Last April, South Africa celebrated the 20th anniversary of its first democratic elections, which brought to power the African National Congress (ANC) and its leader, Nelson Mandela, who had led the antiapartheid movement for decades. Many had long believed that civil war was the only way that the apartheid state would fall, and South Africa’s mostly peaceful transition from a racist authoritarian state to a multiracial democracy stands as one of the most surprising political developments of the twentieth century. The shift has not been without its problems, but few would contest South Africa’s credentials as a democracy—perhaps the most democratic state in Africa.

Still, democracy is no guarantor of stability or prosperity. And for all its political progress, South Africa faces a daunting array of social and economic challenges, many rooted in inequalities that neither democratization nor economic growth has managed to reduce. Around 47 percent of South Africans live in poverty, a proportion that is actually slightly higher than it was in 1994. The unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent. South Africa’s Gini coefficient—a measure of economic inequality in which zero represents absolute equality and one represents absolute inequality—is 0.63, making 
it one of the most unequal countries 
in the world. And the country continues to struggle with high levels of violent crime.

This article appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs. Check back next week for the full issue.

Even in a more homogeneous country without a very recent history of racial oppression, such factors would create significant pressure on democratic governance. Heterogeneous countries such as South Africa face a tougher road in building a democratic state, since racial and ethnic diversity can make it harder to foster social cohesion. And South Africa is extremely heterogeneous: the country has 11 official languages and four major racial groups, each of which contains ethnic and linguistic subgroups.

The future of South Africa’s multiracial democracy depends heavily on minimizing animosity and hostility among these groups. Lurking behind the country’s pressing day-to-day problems is a basic question: Can South Africans of different races continue to get along?

It’s impossible to forecast a specific trajectory for South African race relations with much certainty. It is, however, possible to get some sense of the present state of affairs and to speculate on the future direction of relations thanks to the South African Reconciliation Barometer, a unique and rigorous annual survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), a nongovernmental organization based in Cape Town. By taking a close look at data from the most recent survey, which was conducted in 2013, it’s possible to arrive at some cautiously optimistic conclusions.

Considerable racial prejudice persists in the country, which has made it more difficult to form truly multiracial political coalitions. At the same time, however, race relations seem to be improving in the eyes of the South African people. Interracial contact, although still relatively rare, is becoming more frequent, and at least for white South Africans, greater contact with members of other groups seems to reduce racial prejudice. And with the emergence of a sizable black middle class, economic issues that cut across racial lines have become more central: in some instances, class is beginning to challenge race as the primary prism through which South Africans view politics. South Africa is hardly a “rainbow nation,” the term that the antiapartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined in 1994 to describe his vision of a postapartheid society that would embrace and celebrate its own diversity. But the country is on a path to becoming a society that would have been virtually unimaginable 20 years ago.


It is common in South Africa to divide the population into four racial categories. The largest group by far, representing close to 80 percent of the population, is made up of the descendants of the original inhabitants of the area—the Africans whom European colonists referred to by different names over time, including “native,” “Bantu,” and “black.” The black population is not homogeneous; it contains a number of ethnic and linguistic subgroups, such as the Xhosas, the Zulus, and the Tswanas. Apartheid eliminated such distinctions by grouping all blacks together and, in essence, expelling them from South Africa, forcing them to live in so-called Bantustans, deprived of all meaningful political and civil rights and yet subject to the repression of state security forces.

The second group, representing around nine percent of the population, is composed of the descendants of the Dutch, English, French, German, Jewish, and other European settlers who began to colonize the area in the early nineteenth century. These whites are also divided by language and by a long history of hostility and warfare, with the primary division being between Afrikaans speakers and English speakers. Under apartheid, however, no distinctions were made among whites: all enjoyed the rights and privileges of belonging to the favored racial group.

A third group, of about the same size as the white minority, is referred to as “Coloured,” a term that applies to an extremely diverse group of people whose mixed heritage attests to decades of intimate contact among three different peoples: Europeans, certain groups of black Africans, and slaves brought to the area by European colonists from Madagascar and Southeast Asia, especially the Indonesian archipelago. Coloured people primarily speak Afrikaans, although many also speak English. Under apartheid, Coloured people were considered second-class citizens yet were spared the worst of the system’s deprivations and were afforded some political rights: constitutional reforms in 1983 created a separate chamber in the South African Parliament for Coloured people.

Finally, around three percent of South Africans are considered “Indian,” or “Asian,” and they descend mostly from indentured laborers brought by Europeans to work in sugar plantations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since their forebears came from different regions of the Indian subcontinent, adhered to different religions, and spoke different languages, Asian South Africans are a diverse group. Their treatment under apartheid was similar to that of Coloureds: they enjoyed some formal political standing—they, too, were afforded a separate chamber of Parliament in 1983—but lacked equal rights.


