Policy Brief 23: Changing long-held undemocratic beliefs

Open engagement and dialogue are integral to consensus building and having a diversity of opinions in order to foster democratic values. This policy brief explores how shifting one’s perspective can add value on an individual and societal level.


What turns someone who grew up a racist who believes that black people are inferior, into someone that embraces all colours on merit, or someone who believes that women should be confined to their “place”, into someone who accepts gender equality, or who hates gays and lesbians, into one who embraces them?

Citizens in most African countries hold onto long-held beliefs, perceptions, and values, which often go against their democratic constitutions. In fact, many African societies struggle to change long-held beliefs, perceptions, and values, which go against democratic values.

Even in industrial countries, individuals, communities, and societies battle to change long-held beliefs, which discriminate against colour, sex, and gender.

Changing long-held beliefs, perceptions and values are not easy. Such change can either take place at the individual, community or societal level.

At the individual level, changing long-held beliefs and values is even more difficult when one’s beliefs are intertwined with one’s identity, conception of self, and one’s belonging to a particular community (Steele 1999; Ouelette 2015).

Changing long-held beliefs in such circumstances can come with a heavy price also. One can be ostracised by family, friends, and community. It is therefore lonely, causes displacement and community marginalisation.

It is, of course, easier to change one’s long-held beliefs, if it does not challenge, disrupt and throw into disarray the way we have grown up to understand our view of reality (Nyhan, Reifler and Freed 2013). As the writer, Maria Konnikova (2014) calls if it does not pose a “threat” to our place in the world.

When change contradicts beliefs we were born into, whether cultural, political or religious, it becomes even more difficult. In such cases, one has to question one’s fundamental reality (Steele 1999; Nyhan, Reifler and Freed 2013; Konnikova 2014).  What makes one change one’s mind about long-held political, religious and racial beliefs, perceptions and values?

A personal Damascus experience can force change in long-held beliefs

A transformative personal event can change long-held beliefs at the individual level. Change by individuals could be because of one Damascus experience, a transformative event or moment or can happen gradually, to empathise, see their view and discover the shared values of the “enemy”, the other colour or political opponent.

But a personal transformative event or incident can also spark a change in beliefs. A racist may change their views if their child marries someone of a different colour, they get to know the person and eventually discover the shared values of the person, which is not based on colour, but on character.

Similarly, a homophobic person can change his or her beliefs if they see close up the shared values of a close family member, a co-worker or political comrade who are gay, or their personal agonies and suffering from homophobic attacks (Konnikova 2014; Wolfson 2015; Rogers 2016).

The great African economist, Sampie Terreblanche, born into a close-knit white Afrikaans, Calvinist and racially-prejudiced community, is an example of someone who changed the long-held beliefs he was born into. Terreblanche started off in the 1970s as a loyal Broederbonder, but changed to become a critic of the National Party, a supporter of the ANC, and then a critic of the ANC.

He had at least two personal transformative experiences. First, he saw first-hand as a member of the Theron Commission in 1977 that looked into the conditions of the Coloured community, the terrible poverty of the community under Apartheid. Terreblanche, seeing first-hand the terrible oppression of the black communities he was prejudiced against, changed his own views.

Secondly, following former Apartheid strongman PW Botha’s failed Rubicon Speech on 15 August 1985, in which he refused to dismantle apartheid, instead, threatening international and local opponents of apartheid. The economy fell into a tailspin. When he changed his long-held support for apartheid, Terreblanche was ostracised by his own community and was not necessarily embraced by the black community.

A cataclysmic communal, national, communal or global event can change long-held beliefs

A big cataclysmic event at the communal, national or global level can change long-held beliefs of both individuals and large sections of society. New information can also force-change long-held beliefs (Ecker, Lewandowsky, Fenton and Martin 2014; Konnikova 2014; Nyhan, Reifler and Freed 2013).

South Africa’s new democracy following the end of formal Apartheid in 1994, with its new democratic constitution, values and norms, forced many ordinary citizens of all colours, communities, and religions to confront their own deeply-held racist, patriarchal, sexist and undemocratic beliefs.

