On the road to a united SA: what (still) divides us?


Elnari Potgieter

Annually, since 1994, South Africa celebrates Reconciliation Day on 16 December. It is often around this time that we may reflect on progress made in terms of reconciliation and national unity.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), since 2003, conducts the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) survey to track South Africans’ sentiments pertaining to matters of reconciliation.

The 2017 SARB round shows that, at the time of surveying (June-July 2017), 75% of South Africans felt that it is desirable to create a united South Africa, and 68% believed it is possible to do so.

In addition, about seven in ten South Africans (74%) felt that South Africa still needs reconciliation. However, only 56% agreed that South Africa has made progress in reconciliation since the end of apartheid.

What is it that (still) divides South Africans, despite a desire for unity? The SARB finds that the “gap between rich and poor” (or inequality) is ranked as the greatest source of division by South Africans, followed by “divisions between race groups”, and thirdly “divisions between supporters of different political parties”.

Inequality is furthermore the aspect of society that respondents to the 2017 SARB felt has made the least progress since 1994, with 77% of South Africans reporting inequality has worsened or stayed the same since 1994.

In addition, 63% of South Africans agreed that reconciliation is impossible for as long as people who were disadvantaged under apartheid remain poor. Inequality (and/or poverty) is thus regarded as the most divisive and enduring aspect of South African society– hampering reconciliation processes.

The second greatest source of division relates to racial reconciliation. Almost one in every three (32%) South Africans reported an improvement in race relations since 1994 – showing some progress in this regard, although muted and slow.

In order to overcome prejudices and improve relations, a first step is contact between people from various groups. The 2017 SARB shows that South Africans have the most interaction with people from “other race groups” in commercial spaces (such as shops and malls), as well as work and study spaces. These spaces, however, are also where South Africans reported experiencing racism most frequently.

Most South Africans (61%) remain open to interaction with people from “other race groups” in both public and private settings, while the greatest barriers to more interaction cited by respondents (other than “none”) are “language” and “confidence”. More than half of South Africa’s adult population approve of integration in various settings (including at schools, neighbourhoods and in terms of inter-racial marriage.

The third greatest source of division, although mainly focused on supporters of political parties, speaks to aspects of democratic political culture. The SARB posits that reconciliation is more likely to thrive in societies where a democratic political culture exists. Confidence in institutions matter in this regard, as well as political efficacy, rule of law and political community.

With respect to confidence in institutions, the SARB shows a decline in confidence in key institutions over time – including in national government, Parliament and provincial government – pointing to a process of systematic erosion.

Only 33% of South Africans reported having “quite a lot of confidence” or “a great deal” of confidence in the incumbent political party in 2017, with lower levels of confidence in main opposition parties.

One in four South Africans (26%) furthermore reported not feeling close to any political party. This is coupled with 51% of South Africans agreeing that “[their] vote does not make a difference”, and 56% agreeing that “[v]oting is meaningless because no politician can be trusted”.

While political efficacy is low, propensity for the use of violence or force for a political cause has increased from 2013-2017, showing three in ten South Africans either have or are willing to use such measures in 2017. This does not necessarily mean that South Africans do not show a regard for the rule of law, as 66% of South Africans agreed that the Constitution must be upheld and adhered to at all times.

Reconciliation in South Africa’s current and historical context requires a nuanced approach to overcoming and preventing social divisions. South Africans desire unity and think a united South Africa is possible.

Certain societal challenges, according to South Africans, limit progress made in this regard – briefly discussed here are those related to inequalities, racial reconciliation and aspects of democratic political culture.

Much work lies ahead – which, according to most respondents to the 2017 SABR, requires all South Africans to come to the table; as well as the involvement of a variety of institutions – including business, civil society, elected representatives and national government, faith-based organisations and individuals with their friends and families.

As we near the beginning of a new year, perhaps now is also an opportune time for each of us to reflect on ways we can each be involved in helping to bridge the various divides limiting reconciliation processes.

- Elnari Potgieter is the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation's project leader on the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB).

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