THERE is a contradiction that runs through the heart of the African National Congress (ANC).

On the one hand, as a party, it needs to keep racial conflict alive. It was forged to rid SA of racism. Without it, the historical cornerstone on which its legitimacy rests would crumble and fall. It would need a new raison d’être — and it has none. This is one explanation for its failure to transition from "revolutionary" movement to formal political party.

On the other hand, as a government, it needs to demonstrate that it has made progress in eradicating racism, for the same reason. An inability to demonstrate such progress would be to admit failure and concede that the revolution has floundered. And so we watch daily as this contradiction plays itself out.

As a political party, we witness a seemingly never-ending tirade of racial abuse from the ANC’s various political platforms, largely aimed at the official opposition, and it is vitriolic and venomous.

The party describes racism as a profound problem.

It recently took to the streets to march against racism. "Racism and related intolerance weaken our fragile social fabric and undermines social cohesion," deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte told the crowd.

The threat racism represents, we are told, has never been more acute, and our delicate society is holding together by a thread.

But, from the government podium, President Jacob Zuma stated, not a week or two earlier and to the consternation and confusion of many, "With time, people have tended to exaggerate the issue of racism. They say SA is still a racist country … (it is) not true."

Now contentious issues around racism and racial identity are embellished and the fundamental edifice is not racist in nature. The state of the nation is strong and stable.

This on-again, off-again attitude plays havoc with the public mind. Amid the uncertainty a new force has grown exponentially powerful — a kind of civic-minded racial populism. It is fascist at its extremes. Movements such as Rhodes Must Fall have taken to burning art, in an imagined war against "whiteness". But it exists primarily in mainstream form on social media, glamorised by commentators who talk in racial generalisations and fuel division, fear and loathing on Twitter and Facebook.

It can be powerfully seductive, all this racial demagoguery. SA is an angry place, inequality and poverty is rife, and racial prejudice still exists today in many subtle and overt forms. This is fertile ground for hysteria and moral panic.

It’s profitable, too. In a country obsessed with identity politics, many have fashioned themselves as psychologists, self-appointed to interpret the national psyche. Crises are good for business. Thus, the social media bubble, kept a float by a virtual factory of racial invective, suggests a universe far more extreme in its problems and divisions than any objective measure.

Much of this is achieved by omission. Any world to the contrary is rarely described. Anything positive is seldom dwelt on. Any progress made only occasionally acknowledged, and then only in passing. Certainly no solutions are ventured and there’s no focus on creating economic prosperity, which is the sole solution to SA’s problems.

Many who harbour this myopic obsession with race are as economically illiterate as they are passionate. Racial tyranny alone is used to define SA today, oppressive and all-encompassing in its depth and breadth. And it’s all evidence-free and anecdotal, often resting upon no more than the personal insecurities of those telling the story, projected onto the nation. It is a profoundly anti-intellectual business.

Step outside the bubble, however, and there is a different universe.

Poll after poll — a far more objective and accurate way of measuring public sentiment — fails to identify racism as a fundamental concern. Unemployment, education, lack of service delivery and corruption are the primary concerns of ordinary South Africans.

As for race relations themselves, last week the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) released the result of a survey (Reasons for Hope), polling a demographically representative sample of about 2,200 South Africans of related attitudes.

Of the respondents, 78.3% are black, 9% coloured, 2.8% Indian and 9.9% white. Its findings cut a stark contrast to our more virtual reality. Only 4% of all those polled feel racism is a seriously unresolved issue. It comes in behind eight other, more pressing concerns. There are the usual suspects, but even the state of South African roads is deemed more important than racism.

A full 76.2% of respondents feel South African race relations have improved (54%) or stayed the same (22.2%). Significantly, 78.5% of respondents say they "experienced no racism in their life" when asked if they have noticed any on a day-to-day basis.

The breakdown by race shows that black respondents (79.4%) claim to notice or experience less racism than white counterparts (75.3%).

In turn, there are strong, nonracial preferences on other key issues, such as affirmative action — 87.1% of respondents agreed with the sentiment that "the best person should be given the job, regardless of race".

Now, these questions and answers are not definitive.

Any improvement in race relations is a relative measure, and 78.5% of people not experiencing racism means 22.5% of South Africans experience some form of racial prejudice, which is telling. Nor do they delve into the issue in any depth.

They do not represent a nonracial utopia. But they do constitute hard evidence in a debate that operates, for the most part, without any. And together, they certainly suggest a different reality to what one might experience on Twitter.

It is an indictment that there are so few of these surveys. If this was the US there would be new polls daily interrogating the many and various issues to define South African society. But they are expensive, which is a big obstacle.

It is equally true that we remain enamoured with discourse in theory and identity politics. With these, subjective experience has become a substitute for other evidence — such as polls — that might offer a different picture.

There is a place for personal experience. It is, in and of itself, a perfectly legitimate contribution to public debate. But such experience has to be weighed against others’ experience before its significance with regard to grander trends, attitudes and behaviours can be fully gauged.

In this way, so much the "analysis" offered by those who slavishly promote identity politics is fraudulent. Not so much my experience of the world, as the world of my experience.

Quite what the ANC makes of such surveys is another matter. Inevitably, it will be used to serve whatever purpose it deems fit: a glowing tribute to its role in government, or the third force agenda of an institution set on misrepresenting the people. Whichever hat fits best on the day. Don’t forget, suspended national police commissioner Riah Phiyega described an earlier SAIRR study on criminality in the police as funded and released "with malicious intent".

Racism and racial identity, whether in politics, government or the virtual universe, serve a great many interests that often run contrary to people’s real-world experience. It is politically and financially profitable for some to keep the idea of a racial crisis bubbling along.

Hard evidence should play a far greater role in South African debate. Surveys such as the SAIRR’s are invaluable. One can always critique the methodology of the research, and opinions will differ over how to interpret the findings, but they force you to look at real responses on a macro scale and, in turn, to think about how and why people say what they do. They are an opportunity to explore and understand, and contrast the order of the day, which seems to be nothing more than predetermining that experience on behalf of everyone else.