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(City Press published the portion of this article relating to student attitudes on Sunday 13 March 2016)

As is widely acknowledged, the idea of South Africa as the Rainbow Nation, “united in diversity”, was part of our ‘miracle’ transformation to a non-racial, democratic nation.

Over the years there has been increasing questioning of and debate around the veracity and depth of this unity. This appears to have morphed into a series of youth and student driven protests, such as ‘Rhodes must Fall’, ‘Fees must Fall’, and even ‘fuck whites’ which highlighted (amongst other issues) the extent to which inherited inequalities have not been addressed. Some political commentators believe this tension can be attributed to black South Africans seeing themselves as the political but not economic majority, with economic power remaining entrenched in the hands of the white minority. There is also the view that whites have not as yet sufficiently acknowledged nor ‘atoned’ for the discrimination and human rights violations during the apartheid era.

In some quarters the politically correct view is that race is something that should not be mentioned – in fact even mentioning race as a researcher could be in itself deemed racist. But these events linked to a recent spate of racially charged statements challenge this view.

The latest futurefact survey probed deeply into racial attitudes, in an attempt to contextualise the nuances in all pockets of the country (other than deep rural communities of fewer than 500 individuals). futurefact finds that most (63%) believe that racism has remained bad or become worse over the last year or two. Furthermore around a quarter of respondents gave South Africans ratings of 8+ out of ten as being very racist today as well as for the period when Nelson Mandela was President, suggesting there has been no improvement in racial attitudes. Only a third of South Africans (regardless of their race group) believe that racism has improved / lessened over the past couple of years. 68% of South Africans (72% of black and 37% of white) think that white people still feel superior to black people.

There does appear to be a strong desire to reach common ground as evidenced by the finding that two-thirds of South Africans express the view that we can’t prosper as a nation without each other and almost 80% that all South Africans can co-exist peacefully without losing their own cultural identity. However, in both cases this is lower than previously which may be indicative of a hardening of attitudes or loss of faith in our ability to work together or enjoy any social interaction: only 54% of black South Africans claimed to have friends from other racial groups compared with 69% of whites.

Eight out of ten black South Africans recognise the value of speaking good English in order to advance and get better jobs and the same proportion would like their children to benefit from this by being taught in English at school. But there is a concern that black culture is being lost in this transition with ‘whiteness’ becoming the model to emulate. This is giving rise to a great deal of resentment according to reports in the media and social media. One of the ways that white South Africans, in the spirit of unity, could try to bridge this gap would be by learning a black language. Three quarters of black and 57% of white South Africans believe that whites in South Africa should be able to speak at least one black language.

Popular sentiment suggests that white South Africans see themselves as victims of, or disadvantaged by, policies such as Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). But futurefact finds that 55% of whites believe that Affirmative Action is a good idea (albeit so do 83% of black South Africans). When asked when they felt Affirmative Action and BEE should end, a large proportion of whites believed these policies should be phased out over a long period of time or retained permanently:

 When should affirmative action and BEE end?


In the sporting arena futurefact finds that most South Africans would like to see our sports teams winning, to reach a point where our national teams are chosen on merit and not racial quotas. But there is also the recognition that we are not at that point yet and that we do need to redress the inequalities of our past by retaining racial quotas in our sports teams for the present.

 Sport and race


The same applies in other areas. There is acceptance of the need for policies to be retained which try to bridge the huge socio-economic gap in South Africa. While racial tensions appear to be rising in South Africa, futurefact suggests that South Africans are a lot more pragmatic and prepared to compromise than the current student unrest suggests. Nonetheless it is important to understand where these students are coming from.

What could be underlying the student unrest?

Looking at students in the age cohort 18-24 proved very useful for a nuanced view, particularly if we also looked at their political affiliation and the class they perceive they fall into. 45% of working class young students feel they have no power over their own lives, significantly higher than those in the middle class (29%). The disempowered percentage increases to 51% if the students are strong EFF supporters, though it must be said that any strong political party affiliation tends to increase the sense of being disempowered though at a lower level than EFF supporters. It would certainly seem that the political sphere is impacting on the student unrest in this context.

There are many elements that show that there may well be political ferment at the heart of the unrest – with an EFF affiliation generally heralding more negative sentiment on several fronts.  Anger levels are more palpable among EFF young students than others with around four in ten admitting to often feeling angry these days. Nonetheless the majority of young students, irrespective of party, believe black and white people in SA cannot prosper without each other – though DA young students are less likely to be of this belief (DA young students 57%, ANC 66% and EFF 62%). Fascinating too is that 64% of EFF young students disagree that whites should still feel guilty about apartheid. It is no surprise perhaps that 73% of DA young students have this view though it is interesting that only 40% of ANC supporters believe this. The question is: why are young DA students less conciliatory?  Has the DA somehow been instrumental in cementing this view through its policies? Or is it a generation that is reluctant to take responsibility for the ills of a society before they were born? 

There is a perception among young students, even DA supporters though at a lower level, that whites still feel superior to black people (EFF 75%, ANC 66% and DA 45%). And certainly there is a perception that racism in this country is still bad or has become worse (67% EFF, 60% ANC and DA 58%).

It seems likely that, at least to some extent, economic hardship is at the heart of the problem. 51% of young EFF students say they often have no money to pay their bills compared with 41% of ANC supporters and lower still for DA supporters (34%). There is a strong sense that the government “has forgotten about people like me” with 64% of EFF students feeling this strongly compared with 53% of DA supporters but even 55% of ANC supporters. Interestingly this percentage goes up significantly to 72% if all EFF supporters are taken into account rather than only those who are students.

Throughout the survey findings it is clear that it is the working class who are most likely to feel marginalised, disempowered and facing tough economic situations. What is interesting though, is that while more EFF young students are working class (28%), this isn’t much higher than for the ANC (24%) while the DA young student working class support base is 15%. Where the big difference does come in though, is that both the ANC and DA young students are far more likely to be upper middle class or even upper class – though there seems to be more reticence among DA students to acknowledge this. This disparity may well be significant in the anger levels that are in evidence on campuses.

Student Support for ANC, DA and EFF

One of the key findings is that both EFF and ANC young student groups believe the degree of racism has reduced since Madiba’s presidency while those in the DA young student group feel it has increased. The bad racism ratings today vs the Mandela presidency years are ashown above.  

So in conclusion, it seems that while ongoing racism is clearly a blight on our landscape, it is currently being inflamed within the very politicised context of the country (the pending local government elections could also be stoking ‘political fires’). Yet it seems that non-racialism also has a resilience in the hearts and minds of its citizens and despite the fear and anger that is generated, we should try to keep sight of the good and the bad in our society. According to the latest futurefact survey the social mobility escalator is still moving, albeit more slowly, and inevitably that brings optimism, a belief that the future can be better and that as a society we can pull together to help to solve the country’s problems. Perhaps at some level there is recognition that ‘together we stand, divided we fall’. 

futurefact has been surveying the attitudes and beliefs of South Africans since 1998. The findings presented above are from the futurefact survey conducted in late 2015, based on a probability sample of 3,015 adults aged 18 years and over, living in communities of more than 500 people throughout South Africa and representing 22,8 million adults living in 9,4 million households. If you would like to find out more about futurefact and its extensive attitudinal databases please contact Jos Kuper 082 904 9939 or check out www. futurefact.co.za