IJR Publishes Historic 20-Year Findings On South African Reconciliation

By Published On: 14th December 2023

As South Africa prepares to commemorate the National Day of Reconciliation on the 16th of December – as well as the hard-won Rugby World Cup holiday – the IJR proudly announces the release of the 2023 South African Reconciliation Barometer survey.

Origins of the Barometer

The Barometer was first conducted in 2003 and is among the longest-running IJR interventions, designed to measure public opinion in the years following South Africa’s transition to democracy and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process.

Now in its 20th year, the Barometer has become a critical resource for civil society organisations, government, academics and researchers locally and worldwide. It has also inspired numerous other reconciliation barometers in a host of other post-conflict societies, and the IJR has partnered in developing peer projects in Sri Lanka and Rwanda.

Measuring reconciliation

The Barometer measures reconciliation through six conceptual domains: political culture, inclusion, apartheid legacy, racial reconciliation, social cohesion, and perceptions of change. These have been continually reviewed and validated over the two decades of the project. This year’s survey included over 200 new and legacy questions. The questionnaire was translated from English into six additional languages—Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Setswana, Sepedi and Sesotho.

Data collection was conducted between August and September across all nine provinces of the country, and a total of 2,006 South Africans participated in face-to-face interviews. The nationally-representative sampling methodology means that every adult South African has equal chance of being selected, and results can be used to draw conclusions about the entire population of the country.

Spotlight on elections

This year’s biggest public opinion shifts are evident in the political culture domain.
South Africa has experienced years of declining voter turnout at national and provincial elections – as well as lower numbers of ballots cast for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. The upcoming 2024 polls are set to be highly contested, with a coalition of opposition parties vying for the electoral majority.

Barometer results show that 70% of South Africans say they are likely to vote in 2024. If this translated into action on election day, turnout may exceed the 66% recorded at the 2019 polls. Almost a third (32%) of South Africans answered that they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – up from 20% six years ago in 2017.

This year’s survey also found South Africans to be highly distrusting of others at present – and this is particularly pronounced in attitudes about leadership. Around eight in ten people agree that national leaders are not concerned about what happens to ordinary people (81%) and cannot be trusted to do the right thing (79%).

Confidence in a range of important public institutions has also dropped over successive survey rounds and concern about corruption is widespread. These dramatic findings pose challenges to further progress in reconciliation.

Persistent economic inequality

After almost 30 years of democracy, South Africa remains among the most unequal societies in the world.

Many still live in deep poverty and according to the 2023 Barometer, in the past year one in four (25%) South Africans experienced food insecurity and 44% went without a cash income (several times, many times or always). Survey data also confirms statistically significant differences in poverty, household living conditions and relative financial circumstances between people of different races.

South Africans have consistently identified the gap between rich and poor as the biggest source of division in the country since the first survey round in 2003. Many view the country as fractured, with 49% in 2023 describing South Africa as either somewhat or very divided.

Resilient truths about the past

The recently-released 2022 Census confirmed that so-called “born free” South Africans now outnumber older generations with lived memories of apartheid.

The Barometer found – not unexpectedly – that younger South Africans were less aware of key historical periods and institutions – including colonialism, apartheid and the TRC – than their older counterparts. A dedicated ministerial task team recommended in 2018 that history should become a compulsory high school subject but this has not happened to date.

Yet even with the passing of time, changing national demographics, pervasive distrust and deep dividing lines, the 2023 Barometer also revealed a resilient consensus over the truths about the country’s past. This has remained largely intact since the survey began.

Around eight in ten South Africans South Africans still agree that apartheid was a crime against humanity (79%) and that the state oppressed the majority of people in the country (80%). Comparable percentages agree that the state committed terrible crimes against anti-apartheid activists (82%) and that it is still important to support victims of human rights abuses (81%) that occurred during that time.

Although opinion has fluctuated at times over the two decades of the project, this lasting majority agreement is an important finding and provides a foundation for ongoing policy decisions in areas such as restitution and transformation.

Prospects for unity

The Barometer also continues to find consistently high levels of support for a shared South African identity – and not just in light of the Rugby World Cup victory.

Most people (86%) agree that being South African is an important part of how they see themselves, and this hasn’t been dampened by strong positive associations with other identity groups. A further three-quarters (75%) of South Africans think a united country is desirable and 72% believe this is possible in the future.

Looking to the future

The 2023 Barometer results show that there is still a great deal holding South Africans together and that considerable progress has been made in some aspects of reconciliation.

Maintaining and advancing this progress, however, requires urgent work to create a more inclusive, equitable economy and build trust in government, leadership and one other.

The IJR has begun planning for the next decade of the Reconciliation Barometer, which will involve new research, collaborative partnerships, and the archiving and sharing our historic data on this unique period in South African history.

All previous Barometer data is freely available to the public through our online analysis portal here. The full 2023 survey report is available here. For further information, please contact Kate Lefko-Everett on kleverett@ijr.org.za.

By: Kate Lefko-Everett

The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely that of the author, and not the IJR

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