Race and inequality (from 2016)


Race relations in SA currently seem to be in turmoil. Controversies that have erupted around racist social media posts have been advanced as evidence for the widespread persistence of apartheid-era racism. Black South Africans have meanwhile been presented as hostile towards non-racialism and impatient about the slow rate of social change.

Cheerleaders from a dwindling camp of optimists, such as the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), point to the findings of a broadly representative national opinion survey the Institute commissioned last year. Only 4% of citizens claim that racism is one of the most serious issues facing the country. More than three quarters of South Africans think that race relations have improved, or stayed the same, in recent years.

Such evidence is open to all manner of interpretation. But there are reasons to suppose that race relations are going to get quite a lot worse.

The biggest constraint on current interracial antagonism may be that most blacks — in rural areas, peri-urban townships, and former Bantustans — still live in monoracial worlds, in which ethnic and xenophobic difference is more prominent than race. But urbanisation and modernisation mean fresh opportunities for racial contact, and so conflict.

So too does the much-heralded growth of the black middle class. High-performing blacks have often risen through former model-C schools and universities into interracial professional and managerial workplaces. Many report experiencing these institutions as sites of assimilation rather than integration, where discomfiting language, culture, and values predominate.

Even where opinion survey responses reveal no preoccupation with race, underlying grievances may fester. One DA researcher involved in focus groups in Gauteng ahead of the 2014 elections reported that, once gently prompted, almost all black middle class participants recounted humiliating racist experiences.

We spend a good deal of time thinking about how people cope with being poor. It may be equally difficult for people to cope with being rich. Why do black people who have attended elite educational institutions and moved up corporate or professional career ladders still experience society as dominated by racial discrimination?

One plausible answer is that it is.

Another is that SA’s whites often resolve the problem of possessing wealth, in a sea of poverty, by attributing their good fortune to merit. Access to financial and political capital, nutrition and child care, and well-functioning health and educational institutions, tends to be discounted.

Black South Africans are more likely that white to advance a broadly communalistic ethic and may find this convenient linkage of personal success to moral virtue harder to swallow.

Some blacks have turned to Pentecostal and charismatic churches that promote ‘prosperity theology’. In such churches, testimonials celebrate wealth as a sign of divine intervention and as a reward for religious devotion.

But the belief that we deserve our success has an unfortunate corollary that black professionals are often unwilling to accept: that those who are poor and marginalised are to blame for their own predicament.

The new black middle class is built on the labours of parents and extended families — teachers, nurses, and other modestly paid professionals and workers — who have gone to great extremes to enrol their children in suburban schools, help them to transcend language barriers to learning, and make their way through the obstacle courses of higher education. Such experiences may continually return the thoughts of successful black managers and professionals to their wider familial and societal obligations.

Successful people in most societies internalise beliefs about their own inherent superiority — about why they deserve what they have got. The poor, for their part, internalise assumptions about their own inferiority — about why their place in society is appropriate for them and not the injustice it might otherwise appear.

Such settled patterns of legitimate dessert are hard to establish in SA. Apartheid wove together narratives of race and dessert that are difficult selectively to unpick.

Middle-income countries are by their nature unequal, moreover, and their inequalities tend to reproduce themselves over generations. As a result of the strong overlap between class and race forged by apartheid, inequality will continue to be colour-coded in SA for many generations to come. This is likely to result in repeated challenges to the legitimacy of the social order, even from many of the society’s new beneficiaries.

Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

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