In an important and very honest and frank address on Thursday last week 25 May as reported by EyeWitness News ‘SA Race Relations Need to be Strengthened’ President Cyril Ramaphosa informed a meeting of the South African National Editors’ Forum that ‘the ruling party has done itself a disservice with its weakened stance on its non-racial character, adding that race relations need to be strengthened’.  He stated further that the African National Congress (ANC) has decided to invigorate its non-racial character to ensure it is seen as a home for all the people of South Africa. In developing the theme of his address he declared that that this meant that ‘we want to promote a country where all races feel at home in South Africa’. For this to occur he emphasised that it was necessary for all races to ‘feel that they have a role to play in building and developing’ improved race relations. 

In regard to the cardinally important subject of race relations the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), founded in 1929, which has an international reputation for its accurate and scientific analysis of politics, the economy and socio-economic issues in South Africa, released a comprehensive survey of socio-economic trends and political perceptions in a report entitled ‘Life in South Africa: Reasons for Hope’. This survey spans the period between 1985 to 2016.

In relation to race relations, the survey states that the views of the overwhelming majority of people are very different from the vitriol so often evident in the debate this year. Far from being hostile towards one another, most South Africans, black and white, occupy a pragmatic middle ground on race relations. White South African understand and support the need for redress. Black South Africans do not believe that their white compatriots should be treated as second class citizens. The overwhelming majority of both groups believe that they need each other for progress to be made. 

It is submitted that in the last two years and even before that there were indications of an unfortunate deteriorating tendency in regard to race relations. This was the issue that President Ramaphosa was boldly addressing in his address to the Editor’s Forum. The President is undoubtedly correct in making this assertion. It requires us as a nation to honestly take seriously take remedial action. It is however necessary to approach this sensitive but very important issue in a circumspect and dispassionate manner and it is further submitted that the present time with the advent of the new Ramaphosa administration is an opportune time for careful self-reflection on the subject of race relations.

It should not be over influenced by certain very unfortunate and sensationalised incidents of individuals such that relating to Penny Sparrow and Vicki Momberg and their racist and profoundly hurtful comments concerning African people. 

South Africa needs an intelligent, honest and informed discourse on relations and non-racialism. Furthermore it should also not be dominated by political parties or organisations on the extreme left and extreme right of the political spectrum, such as those of Julius Malema and Kallie Kriel of the EFF and Afri-Forum who respectively in political statements respectively ‘invoked his own authority to call his devotees not to slaughter the white yet’ and that ‘Apartheid was not a crime against humanity’. This last mentioned viewpoint is in manifest conflict with the United Nations resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council, to this effect in 1966 and 1974 as well as the Rome Statute of 2002. These extremist views do not give us an accurate picture of the present state of race relations.

Although it is submitted that the viewpoint of the SAIRR referred to above is a useful starting point, the issue is far more complex and nuanced. The subject demands a concerted effort by individuals, faith based and other groups, civil society and the political parties and in particular, the governing ANC to analyse and discourse on it in a penetrating and serious manner in order to meaningfully improve both race relations and a commitment to enhance non-racism. 

The issue of race relations cannot be divorced from the other pressing problems facing the country such as the vast unequal distribution of wealth and resources in terms of which most in the middle-class  community are economically affluent, whereas more than 20 million African people still live in abject poverty, 24 years after the advent of our democratic dispensation. This needs to change drastically in order to bring about social and economic justice which must inevitably result in an improvement in race relations.

Nor can the problem be divorced from the rampant corruption and state capture of the Zuma administration of the last 10 years. It is however easy to play the blame game with opposing political groups vociferously inculpating one another. We however need a far more intelligent and honest discourse to make progress. Fortunately President Ramaphosa has been exemplary in this regard in making the bold and penetrating comments to the Editors Forum, referred to above.

The economically and resource privileged middle class community, whites, Africans, Indians and other persons of colour  have a fundamentally important role to play in this regard in positively contributing to sound race relations.  It is easy for affluent people to complain and grumble about the incompetent and corrupt nature of government and service delivery. If they do this and only this, they become part of the problem. If rather than merely grumbling they actually become involved in uplifting those who are economically challenged in all communities, they will then contribute to the resolution of our inordinate socio-economic problems of poverty and unemployment. In so doing they need to act in partnership with government and thereby make a meaningful difference through faith based organisations and those of civil society to significantly improve race relations in South Africa.

South Africa is required by its Constitution to be a non-racial constitutional democracy requiring that all its citizens be treated with both equality and dignity. Any policy aimed at undermining non-racism must be exposed for what it actually is, as unequivocal violation of the foundational principles of our highly esteemed Constitution. 

The legendary famous Freedom Charter declared that “The rights of the people shall be the same regardless of race, colour or sex.” The Charter also stated that “The country belongs to all who live in it, both black and white.”  Furthermore, as indicated, section 1 of the Constitution declares that it is based on the values of inter alia: “non-racialism and non-sexism.” This mandate is also further developed in section 9. Non-racism runs like a golden thread that is woven into the warp and woof of our Constitution.

Lastly in this regard non-racism is incompatible with cadre deployment, which occurs when persons, who are card carrying members of a political party, particularly, the ANC, are appointed to positions in the public service, regardless of their competence. This was held to be the legal and constitutional position in a seminal case in an Eastern Cape High Court judgment in Mlokoti v Amatole District Municipality of 2008.

Unqualified cadre deployment in general must be exposed for what it actually is, namely unfair discrimination. It is conceded that in a limited number of very senior posts in the civil service, as occurs in other democracies, such as in Washington and Westminster, where a particular position may justify the appointment of a person whose views are aligned to the governing administration, it is justified. It is, however, very much the exception to the general rule.

The manner in which it is practiced in South Africa today, is the very antithesis of non-racism to which Ramaphosa wants the ANC to return to. In this regard Ramaphosa is acting as a statesman of calibre. For this he should be lauded and supported in his quest to improve race relations both in the ANC and as a consequence within South Africa. It is a most demanding and honorable challenge. It requires courageous and inspired leadership and will not necessarily be popular with many within the governing party.


George Devenish is an emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993

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