Racial tensions

2008-12-08 00:00

A recent survey, the South African Reconciliation Barometer, conducted on behalf of the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, has found that many South Africans are losing confidence in the prospect of peaceful co-existence with people of other races and ethnic groups. The level of optimism about racial harmony has declined by some 40% in the past year. In the same period, the number of people who feel personally safe has dropped markedly to just 34% — the lowest figure recorded in the five-year history of the study.

The euphoria of 1994 and the optimism of the rainbow nation during the Nelson Mandela presidency have faded badly. Of course, every heterogeneous society has its racial and ethnic sensitivities, and minority groups often feel particularly vulnerable. These tensions are exacerbated when the times are difficult. There is a universal tendency in stressful situations to blame one’s problems on “the other”, and the past year has been stressful in many ways. The researchers for this survey have identified three key factors: the global economic downturn, political infighting and people’s increasing fear for their economic and personal security. If the past year has been troubling, the year ahead will add one more stress in the form of the approaching election. And, while global economic trends may lie beyond the control of South Africa’s leadership and the causes of crime may be extremely difficult to eradicate, the behaviour of the country’s politicians will do much to either ease or to heighten tensions in the coming months.

The prospects, unfortunately, are not promising. The split in the ruling party will surely increase the vehemence with which electioneering is carried on, and the emergence of the breakaway Congress of the People has already sparked much inflammatory rhetoric, particularly from Jacob Zuma’s more vociferous adherents in the African National Congress camp. The temptation to play up differences and to exploit rather than calm fears will be very strong. The challenge for truly responsible democratic leaders will be to look beyond short-term gain, check the drift towards polarisation, and hold firm to the ultimate goal of national reconciliation.

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