Accurately capturing the opinions of such a diverse population, especially on a topic as fraught as race, presents monumental challenges to researchers. But every year since 2003, the IJR has assembled a large and representative sample and employed an expert team of pollsters to produce a wealth of information about how South Africa’s different groups view one another and how they understand the lingering effects of apartheid.

The IJR’s Reconciliation Barometer survey produces one of its most revealing responses by asking respondents whether they “could never imagine being part of a political party made up mainly” of members of a racial group other than their own. In the 2013 survey, a plurality of South Africans agreed with this statement: 35 percent said that they could never imagine joining such a party. Thirty-two percent disagreed, and 33 percent were undecided or uncertain. The four racial groups had significantly different responses to this question. For instance, only 20 percent of white respondents said that they could never imagine joining such a party; slightly more Coloured people (25 percent) and Asian people (23 percent) said the same thing. But the number was far higher for blacks: nearly 40 percent. (Owing to different methods of calculating and interpreting data, the figures cited in this article differ slightly from the ones presented in the IJR’s most recent reports on the Reconciliation Barometer.)

The fact that only about one-third of South Africans can even imagine being part of a party whose members hail mostly from another racial group reflects a genuine weakness in the fabric of South African democracy. That the black majority seems particularly unwilling to consider a multiracial political coalition is worrisome. Political scientists typically argue that a transition to democracy can be considered complete only when political power changes hands between competing parties. Democracy cannot flourish in South Africa if elections are little more than racial censuses, with blacks supporting the ANC and whites, Coloureds, and Asians supporting any party but the ANC—which is precisely the situation that exists today.


It is possible to interpret the responses to the survey’s question about political parties as evidence that black South Africans harbor more prejudice than other South Africans—and other survey findings support that view. In addition to the question about political parties, pollsters asked respondents two other questions designed to detect prejudicial feelings: whether respondents found it “difficult to understand the customs and ways” of other groups and whether they believed that members of other groups were “untrustworthy.” On average, black respondents endorsed 1.2 of the three prejudicial statements; whites, Coloured people, and those of Asian origin endorsed only 0.7, 0.6, and 
0.8, respectively.

Intergroup prejudice is not the exclusive problem of black people in South Africa, but as a group, they express considerably more prejudice against their fellow South Africans than do the members of the minority races. No doubt this is a legacy of apartheid. It is important to recognize that apartheid was a well-articulated ideology, grounded in politics and sanctioned by religion, that asserted the superiority of one group and the inferiority of others. Most whites now reject that ideology, but it is hardly surprising that many blacks put less than full faith in the idea that their former oppressors have simply moved on from decades of racist orthodoxy.

And yet the IJR data do reveal a good deal of progress in the racial views of whites, Coloured people, and those of Asian origin. Members of these groups seem genuinely unwilling to endorse negative stereotypes of blacks: although some whites, for example, said they believed that some blacks were not trustworthy, they recoiled at applying that description to all blacks.


Reducing the levels of prejudice among all South Africans should be a priority for policymakers and civil society organizations. The trick is figuring out how to do so. Among experts on race relations, there has long been debate about the so-called contact hypothesis: the idea that increased contact with members of a different racial or ethnic group reduces the prejudice a person feels toward that group. As with many social science concepts, it is difficult to test this hypothesis because it can be hard to distinguish cause from effect: perhaps increased contact reduces prejudice, but it might be just as reasonable to suppose that less prejudiced individuals are simply more likely to seek out contact with people of other races and ethnicities.

Of course, there are many kinds of contact, and most research indicates that merely talking to members of another group does little to reduce a person’s prejudicial feelings but that spending time at home with them can have a more significant effect. The Reconciliation Barometer explores both kinds of contact, asking respondents about how often they talk to people from other races and how often they socialize with them at home.

The 2013 survey showed that disturbingly little intergroup interaction takes place in South Africa. Forty-two percent of the respondents reported rarely or never talking to people from other racial groups, and 55 percent said that they rarely or never socialized outside their own group. By any standard, this is a considerable amount of racial isolation. Of the four groups, black South Africans were by far the least likely to report talking to people from other groups: nearly half almost never did so. For whites, that figure was 13 percent; it was 29 percent for Coloured people and 17 percent for those of Asian origin. At the opposite end of the continuum, almost 70 percent of whites reported talking often to those of other races, compared with barely more than 25 percent of blacks.

Tellingly, however, these differences mostly vanish when it comes to socializing. Sixty percent of blacks reported never socializing with other groups. For whites, the figure was smaller, but not dramatically so: 45 percent. In other words, although more than two-thirds of white South Africans often talk to people of other races, fewer than half ever socialize with nonwhites. One possible explanation for this gap is the fact that interracial conversation often takes the form of whites talking to nonwhite employees, subordinates, or service providers. Indeed, perhaps nearly all conclusions that researchers draw about race in contemporary South Africa must be tempered by the fact that race and social class are still closely (but not completely) interconnected. Put more bluntly, it is not exactly common for black South Africans to employ white housekeepers.

