Black, white – or South African?

With four broad racial groupings, 11 official languages and a huge gap between rich and poor, South Africa has one of the most diverse populations in the world. Yet new research shows that the majority of the country’s people see themselves as “South Africans”, not as members of a specific racial or ethnic group.

South Africans
South Africa is one of the most diverse countries in the world. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Brand South Africa reporter

There’s much variety in the people of South Africa – one of the most diverse countries in the world – with four broad racial groupings (including three minorities), 11 official languages, a huge gap between rich and poor, and growing communities of migrants and immigrants.

Yet since the end of apartheid there has been a growing sense of nationhood in this race-conscious country, with most of all these different people seeing themselves as primarily South African – not as members of a specific racial or ethnic group.

This is according to A Nation in the Making: A Discussion Document on Macro Social Trends in South Africa, a major new report released this week by the Presidency’s Policy Coordination and Advisory Services.

According to a 2004 FutureFact study cited in the report, a whopping 71% of South Africans of all races define their primary identity – that is, the group to which they belong “first and foremost” – as African or South African.

FutureFact’s data across the years reveals a strong move away from ethnicity towards nationhood. In 2000, 44% of South Africans defined themselves according to their race, ethnic group or language. By September 2001 this had declined to only 22%, with 12% race and 10% ethnicity. The most recent survey puts the figure at 18% – a mere 4% in terms of race alone.

According to the 2004 survey, more than half the population (53%) see themselves as primarily South African. A further 18% of the country’s people – of all races – identify with the continent as a whole, describing themselves as “African”.

“Overall, the data points to increasing levels of social cohesion, in terms of unity, coherence, functionality and pride among South Africans,” the report says.

“However, this is drawn back by the legacy of inequality, intense migratory trends, crime related to social conditions and vestiges of racism.”

Beyond crude racial classification

Black South Africans’ sense of identity varies most, reflecting a diversity that belies crude racial classification. Making up 79% of the country’s population, 44% of black people define themselves as South African, the lowest proportion among all groups. Twenty-three percent see themselves as African, 18% identify with an ethnic or linguistic group – down from 23% in 1999 – and only 3% classify themselves according to race.

With 82% defining themselves as “South African”, whites identify with the country the most, followed by coloureds and Indians. Five percent of whites consider themselves to be Africans, while 4% identify themselves according to race and 2% according to language or ethnicity.

The vast majority (78%) of coloured South Africans also identify with the country, with a further 12% defining themselves racially, 1% in terms of language or ethnicity, and 4% as African. While most Indians and Asians also identify strongly with South Africa (70%), and 4% with Africa, this group has the highest ratio (18%) of those with a racial self-definition, and the lowest (0%) for language or ethnicity.

The data also shows that, since the end of apartheid, economic status has dramatically taken hold of South Africans’ sense of self. In 1994, the year of the first democratic elections, only 3% of the country’s people used class or occupational descriptions as their primary self-definition. In 2000 this had risen to 14%, reaching a remarkable 37% by the time of the 2004 survey – a 12-fold increase in 10 years.

Race relations

A Nation in the Making also points to promising improvements in race relations. It cites a recently released study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2003, which finds that 57% of South Africans believe race relations have improved since the end of apartheid, while 29% think they have remained the same and only 14% believe they have deteriorated.

This is a huge gain on a 1999 study, which found that only 42.1% of South Africans believed race relations had improved, while 32.8% said they had stayed the same and 14.9% saw a deterioration.

In the 2003 survey, coloureds (61%), followed by Africans (59%), Indians (58%) and whites (42%) reported improved race relations.

The report says those who see an improvement in the relationship between races understand it to be a result of, in this order, the church, sporting events, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Constitution, affirmative action and employment equity legislation.

“These choices may have been influenced by high-profile events during specific periods,” the report says, “but they do point to important policy implications about partnerships, sport as a unifier and the church as the place for truth, penance and forgiveness in creating a sense of closure.”

Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.