Race Relations in South Africa

Race, racism, racial relations and its subsequent dynamics reflect not only conditions of our South African society, but reflect challenges  that the whole world is grappling with.  Keith Gottschalk (Political Scientist, University of the Western Cape) points out that the country’s colonial and apartheid past have entrenched a race based social order that still influences the behavioural, political, social and structural dynamic of the country (the past is thus still pervasive in our present). He for instance indicates how our political system is still the victim of this ethnocentric legacy.

An interesting dynamic is that opinions regarding the state of our race relations vary greatly depending on the context and agenda of the person/party being asked. Some perspectives represent radically different perspectives on the race issue – extremes where there is no crossing the colour line.

  • Critical reflections for instance point out that the “rainbow nation” has retired along with Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu. Personal racist incidents still make the headlines and class remains hued by color at the structural level. Although slightly over half of the country’s middle class is now black, deep poverty is an almost exclusively a black experience.

  • Dr Linda Ronnie suggests that while the new South Africa might no longer have park benches marked "Whites Only", the scourge of racism unfortunately still exists. After 22+ years of democracy, people of colour still (today) endure the disadvantage of past socio-economic policies. 

  • This socio-economic and structural disparity, despite rigorous employment equity legislation, are subsequently still evident in workplaces,.

  • Some authors indicate that while overt forms of racism are becoming increasingly uncommon, racism has gone under cover and now takes a more implicit form. This type of implicit discrimination is systemic and is perpetuated by company policies that look perfectly neutral on the surface.

The Institute of Race Relations, however, indicate that contrary to mainstream media, the situation is not as dire as it seems.  Their research suggests that most South Africans respect one another and are committed to working together across lines of race and class to make the country a better place for all its people.

Our research shows that racism is not South Africa’s biggest problem and that the great majority of black and white South Africans respect one another and want their fellow countrymen to lead successful and prosperous lives. But some politicians, activists and journalists take pleasure in fomenting conflict and trying to turn communities against each other. This minority sees every slight and injustice as a being the result of racism and racial oppression. They judge you not according to your individual circumstances, beliefs, or commitment to the success of our country but only according to your race and use that judgement to encourage the state to interfere in the choices you make about how you want to live.

The Institute of Race Relations think this is wrong and that the silent majority of South Africans who want to work together to build a better country must be given a voice. We therefore counter the hate-mongering in the media and social media by emphasizing the common ground that unites South Africans.

As can be seen, there are several divergent opinions. Whichever agenda you ascribe to ... it is probably clear that massive shifts have taken place since democracy, but that we still have a long journey ahead in tackling race-related issues. The need is now more than ever to host generative conversations that will lead to the creation of more equitable and inclusive race-relations. To successfully host these conversations, we as individuals, leaders and communities need to shift from ethnocentric perspectives (we we only entertain our own perspective),  to world-centric (or higher) perspectives where we can rationally and compassionately work with the multiple stories, truths and opinions incorporated in race-relations.

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