The new year began explosively when racist comments posted by Penny Sparrow and others on Facebook were widely circulated on both social and mainstream media. This was followed by a wide range of responses in both public and private spaces. This incident has again brought to the forefront unresolved questions relating to race, racism and race relations in South Africa.

In South Africa, approximately 24% of the population have active social media accounts with 13 million Facebook users. The availability of social media and ease of access to news reports has enabled the emphasis on racism and division to escalate, allowing us to be fed certain rhetoric which influences the mood of the country. However, reporters and those that actively comment on social media form a distinct group and therefore may not be representative of the attitudes of the general South African public. This compelled us to look at the attitudes of the South African public by making use of the results from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). The SASAS is a nationally representative household survey administered annually in order to track societal values over time.

We specifically looked at the views toward inclusion of children of different races and socioeconomic groups in schools. Respondents to the SASAS were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the following two questions:

  1. Children of different races should be educated together
  2. Children of the economically well-off and the poor should be educated together

We felt that responses to these two questions would provide insight into the attitudes toward racial and class inclusion, allowing us to gauge where the public stands on the matter of social segregation and integration. It has long been acknowledged that there is an interplay between race and class, especially due to the legacy of apartheid. Therefore one would expect the attitudes toward race and class inclusion to mirror each other. It is also important to investigate whether and how attitudes have changed over time. The trend findings from 2003 to 2014 in relation to the two questions are represented below in Figures 1, 2 and 3.

Graph social inclusion piece

Figure 1: Public views on social inclusion in schools (2003, 2010 and 2014)

One of the most interesting findings is that there has been a positive change over time in the attitudes toward racial integration in schools, but the attitudes toward class integration were less positive and have not improved over time. In 2003, 85% of South Africans agreed that children of different races should be educated together, and by 2014 this had risen to 91%. A considerably lower percentage of the population were in support of integration based on class. In both 2003 and 2014, 77% of the population agreed that children of the economically well-off and the poor should be educated together.

By looking at the responses of specific groups, we are better able to unpack the story and to interrogate the findings. Figures 2 and 3 below illustrate the responses of different groups to questions 1 and 2 respectively. When looking at educational attainment, what is particularly interesting is that those with a higher level of education seem to have slightly less support for inclusion based on race and class than those with a lower level of education. This is striking as we would expect highly educated people to exhibit more liberal attitudes. Furthermore, when looking at age groups, the older respondents have less inclusive attitudes than the younger age groups. When considering living standards – a proxy for socio-economic status – those in the ‘high’ group exhibit the lowest percentage of agreement. When looking at the second question, it is interesting to note that both those in the ‘low’, as well as the ‘high’ living standard groups, have a lower level of support for class integration.

Attitudes to racial integration

Graph 2 social inclusion piece

Figure 2: Children of different races should be educated together (Demographics)

Particularly interesting results are those that emerge when looking at the responses of the different population groups. When looking at Figure 2, what is most striking is the change in the attitudes of both White and Coloured people over the years, as well as the difference in attitudes among the four population groups. The percentages of White and Coloured people with positive attitudes have dramatically increased from 53% to 71% and 77% to 95% respectively from 2003 to 2014. Although the percentages for Black and Indian/Asian groups have slightly increased, their attitudes have remained comparatively stable. The White group, at 71% in 2014, still remain the group with the least inclusive attitude.

Attitudes to class integration

Graph 3 social inclusion piece

Figure 3: Children of different socioeconomic backgrounds should be educated together (Demographics)

When looking at the responses in Figure 3, the attitudes of the Black and White groups have remained fairly stable over the years at approximately 80% and 64% respectively, while the percentage of Indian/Asian people has slightly declined from 86% in 2003 to 80% in 2014. The percentage for the Coloured population has increased substantially from 64% in 2003 to 80% in 2014. What is again note-worthy is that White respondents are the group in least support of social inclusion in schools based on socioeconomic status.

How can we explain the differences in responses?

We were surprised that the responses to the two questions did not mirror each other as expected. We therefore need to try to make sense of this difference. Due to the lack of qualitative data, one can only provide possible explanations and hypotheses. We propose three different explanations in order to stimulate debate around this finding.

  1. Political correctness

Racism and race relations have been topics that have received considerable attention since the start of democracy in South Africa, and due to racial segregation, people are aware of being “politically correct” and needing to portray antiracist attitudes so as to avoid the “racist” label. Therefore, people may respond favourably to the question of racial inclusion in schools, not because it is their true belief, but instead because it is the socially desirable answer. The argument then could be that the question on class inclusion reveals more truthful attitudinal responses as it is easier to answer questions based on assets rather than human characteristics.

  1. Changing social identity

Over the years, class divisions have become sharper and income inequality has increased both within and between racial groups. Therefore, a possible explanation may be that people are not basing their social identity on race, but instead are basing it on class. According to Social Identity Theory, these groups are important sources of pride and self-esteem, and they give us a sense of belonging.  Therefore, people are trying to preserve their group identity by ensuring division based on class lines. This allows people to categorise each other into a “them” and an “us”, and provides justification for segregation based on class.

  1. Maintaining the status quo

Another theory that may be used to explain the finding is Systems Justification. This is a theory that states that people like to preserve things the way they are, and therefore tend to defend or rationalize existing social and economic arrangements.  From this stance, the findings may reflect the beliefs that the system is justified, allowing class inequality and provision based on class to be justified.

Going forward, the issue of social integration based on class, and the difference between the attitudes toward racial and class integration should be interrogated. The goal should be to better understand these public attitudes so that we can begin to effect change and aim to increase support for social integration in schools and expel perceived class divisions. Furthermore, findings such as these that reflect somewhat positive trends in attitudes toward racial inclusion can be used to boost the country’s morale, especially in a time when issues around race seem to be causing divisions among South Africans.

Kate Surmon

Dr Andrea Juan

Dr Vijay Reddy