The Colour of Desert: Race, Class and Distributive Justice in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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Centre for Social Science Research

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University of Cape Town

This paper examines how racial differences affect perceptions of distributive justice in post-apartheid South Africa. In ‘divided’ societies, citizens might be expected to discriminate on the basis of race or culture in assessing the justice of other citizens’ claims. South Africa is a prime example of a ‘divided’ society whereby, in the past, legislation and racial elite culture combined in pervasive discrimination. Given the continued importance of race in daily life in South Africa, we might expect that attitudes about distributive justice would continue to be racialised, with people considering members of the same ‘racial group’ as themselves as being more deserving than members of other groups. But evidence from both national data-sets and a new data-set for Cape Town in particular suggests that race has complex and often counter-intuitive effects on perceptions of distributive justice. By some criteria, and some analytic techniques, people do not discriminate on the basis of race when assessing desert; by other criteria, and other analytic techniques, desert appears still to be somewhat coloured in post-apartheid South Africa. Overall, however, the evidence suggests that the effects of race are either weak or work in counterintuitive directions. Rich, white Capetonians are certainly more generous in their views on redistribution than is generally assumed.