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Study: Race Tension Growing in South Africa

A new study says racial tension is growing in South Africa. The report identifies economic and political uncertainty as the cause. It is the first drop that researchers have seen in the level of optimism about South Africa's future in five years.

South Africa is one of the wealthiest and most racially diverse countries on the African continent. There are millions of white, Indian, and mixed-race residents who live beside the black majority population. But if you ask people on the street if they expect a better life for all, the answer is often no.

"The economic situation seems to be stable, but that is a veneer. And things are going to get worse," said one man.

A woman commented that "I think it is getting worse because we are still poor and there is no changes at all that I am seeing," while another man said, "Yeah, most of the black people are still unemployed and uneducated."

"Everything that is happening with politics and everything, I do not think that it is going very well at the moment," noted a second woman.

Researchers Cite Decline in Optimism

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation has been monitoring opinions like these to gauge if South Africa's multi-racial democracy is working. For the first time in five years, the institute's director, Fanie du Toit, is reporting a decline in public optimism.

"There has been a noticeable drop in the trust that South Africa faces a harmonious future for all race groups," said du Toit. "They are less hopeful, almost 20 percent so, than compared to the same period last year."

Du Toit says only 65 percent of blacks are optimistic about the future, 51 percent of Indians and mixed-race residents are optimistic, and 47 percent of whites are optimistic.

His survey is called the "Reconciliation Barometer." It is released every December to mark the anniversary of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That is the panel that investigated abuses committed during apartheid and granted amnesty to those who confessed.

Du Toit says the process of reconciliation is far from over, so the drop in racial optimism is alarming.

"South Africans like to think of themselves as a reconciled nation. We like to see that as a major achievement of ours," du Toit said. "It does contribute high levels of interracial trust and a feeling of well being to our national morale, if you like. That process has taken a step back."

Economic Slowdown Threatens Racial Harmony

The researchers say the biggest cause of the decline is the slow pace of economic and social transformation. Many South Africans are still waiting for the houses, hospitals, schools and jobs promised to them when apartheid ended 14 years ago.

The recent global slowdown is making things worse. Du Toit says a decade of economic growth fostered racial tolerance, but the current slump threatens to erase those gains.

"Insecurity tends to harden social divisions in a society. When people feel insecure in a divided society they go back into what is more secure, what they perceive to be more secure: the same, not the other," said du Toit.

Study Reveals Disillusionment with Democratic Institutions

The Reconciliation Barometer also reveals that many South Africans are disillusioned about the ability of government to solve the country's problems. Du Toit says the split in the ruling African National Congress has created an impression that politicians are using their powers to help themselves instead of the public.

"We have seen a drop in trust in democratic institutions across the board. And so if these institutions who police our togetherness, who police our reconciliation project, are seen as untrustworthy, then the reconciliation project falters," noted du Toit. "And so if we do not trust the state, we do not trust each another."

Du Toit worries the situation could worsen as the global slowdown deepens and political rhetoric heats up during next year's elections. He cautions politicians to avoid hate speech that could have long-lasting consequences for South Africa's dream of becoming a rainbow nation tolerant of all races.