legacy of apartheid still affects how many South African live today.

A total of 61.4% of respondents said that reconciliation in the country is impossible if those who were disadvantaged under apartheid remain poor.

“Taken together, the results shown … indicate that the majority of South Africans not only continue to value the importance and necessity of reconciliation, but they also attach significant connotations of redistributive justice to it,” the report says. “This has considerable implications in a country that routinely vies for the inglorious honour of being the world’s most unequal nation.”

In its background and context section, the survey report points out that often issues of social and economic inequality manifest from “poor, powerless communities with little or no bargaining power vis-à-vis ineffective, and often corrupt, local authorities”. 

There’s a lot that needs to be done to address structural inequality in the country, but South Africans are hopeful that reconciliation is possible, with 64.6% of respondents saying that a single united nation is possible and 71% saying they desire a unified country.

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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