According to South Africans, what [still] divides us?

By Published On: 12th December 2017

Since SARB’s inception in 2003, most South Africans have indicated their preference for a united South African nation. In addition, optimism about the potential for a more unified society follows a similar trend to the desirability of greater unity. However, the IJR’s most recent South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) survey – conducted during June-July 2017 – show that only 56,1% of South Africans agree that South Africa has made progress in reconciliation since the end of apartheid. And less than half of South Africans report that their friends and family have experienced reconciliation after the end of apartheid (read more here). If it is that South Africans desire unity and believe it is possible – what is it that still divides citizens in the country?

To assess this, the SARB asks respondents to provide their views on what they consider to be the primary source of the social division in the country.  Inequality ranks as the greatest source of social division in the country since the inception of the SARB – the only exceptions being in 2004 and 2010 when “Political Parties” were identified as the biggest source of division (see figure 1 below). This is arguably due to the salience of political parties and electoral politics for these two years, with national elections in 2004 and local elections in 2010. Importantly, and despite some prevailing sentiment in public discourse, “Race” was mostly ranked second or third as a source of social division in the country.

Figure 1: Primary Source of Division, SARB 2003-20171

The salience of race and class as the most divisive aspects of South African society in 2017 offers many challenges – as both of these identities form part of broader historical and contemporary societal challenges. Inequalities show within and between race groups when assessed with economic measures and in terms of relative standing (as per the 2017 SARB’s data). In the long term, such divisions also offer fertile ground for manipulation by political entrepreneurs, who use it to detract from their own misconduct. Reconciliation, therefore, also has an important governance imperative. A divided society, with unequal power relations (and perceptions of such) is much less likely to unite in keeping leadership and institutions accountable.

Given the country’s history, the SARB Survey findings on inequality, race and political parties are hardly surprising. Structural legacies from colonial and apartheid rule, such as the economic and political marginalisation are particular to the South African context.  Debates on language, place, and identity; cooperation between historically distinctive groups in their competition for resources, land and ownership; and the role of political governance and developmental agendas are, however, amongst the shared structural legacies that post-independence and post-conflict societies in the Global South2<s/up>  frequently share (King et al, 2010). Reconciliation in South Africa’s current and historical context thus requires a nuanced approach to overcoming and preventing social division. The involvement of all South Africans and institutions in this regard is imperative. In this regard, the SARB offers further insights, on which is elaborated more in 2017 SARB report (available here from 12 December 2017).

Elnari Potgieter is the Project leader for the SARB at the IJR.


King, E., Samii, C. and Snilstveit, B.  2010.  Interventions to Promote Social Cohesion in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Journal of Development Effectiveness, 2(3):336–370.

Image credit: Image of South African flag. Photo:



[1] The Global South, as used here, refers broadly to the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. As Dados and Connel (2010:12) highlight, it forms part “a family of terms, including ‘Third World’ and ‘Periphery,’ that denote regions outside Europe and North America, mostly (though not all) low-income and often politically or culturally marginalized.” The concept’s focus is on the shared “interconnected histories of colonialism, neo-imperialism, and differential economic and social change through which large inequalities in living standards, life expectancy, and access to resources are maintained” in these contexts.

[2] Only first mentions used for this graph. Only the top five indicated on the graph. From 2003-2013 “Religion” was an option as a source of division. This was included as part of the data analysis for the relevant years. “Other” and “None” an option for certain years, which were also included in the data analysis. DK/Refused included in data analysis.

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