Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

LAST year, the Institute of Race Relations commissioned a national survey of public attitudes to race and other policy issues.

A comprehensive report on the results will be released on Monday under the title, Race Relations in SA: Reasons for Hope.

The timing of the release is useful given the acrimony that has characterised SA’s race debate this year. The violence on some university campuses last week is a reminder of how important it is for South Africans across the colour line to gain an understanding of one another. They need to know what each group actually thinks and base their perceptions of the future on fact rather than damaging conjecture.

These are some of those facts.

We asked if race relations had improved since 1994. In total, 76% of respondents thought race relations had either improved or stayed the same, while only 15% thought they had worsened. Hence, the impression created in the media and on social media — that race relations have worsened sharply — does not square with the views of South Africans themselves.

Whether racial targets should be used in appointing people to jobs often generates a sense of racial antagonism. The charge is made that black people want to rely on racial targets and lack sufficient regard for merit. Conversely, the charge is levelled that white people have no appreciation of the need for empowerment measures to help redress apartheid wrongs.

We asked whether South African sports teams should be selected only on merit and ability and not on racial quotas. The responses showed 77% of South Africans support purely merit-based selections without reference to racial quotas; 74% of black South Africans and 84% of white South Africans endorsed this view.

Look at the results and you will see that opinions on this topic are split, but they are split within racial groups almost as much as between them. Just over a quarter of black people — but also 16% of white people — support quotas.

This was the result time and again in the study and is an important nuance that gets lost when public debate seeks to pit whites against blacks and vice versa.

What people want for their children is deeply personal and is, therefore, a very good basis to test their real beliefs about race relations. We asked parents whether they would support their children being taught by a school teacher of another race. An encouraging 91% of South Africans said it did not matter what race their children’s teachers were. For black people, the figure was 92%, for coloured people 91%, for Asian people 99% and for white people 81%.

Admittedly, this means the race of a teacher matters to two in 10 white South African parents (and one in 10 black people). But that it does not matter to the other eight or nine out of 10 people is significant, and South Africans must decide whether they want to define race relations in terms of what the one-fifth minority feels or what the four-fifths majority wants.

Much of what has gone wrong in the race debate this year is that activists are taking the racist views of a small minority of individuals and projecting them as the pervasive views of entire racial groups. Some comments posted on social media suggest black people hate white people and want to drive them out of the country or relegate them to the status of second-class citizens.

Our survey asked South Africans if this was really how they felt. Roughly a third of black people agreed that "white people must take second place", which is not an insignificant percentage.

However, as in the case of the 20% of whites who prefer white teachers for their children, the minority perspective is less important than the clear majority position that despite our history and current inequalities, the majority of black people believe whites deserve an equal place in SA.

We also wanted to know what South Africans think needs to be done to promote sound race relations. In total, 82% of South Africans agreed that better education and more jobs are the way to make differences between race groups disappear.

Lastly, we wanted to know whether South Africans understand and value their mutual interdependence. The study found that 85% of all South Africans agree that different races need each other and there should be full opportunity for people of all races. Only 6% of black people, 5% of coloured people, 3% of Asian people and 5% of white people disagreed.

Race relations are not perfect, but seen in their totality, the results of this study are emphatic that the quiet majority of South Africans respect one another and want to work together to build a better country. They also agree, largely, that "full opportunities" are needed for everyone, backed by good education and much more employment in a rapidly growing economy.

That race relations remain generally sound is, of course, not a reason for complacency. In 2001, when the institute last conducted a similar survey, we also found that race relations had generally improved since 1994 and that black and white South Africans were well aware that they needed each other to make progress.

We also warned, however, that politicians and racial nationalist activists might seek to foment racial divisions for political or ideological gain. Moreover, the more the economy faltered and unemployment grew, the easier this would be to achieve. As we have already seen this year, even small activist groups can use those persistent inequalities to inflame tensions. Unchecked conduct of this kind may, in time, turn warnings of rising racial animosities into self-fulfilling prophecies.

This is no way to build a nation. Fortunately, the damaging rhetoric does not reflect what ordinary people think and that, of course, is what really counts.

These survey results give the country reasons for hope. People with vested interests in deepening racial divisions may denigrate or disregard them.

They, nevertheless, provide good reason to halt the cycle of racial recrimination and instead unite South Africans behind effective policies to grow the economy and expand opportunity for all.

Cronjé heads the Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. The Hope report is available at Institute of Race Relations