Summary of "Overcoming Intolerance in South Africa: Experiments in Democratic Persuasion"

Summary of

Overcoming Intolerance in South Africa: Experiments in Democratic Persuasion

By James L. Gibson and Amanda Gouws

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Gibson, James L. and Amanda Gouws. Overcoming Intolerance in South Africa: Experiments in Democratic Persuasion. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

The central purpose of this book is to examine the political culture in South Africa's newly emerging democracy. This is an important question in evaluating the prospects of democratic consolidation there. In particular, Gibson and Gouws concentrate on political tolerance. Given the multicultural nature of South African society, as much as any other cultural attribute, tolerance of the views of others is important for the survival of a democratic South Africa. The dilemma is that tolerance is often lacking at the transition, a time when it is all the more crucial given the frequently weak political institutions at the time. What is more, "[d]uring a period of political transition, it may be especially difficult to tolerate one's enemies since so many fundamental conflicts over the nature of the regime dominate politics." (26) With this in mind, an overarching theme of the book is identifying ways in which South Africans might be made to 'put up with' their political opponents, to look favorably on open political competition, and ultimately to peacefully co-exist. Unfortunately, their findings are not generally positive.

Theoretically, the study has much to contribute to the literature on political tolerance. Past research has shown that tolerance is often in short supply, even in fully democratic societies. However, past studies have not explored how it develops, how it changes, how it is shaped by context, and what consequences these attitudes have for behavior.

South African history does not provide much optimism for the development of tolerance in contemporary society. Apartheid, in many respects, was predicated on maintaining and bolstering intolerance amongst the various racial groups. Many in the African resistance equally advocated intolerance. As the transition got underway, tolerance remained in short supply as both ANC and IFP members declared 'no-go zones' during campaigning for the 1994 elections.

The basis for their study comes largely from intensive public opinion surveys they conducted in 1996-7. They find that South Africans are generally quite intolerant. Although significant racial differences do exist, large majorities are willing to prevent demonstrations by groups they dislike and to ban them altogether. What is more, South Africans generally feel threatened by the groups they are intolerant towards. There is an examination of whether stronger group identities produce intolerance.

They utilize experimental vignettes to explore South African's attitudes. The first examines South Africans' tolerance of a demonstration by one's political enemies. Overall, few South Africans were willing to allow the demonstration. Amongst their findings are that "[t]he actual context of the dispute has little impact on political tolerance, while the perceived context has a great deal of influence...." (110, emphasis in original) They go on to examine whether South Africans can be talked out of their intolerance. They find, in fact, that it is much easier to convert the tolerant to intolerance rather than vice versa. Those threatened are not only more likely to be initially intolerant, but also more resistant to change their attitude. At the same time, leaders who are trusted are better able to persuade. [persuasion? Persuasive power??] Contrary to expectations, those with more integrated attitudes, in other words those displaying consistent attitudes across a range of related questions, were more susceptible to changing from intolerance to tolerance. By contrast, compartmentalized views were more easily converted to intolerance.

The second vignette explores whether South Africans are willing to tolerate institutional decisions that allow disliked groups to exercise their civil liberties by giving a speech in the area. The initial response to the proposed speech was generally intolerant. Even more troubling was that those who were initially tolerant were unlikely to take action to oppose an intolerant act by the courts, but those who were intolerant were more likely to act. They also model institutional intervention (either by local officials or the Constitutional Court) into the hypothetical controversy and found that this increased the likelihood of individuals being willing to take action.

They also explore the prospects for short-term change in attitudes by looking at change over a two year period. In both 1996 and 1997, South Africans prove to be not very tolerant and those who were intolerant were less likely to change than those who were tolerant. The data also allows for an examination of changing perceptions of group threat. Their central conclusion is that "satisfaction [with democracy] must increase enormously to have much impact on tolerance. It is doubtful that satisfaction with democracy in South Africa can grow to the extent required to produce widespread political tolerance among black South Africans. Still, according to this model, that is the only pathway available for increasing political tolerance among Africans." (207) Given this, Gibson and Gouws conclude that elites will have to lead the way. "The democratization of South African culture will most likely require a "top down" rather than "bottom up" approach." (220)