For every Vicki Momberg or Velaphi Khumalo who says vile things about their fellow South Africans, there are ten people who want to work together in building the country, regardless of their race, writes Nicholas Lorimer.
If you believed everything you read on social media, or heard from the lips of many of our divisive politicians, and even some talk-show hosts, you could be forgiven for thinking South Africa was as close to civil war as it was in the early 1990s.
The familiar picture is one of blacks and whites (coloured and Indian South Africans are rarely included in these narratives) hatefully staring each other down, waiting for the other to make the first move in what promises to be a grim race war.
But this could not be further from the truth. New research from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) shows that there is a large moderate majority who broadly agree on the major issues, and who genuinely believe all South Africans need one another in creating a prosperous country.
Unite the Middle, the latest in the IRR's series of Hope reports, which examine the real state of race relations, shows that eight in ten South Africans agree on what the country priority concerns are. Race and racism are not regarded as the most pressing issues for the vast majority. Consider that 26% of respondents (and 27% of black respondents) indicated that creating jobs should be the top priority for the government. Only 2% of respondents (and 2% of black respondents) thought that "fighting racism" and "speeding up land reform" should be government priorities. Only 1% of all respondents (and again only 1% of black respondents) thought there should be a more radical application of affirmative action.
There is similarly broad agreement on other big issues. On whether there should be race quotas in selecting sports teams; on whether the race of our children's teachers matters more than whether the teacher is good or not, and on how broadly affirmative action should be applied, South Africans – of all races – are on pretty much the same page.
This is the moderate majority of South Africans the IRR is now actively seeking to strengthen and give a voice to. We are inviting South Africans who want to help the IRR unite the middle and build the non-racial centre to sign a pledge on our website.
We are also encouraging people who want to work to unite the middle to tell the IRR about any firms or organisations which discriminate on the basis of race. The IRR will contact these organisations, inform them about the Unite the Middle campaign, and explain to them the importance of the unity of the moderate majority. In the most egregious cases, we will also report them to the South African Human Rights Commission.
We are also encouraging people to alert us to people or organisations who are willing to work with us in uniting the middle, so that we can jointly form a common front in pushing back against divisive politicians and others whose insistence on playing up race and racism is distracting attention from South Africa's most serious problems.
The truth is, for South Africa to succeed, this moderate majority needs to work together. Just as in the early 1990s, in the period leading up to democracy, moderate South Africans worked together to exclude violent fringe groups seeking to derail the transition to democracy. This is what we need to do again, now.
At the risk of resorting to cliché, South Africans need to invoke the spirit of '94, when we put aside our differences to build a country for all its people. One might criticise Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk for some things, but they knew that for the country to succeed, the eight in ten South Africans who were moderate in their thinking and wanted to build a country for all, had to be united.
You don't have to believe our polling alone. For every Vicki Momberg, Adam Catzavelos or Velaphi Khumalo who says vile things about their fellow South Africans on social media or in the public, there are ten people who want to work together in building the country with their fellow citizens, regardless of their race.
For every Momberg or Khumalo there is a multiple of Nkosikho Mbeles (the petrol attendant who paid for a motorist's petrol out of his own pocket so that she wouldn't run out on a dangerous stretch of road) – and Monet van Deventers (the motorist herself who took to social media and triggered generous rewards for the man who helped her).
Our research reflects the sentiments of these good people. Nearly 90% of respondents said that South Africa's various race groups need each other to succeed. The truth of the matter is that the average white South African wants his black colleague or black neighbour to succeed, and the converse is also true.
South Africa cannot become a winning country if black, white, Indian, and coloured South Africans do not work together. For a prosperous and free society, the moderate majority of people in this country must stand together against those who seek to divide us.
- Nicholas Lorimer is a writer executive assistant at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).
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