Sunday, March 30, 2008

Prejudiced and proud of it

A few weeks back, I wrote an article that highlighted some of the findings of the ‘Human Beliefs and Values Survey Northern Ireland’. According to this survey, Northern Ireland was found to have the highest proportion of bigoted people in the western world. Following the recent release of the South African edition of the ‘World Values Survey’, it seems that South Africans are as bad as their northern counterparts.

On the positive side, the survey found that over 95% of South Africans of all races are now proud of their country. But the survey also found high levels of intolerance. Although racism, which remains a problem, could be expected to be high, given the history of South Africa, the findings about other groups, such as homosexuals and those who are HIV positive, were also alarming.

Gay neighbours were seen as unacceptable by 48% of black South African respondents, 39% of Indian respondents, 37% of coloured respondents and 26% of white respondents. Having a neighbour suffering from Aids was considered problematic by 21% of Indians, 13% of whites, 9% of coloureds and 6% of blacks.

In the Human Beliefs and Values Survey, nearly 36% of people from Northern Ireland said they would not like a homosexual living next door. Across Europe, about 20% of people had this view. So South Africans, when it comes to the minority groups mentioned above, are equally intolerant, if not slightly more intolerant than the people of Northern Ireland.

Clearly, therefore, the people of Northern Ireland and South Africa share some problems. At the risk of conflating the experiences of two very different societies, this leaves one asking: Is a consequence of political conflict a legacy of intolerance and a lack of respect for other people’s human rights? And does this generally extend beyond groups to which you differ politically to other groups?

Both societies, for example, suffer from fairly high levels of xenophobia against new immigrants. This could be a result of an increase in the number of people coming into the societies after peace. However, the rise in violence against foreigners in both societies generally outstrips the proportional increase in new arrivals, suggesting a more sinister conclusion. It would seem logical, if not disturbing, that, if a society has for several decades used violence and exclusion as a way of dealing with problems, some residue of this will remain after peace.

There are many different theories about why minority groups are targeted in this situation. One argument is that aggression is a common feature of social and political conflict, a survival mechanism and a means to achieving power. In postconflict societies, when power relations are rewritten, a displacement of aggression takes place because old channels are no longer there. New avenues for reasserting power are found. The victims of this violence are those with seemingly less power in the new dispensation, such as foreigners and gays, not to mention women.

This means society has to protect the rights of minority groups vigorously. Minority groups have to have not only equal rights, which they largely do in South Africa and Northern Ireland, at least on paper, but also access to social, political and economic power. Put simply, minority groups are bullied because they can be. They are the weak kid on the playground, which is generally exacerbated by their social and economic position.

So, although some of you reading this might not like my saying this, minority groups, essentially, need a more proportional and equitable share of the economic pie. This confronts the fear that foreigners are taking local jobs head-on and pushes the situation to the extreme. But, if we truly believe in equality and a free and fair society, then access to jobs and opportunities should not be constrained by borders, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. Sadly, I suspect this is still the case.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, September 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 21 September 2007.