Good neighbours? Africans express high levels of tolerance for many, but not for all

Author: Boniface Dulani
Co-Author(s): Gift Sambo, and Kim Yi Dionne

Scholars have argued that tolerance is “the endorphin of the democratic body politic,” essential to free political and cultural exchange (Gibson & Gouws, 2005, p. 6). Seligson and Morino-Morales (2010, p. 37) echo this view when they contend that a democracy without tolerance for members of other groups is “fatally flawed.”

In this dispatch, we present new findings on tolerance in Africa from Afrobarometer Round 6 surveys in 33 countries in 2014/2015. While Africa is often portrayed as a continent of ethnic and religious division and intolerance, findings show high degrees of acceptance of people from different ethnic groups, people of different religions, immigrants, and people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Proximity and frequent contact with different types of people seem to nurture tolerance, as suggested by higher levels of tolerance in more diverse countries and a strong correlation between acceptance of PLWHA and national HIV/AIDS prevalence rates.

A major exception to Africa’s high tolerance is its strongly negative attitude toward homosexuals. Even so, while the discourse on homosexuality has often painted Africa as a caricature of homophobia, the data reveal that homophobia is not a universal phenomenon in Africa: At least half of all citizens in four African countries say they would not mind or would welcome having homosexual neighbours.

Analysis using a tolerance index based on five measures of tolerance points to education, proximity, and media exposure as major drivers of increasing tolerance on the African continent. This is consistent with socialization literature that suggests attitudes and values are not immutable; instead, they can be learned and unlearned.