What young people have to say about race and inequality in South Africa

Kira Erwin, Durban University of Technology and Kathryn Pillay, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Meritocracy is the belief that holding power or success should be judged on people’s individual ability, rather than on wealth or social connections. At first glance, this appears to be a reasonable proposition. But the focus on individual merit becomes harder to fathom as one enters the messy world of structural inequality and discrimination.

As our research shows, ideologies of meritocracy and individualism create obstacles for collective action towards a more equal and just society. Our findings were published in the book Race in Education, the outcome of a thinktank on the effects of race at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Using a methodology called Dreaming Workshops, our study explored how Grade 11 students, of around 16 and 17 years old, from different schools in the South African coastal city of Durban imagined race, racism and non-racialism in a utopian future.

Young South Africans are being socialised into a highly racialised society and experience severe disparities. Expecting them to eradicate racism without dismantling material inequalities is a deferral of adult responsibility. Mindful of this, we designed a study to listen to young people’s ideas, as opposed to looking to them for solutions.

Complex views

The five schools that participated in this study, three government and two private, are located in a middle-class, formerly “white” area in Durban. The schools have, on average, a diverse but mostly middle-class student body, with some students travelling from townships to attend class. Under apartheid townships were poorly resourced and under-serviced residential spaces designated for people racialised as black. Each school in the study had approximately 20 students per class. One school markets itself as girls-only, one as boys-only, the other three are open to all genders.

Young people involved in the study were deeply aware of inequality. For them, reducing inequality was a priority if the country was to move towards a better future.

It is notable that non-racialism was not a concept volunteered by any of the students as a future ideal, despite it being a constitutional principle in South Africa. At present there is little clarity on the meaning of non-racialism. It is equated to a multiplicity of ideas, among them mobilisation against apartheid, multiracialism, multiculturalism, nation-building, and race-blindness.

A poster version of a dreaming tree, a method used in the high school workshops.

What students did want eradicated from their utopia was racial discrimination and racism. The meanings they attached to race shifted depending on the conversation, for example, race when it related to racial quotas as opposed to race when it related to culture, identity or politics.

Racial identities played an important role in these young people’s sense of self. But some thought it is the “weirdest thing ever” that people sit in “race groups” during lunch breaks. They make sense of this by explaining that people sit with others who share their culture. Using race and culture as proxies for each other is very much part of the South African experience of racialisation.

The “commitment” to racial identities, however, was more complex than it first appeared. There was an uneasiness between accepting and feeling pride in racial identities, and not wanting them to count as measures of social value. They frequently vocalised a rejection of racial stereotypes and racism.


In each school, there were students committed to eradicating their own racist thoughts, who openly challenge parents and family members about racism and actively refused to essentialise their peers. Students felt a generational responsibility to challenge racial stereotypes.

They were also vehemently against race as a category in government policies. Arguments against racial quotas, such as broad-based black economic empowerment and affirmative action (race-based legislation aimed to redress past and current discriminations) were present in all the schools. As were statements that “we need to get over blaming the past”, or linking poverty with laziness, or refusing to recognise the role of privilege in individual achievement.

These sentiments reflected a socialisation process happening at schools, and in the family, that raised real tensions for young people. Many students were taught to believe that individual hard work pays dividends. Principles of individual success and meritocracy were well established in their homes, and valorised daily at their schools. Schools acutely focused on individual competition in sports and academic achievements, rewarding individual rather than collective effort.

The “wiping out” of the individual in favour of a group racial identity for employment and university entry appeared unfair and contradictory to the meritocratic values they were being taught to aspire to.

Read more:
We need to unpack the word ‘race’ and find new language

These views were present in students who would be racialised as belonging to all four of South Africa’s racial categories, socially constructed in this country as black, Indian, Coloured and white.

Meritocratic arguments were also against the redistribution of wealth in South Africa. Taxing the rich was often seen as “making the poor lazy”. Here, class privilege was indiscernible from what would usually be thought of as a defence of white privilege.


In our view meritocratic sentiments are highly problematic in the context of structural inequality. In South Africa there is no equal playing field on which to justify individual merit.

It is not just race-blindness that we should guard against in South Africa; class-blindness too leads to a repetition of the status quo. Since structural inequalities fundamentally enable reproductions of racism this creates a complex dilemma for these students.

What does it mean to desire social justice and equality but refuse to “give up” any privileges?