Of course, measures of interracial interactions cannot correct for the fact that many South Africans simply have no opportunity to talk to or socialize with members of other races, owing to the intense segregation that remains one of apartheid’s most visible legacies. For instance, certain rural areas of South Africa are virtually all black. The Reconciliation Barometer tries 
to get around this obstacle by asking whether respondents would want to talk more to people of the other races if they were given the opportunity. Here, too, there were significant differences among the four racial groups. Most notably, whites professed the highest levels of satisfaction with the amount of contact they presently had, whereas nearly 25 percent of blacks said that they would actually prefer to talk less often to those of the other races—the highest percentage of any of the groups and more than double the percentage of whites.

These findings seem to challenge the contact hypothesis, or at least its applicability to all groups. And indeed, by looking closely at the Reconciliation Barometer data, it appears that increased contact would not necessarily help reduce the overall amount of prejudice that South Africans harbor. Whites and Coloured South Africans who have more contact with people of others races are considerably less prejudiced. Among black and Asian South Africans, however, not only does contact with members of other groups not reduce prejudice; it actually seems to increase it. It is possible that blacks and Asians experience such contact as negative and that their interactions with other groups reinforce stereotypes rather than dispel them. Unfortunately, the IJR data do not offer any evidence for why that may 
be the case.


At first glance, the data on contact and prejudice might seem to paint a rather grim portrait of the state of contemporary race relations in South Africa. But it is crucial to place that information in context by considering how South Africans themselves view the way things have changed since apartheid in the country at large, beyond their own lives and immediate surroundings.

In the 2013 Reconciliation Barometer, researchers asked respondents about the country’s progress since 1994 in eight areas, including race relations. (People not living in South Africa in 1994 and those too young to remember that era were asked to compare the present to what they had heard about the past.) Among all South Africans, 45 percent judged that race relations had either “improved” or “improved a great deal.” About one-third said that race relations had “stayed the same,” and only 18 percent said that race relations had “worsened” or “worsened a great deal.” Indeed, according to the survey, South Africans generally believe that since 1994, race relations have improved more than the country’s moral values, family life, and levels of socioeconomic inequality and more than their own individual hopes for the future, employment opportunities, and personal safety. And although there were differences between the races on the question of whether relations had improved (and how much), they were not particularly large: 47 percent of blacks, 41 percent of whites, 37 percent of Coloured people, and 37 percent of Asians agreed that relations had improved. The fact that blacks were the most likely to believe this seems significant, considering the finding that blacks remain relatively more prejudiced against other groups.


South Africa will never be free of interracial animosities. In every multiracial country in the world, racial prejudice exists and people too often rely on stereotypes to understand members of other groups. But in a democracy, citizens do not necessarily have to like one another; they must only be willing to tolerate one another.

Still, democracy works best when political factions form on the basis of interests rather than identities. The ANC benefits from the intense allegiance of the black majority—a sentiment that is understandable given the party’s indispensable role in resisting apartheid and ushering in democracy. But political scientists question whether enduring loyalty to a political party, rather than satisfaction with its policies, contributes to the pluralism so essential to democracy. For South Africa to tackle its most pressing problems—high unemployment, economic inequality, enduring poverty, corruption, crime—it will require coalition building across racial lines: a feat that will be difficult if racial animus remains as widespread as it appears to be today.

There are, however, some reasons for optimism. As the Reconciliation Barometer has shown, most South Africans believe that race relations in the country are gradually improving. And at the very least, whites seem to harbor less racial prejudice than they did in the immediate aftermath of 
the apartheid era, even though that change is apparently not always visible to blacks.

Perhaps more promising, though, are the potentially beneficial effects of the class distinctions that have grown more pronounced in the past two decades. As the country witnesses the steady and impressive growth of a black middle class, economic interests are beginning to cut across racial divisions. Black South Africans are coming to see that whites are not always their enemies and that other blacks are not always their friends. For example, blacks have expressed as much outrage at high-level corruption as whites, even when those accused of corrupt acts are themselves black.

South Africa has not yet reached the point where class challenges race as the most salient political dividing line, but many of the necessary ingredients are there. Of course, class divisions can themselves become corrosive and can sap a country’s democratic strength. But for South Africa, a shift from race politics to class politics would represent a form of progress. When political positions cut across racial lines rather than reinforce them, political tolerance will become more likely, meaningful political and social interactions will become more frequent, and associations based on common political interests will emerge. All those developments would undoubtedly aid the consolidation of democratic change in South Africa.

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  • JAMES L. GIBSON is Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government at Washington University in St. Louis and a Fellow at the Centre for International and Comparative Politics and Professor Extraordinary in Political Science at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa.
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