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Survey Shows South Africans Want Reconciliation, But Is It Possible?

South Africans want reconciliation. But getting there, is proving to be challenging. This was the key theme taken from one of South Africa’s longest running public opinion surveys, the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB).

In its sixteenth round, the survey provides insight into the perceptions of ordinary South Africans pertaining to the country’s progress with reconciliation.

Despite celebrating 25 years of democracy, Elnari Potgieter, lead author of the SARB at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), says that the report highlights several themes that speak to historical legacies and current issues that prevent true reconciliation in the country.

“Some of the major themes that arose from key indicators in the report include safety and violence, democratic political culture and socio-economic circumstances and social justice,” says Potgieter.

Potgieter explains that during the field work, which took place between July and August this year, some of the biggest issues raised by the respondents included; gender-based violence, xenophobia, perceptions of safety, socio-economic inclusion and exclusion, confidence in institutions, corruption and inter-personal trust.

The SARB painted a mixed picture in terms of where most South Africans stand when it comes to reconciliation and the barriers preventing this from happening:

  • The 2019 SARB show that a vast majority (77%) of South Africans agree that South Africa still needs reconciliation, although only about half report that they have experienced reconciliation (51%) or believe that South Africa has made progress with reconciliation (57%).
  • Most South Africans agree that reconciliation is impossible as long as corruption continues in our country (84%); political parties sow division (74%); those who were affected by apartheid continue to be poor (73%); gender-based violence continues in our country (72%); we continue to use racial categories to measure transformation (73%); and racism remains unaddressed in our society (66%).
  • Most South Africans also report that the involvement of various stakeholders is important for reconciliation, in particular their and their families’ and friend’s involvement, while many understand that responsibility for reconciliation lies both with those who were oppressed and who were not oppressed during apartheid (56%).

A vast majority of South Africans are proud to be South African (eight in ten) and associate positively with national symbols such as the current South African flag, according to the findings of the SARB.  

“Most South Africans also want unity (78%) and think it is possible (71%) – with this year showing the greatest optimism in this regard since the inception of the SARB. These findings bode well for building cohesion among South Africans,” Potgieter adds.

However, challenges to these hopes persist in the form of historical confrontation – such as with regard to whether or not the old South African flag should be banned – and pervasive sources of division such as inequality and differences between people from different race groups and political parties.

“It should also be kept in mind that support for a national identity should not again be to the exclusion of ‘others’, with negative attitudes towards people from other countries living in South Africa presenting its own challenges,” says Potgieter.  

The SARB’s findings show concerningly low political and voting efficacy, in particular with concerns regarding the perceived responsiveness of elected representatives.

“While many South Africans adhere to populist beliefs, most still do agree that the Constitution should be upheld and respected, and, in general, support the rule of law. However, sentiments regarding a lack of consequences for corrupt government officials and ineffectiveness of government to curb corruption further paint a picture of limited confidence in elected representatives and government officials,” points out Potgieter.

This is also reflected in the decrease in confidence in key state institutions from 2006 to 2019, although with some increase in confidence from 2017 to 2019 – most notably in the President, with former President Zuma in this position in 2017 and, currently, President Ramaphosa in the position.

“These findings highlight the need for responsive, transparent and accountable political leadership as an essential part of democratic political culture,” Potgieter adds.

Perceptions of safety and violence also impact the way in which South Africans interact with each other, she says.

“Crime, coupled with limited capacity to prosecute perpetrators, has implications for citizens and their lived and perceived levels of safety – affecting the fibre of South African society. Feeling safe or unsafe may also relate to socio-economic and power dynamics in society – impacting both reconciliation and social-cohesion processes.”

“It is not surprising that many South Africans associated reconciliation with peace as the absence of violence, and most South Africans agree that reconciliation is impossible as long as gender-based violence persists in our society,” she explains.

“South Africans want reconciliation, and they want unity. But the country has a long way to go in addressing the many limiting factors that would help facilitate reconciliation, social-cohesion and unity processes in the eyes of South Africans,” says Potgieter.