This dilemma poses a challenge for education in South Africa. Certainly more frank and critical classroom conversations on race, class and culture are needed. More pressing is how to restructure schooling so that it is less focused on individual merit and reward.

This article is part of a series. Other authors include Barney Pityana, Göran Therborn, Nina Jablonski, George Chaplin and Njabulo Ndebele.

The three edited volumes of essays published by African Sun Media in 2018 (The Effects of Race, edited by Nina G. Jablonski and Gerhard Maré), 2019 (Race in Education, edited by Gerhard Maré), and 2020 (Persistence of Race, edited by Nina G. Jablonski) contain the complete representation of the project’s scholarship.The Conversation

Kira Erwin, Senior researcher, Durban University of Technology and Kathryn Pillay, , University of KwaZulu-Natal

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

    Don’t miss out on the latest local news, interviews and competitions.

    Don’t miss out on the latest local news, interviews and competitions.

    Receive the latest news

    Subscribe To Our Newsletter



    Copyright Notice


    1.1 The contents of this Website, including but not limited to its compilation and arrangement, is the exclusive property of Kaya 959, alternatively the suppliers of content to Kaya 959, and accordingly remain protected by South African and International Copyright and Trademark laws.

    1.2 Any person accessing this Website, may not, save for downloading one copy for their personal computers and solely for their private and non-commercial use :

    1.2.1 Copy, disseminate, distribute, advertise, publish, adapt, modify or in any way reproduce the contents of this website for commercial purposes, unless this notice and any disclaimer attached thereto is published in its entirety, or unless the permission of Kaya 959 is obtained in writing.

    Privacy Policy


    POPIA ActTo promote the protection of personal information processed by public and private bodies; to introduce certain conditions so as to establish minimum requirements for the processing of personal information; to provide for the establishment of an Information Regulator to exercise certain powers and to perform certain duties and functions in terms of this Act and the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000; to provide for the issuing of codes of conduct; to provide for the rights of persons regarding unsolicited electronic communications and automated decision making; to regulate the flow of personal information across the borders of the Republic; and to provide for matters connected therewith.


    • section 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, provides that everyone has the right to privacy;
    • the right to privacy includes a right to protection against the unlawful collection, retention, dissemination and use of personal information;
    • the State must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights;


    • consonant with the constitutional values of democracy and openness, the need for economic and social progress, within the framework of the information society, requires the removal of unnecessary impediments to the free flow of information, including personal information;


    • regulate, in harmony with international standards, the processing of personal information by public and private bodies in a manner that gives effect to the right to privacy subject to justifiable limitations that are aimed at protecting other rights and important interests,
    1. Definitions and Interpretation

    1.1.“Personal Information” means information relating to an identifiable, living, natural person and where it is applicable, identifiable, existing juristic person, including all information as defined in the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013. 

    1.2  Parliament assented to POPIA on 19 November 2013. The commencement date of section 1Part A of Chapter 5section 112 and section 113 was 11 April 2014. The commencement date of the other sections was 1 July 2020 (with the exception of section 110 and 114(4). The President of South Africa has proclaimed the POPI commencement date to be 1 July 2020.

    1.3. “Processing” means the creation, generation, communication, storage, destruction of personal information as more fully defined in the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013.  

    1.4. “You” or the “user” means any person who accesses and browses this website for any purpose. 

    1.4. “Website” means the website of the KAYA 959 at URL www.kaya959.co.za or such other URL as KAYA 959 may choose from time to time.   

    1. Status and Amendments

    2.1. KAYA 959 respects your privacy. This privacy policy statement sets out KAYA 959’s information gathering and dissemination practices in respect of the Website. 

    2.2. This Privacy Policy governs the processing of personal information provided to KAYA 959 through your use of the Website. 

    2.3. Please note that, due to legal and other developments, KAYA 959 may amend these terms and conditions from time to time.  

    1. Processing of Personal Information

    3.1. By providing your personal information to KAYA 959 you acknowledge that it has been collected directly from you and consent to its processing by KAYA 959. 

    3.2. Where you submit Personal Information (such as name, address, telephone number and email address) via the website (e.g. through completing any online form) the following principles are observed in the processing of that information: 

    3.2.1. KAYA 959 will only collect personal information for a purpose consistent with the purpose for which it is required. The specific purpose for which information is 
    collected will be apparent from the context in which it is requested. 

    3.2.2. KAYA 959 will only process personal information in a manner that is adequate, relevant and not excessive in the context of the purpose for which it is processed. 

    3.2.3. Personal information will only be processed for a purpose compatible with that for which it was collected, unless you have agreed to an alternative purpose in writing or KAYA 959 is permitted in terms of national legislation of general application dealing primarily with the protection of personal information. 

    3.2.4. KAYA 959 will keep records of all personal Information collected and the specific purpose for which it was collected for a period of 1 (one) year from the date on which it was last used. 

    3.2.5. KAYA 959 will not disclose any personal information relating to you to any third party unless your prior written agreement is obtained or KAYA 959 is required to do so by law. 

    3.2.6. If personal information is released with your consent KAYA 959 will retain a record of the information released, the third party to which it was released, the reason for the release and the date of release, for a period of 1 (one) year from the date on which it was last used. 

    3.2.7. KAYA 959 will destroy or delete any personal information that is no longer needed by KAYA 959 for the purpose it was initially collected, or subsequently processed. 

    3.3. Note that, as permitted by the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002, KAYA 959 may use personal information collected to compile profiles for statistical purposes. No information contained in the profiles or statistics will be able to be linked to any specific user.    

    1. Collection of anonymous data

    4.1. KAYA 959 may use standard technology to collect information about the use of this website. This technology is not able to identify individual users but simply allows KAYA 959 to collect statistics. 

    4.2. KAYA 959 may utilise temporary or session cookies to keep track of users’ browsing habits. A cookie is a small file that is placed on your hard drive in order to keep a record of your interaction with this website and facilitate user convenience. 

    4.2.1. Cookies by themselves will not be used to identify users personally but may be used to compile identified statistics relating to use of services offered or to provide KAYA 959 with feedback on the performance of this website. 

    4.2.2. The following classes of information may be collected in respect of users who have enabled cookies: The browser software used; IP address; Date and time of activities while visiting the website; URLs of internal pages visited; and referrers. 

    4.3. If you do not wish cookies to be employed to customize your interaction with this website it is possible to alter the manner in which your browser handles cookies. Please note that, if this is done, certain services on this website may not be available. 

    1. Security

    5.1. KAYA 959 takes reasonable measures to ensure the security and integrity of information submitted to or collected by this website, but cannot under any circumstances be held liable for any loss or other damage sustained by you as a result of unlawful access to or dissemination of any personal information by a third party. 

    1. Links to other websites

    6.1. KAYA 959 has no control over and accepts no responsibility for the privacy practices of any third party websites to which hyperlinks may have been provided and KAYA 959 strongly recommends that you review the privacy policy of any website you visit before using it further. 

    1. Queries

    7.1. If you have any queries about this privacy policy please contact us by emailing [email protected] 

    Competition Terms and Conditions

    • The competitions are open to all persons over the age of 18 years; except directors, partners, employees, agents, service providers, and consultants of Kaya 959, the sponsor and all its subsidiaries and its holding company, if any, as well as all spouses, life partners, parents, children, siblings, business partners and associates of such persons.

    • The outcome of the competition is subject to the decision of the judge/presenter, whose decision is final and no negotiation will be entered into thereafter. Neither Kaya 959, sponsors nor their agents will be held responsible or answerable to any dispute arising from the competition or prize awards.

    • Participants/listeners enter or take part in competitions at their own risk and Kaya 959 bears no responsibility for any loss, damage or harm suffered as a result of participation in any of Kaya 959 competition.

    • One listener is entitled to winning one prize in a period of 3 months. Kaya 959 reserves the right not to award a prize if the listener has won a prize prior during the 3 month window period. This also applies to listeners who provide family or friend’s contact details.

    • Kaya 959 reserves the right to redistribute all unclaimed prizes if not claimed after 3 months after being given away On Air or on the website.

    • Prizes are not transferable and may not be exchanged for cash.

    • Finalists will forfeit their participation in the competition if they fail to attend the draws.

    • The competition will run during the period advertised on Kaya 959; entries received outside of the competition period will not be considered for the competition draw.

    • Kaya 959 and their sponsors reserve the right to cancel, modify or amend the competition at any time if deemed necessary in their opinion, or if circumstances arise outside of their control.

    • By entering the competition, entrants agree to accept these rules and to be bound by them.