A few changed their beliefs overnight, many did so over long periods, whilst many others never shed off their own anti-democratic beliefs. A global elite consensus that apartheid was wrong, nations across the world in public sentiment condemning apartheid, combined with new information available to them from within and outside South Africa, meant that many white South Africans changed their beliefs, if only in public, about the wrongness of Apartheid.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, and the revelations of oppression against ordinary people by Stalinist Communist Parties, the widespread corruption, and enrichment of the communist elite, forced many in the ANC family to change long-held political views of the supposed virtues of all-knowing vanguard parties.

Similarly, more recently, the 2007/2008 global and Eurozone financial crises also changed the deeply held views of many ideologically unfettered free market believers, that the market on its own, without regulation, policing and democratisation of it, cannot deliver inclusive development.

We need to regulate, police and democratise markets to stop runaway greed. New information came to light, as in the case of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, and the devastating impact of the global and Eurozone financial crises changed long-held beliefs.

Concerted public mobilisation, combined with new information can prompt mass changes in long-held beliefs

A gradual national change of belief among elites, with new information, and concerted public mobilisation for change, can slowly filter down to ordinary people, and over time change their beliefs also (Nyhan, Reifler and Freed 2013; Wolfson 2014; Rogers 2016).

Changes in governing elites do help change negative stereotypes of race, women and gays and lesbians; opposition to redistribution measures for those who suffered under apartheid; and discourage the use of violence to resolve problems.

In the case of those who changed their views from being racist, sexist or homophobic at the transition in 1994, South Africa saw different prominent elites, whether from the ANC or the former National Party government in many instances, change their beliefs, or at least were convinced they needed to change, and their members, followers, and sympathisers followed suit.

Political organisations, trade unions, and companies can also change the self-identity of their members to one that is more inclusive, progressive and democratic.

For example, many sexist male members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) during Apartheid were made conscientious by the trade union to embrace non-sexism. Similarly, many members of the ANC during the struggle were conscientised to be more non-racial, democratic and open-minded.

Corruption, mismanagement, and indifference to the plight of the poor under former President Jacob Zuma have shifted long-held beliefs of many ANC members and supporters

As corruption, mismanagement, and violence engulf almost all sectors of the South African body politic, many ordinary people are increasingly shaken by the actions, decisions, and behavior of political parties, traditional authorities, religious and business organisations, they are part of.

Corruption, mismanagement, and enrichment under the ANC of former president Jacob Zuma reached cataclysmic levels which have shifted the core beliefs of many ANC members and supporters.

As more and more information comes out, of the blatant corruption, mismanagement, and manipulation of struggle beliefs of the ANC by former president Jacob Zuma, many ordinary members and supporters were increasingly abandoning the ANC and its beliefs.

Many white South Africans similarly abandoned the National Party, after 1994, as more and more information became available of the corruption, mismanagement, and manipulation of white fears of blacks and communists by the National Party.

The corrupt, self-enrichment and debauched behaviour of traditional leaders, chiefs and kings are also increasingly changing people away from these institutions, to either seek reforms of these institutions or to abandon them altogether. Similarly, the outrageous exploitation, corruption and sexual abuse by many religious leaders are pushing people away from these institutions.

Changing persistent undemocratic, racist and sexist long-held beliefs among South Africans

Civil society organisations must keep mobilising publicly against corruption, racism, sexism, and chauvinism, to foster in the public consciousness that racism, sexism, chauvinism, and corruption is wrong; and that redistribution to previously disadvantaged individuals and communities is socially just.

South Africans will have to transform their individual self-identity away from a narrow one of White, isiZulu, Coloured or Indian, to a broader South Africanness. Such a broader South Africanness must be based on self-identities that are vested in the common constitution, democracy, democratic institutions, and values.

The ANC and opposition parties must conscientise their members on constitutional values to fight sexism, patriarchy, and racism. All organisations of civil society must similarly conscientise their members and supporters. Civil society must shame people who behave in a prejudiced manner so that there is a social cost to such behavior. Democratic oversight institutions such as the Human Rights Commission and the Gender and Equality Commission must diligently police prejudicial actions and behaviours in society.

Companies must introduce mandatory programs making their staff aware of not only racism but sexism. It should be mandatory for schools and higher education institutions to educate their pupils, students, and staff on democratic values, to eschew sexism, racism, and so on.

South Africans of all colours must interact more genuinely with each other at higher education institutions, the workplace, and public spaces. We need to hear, read and discuss more about all of our diverse histories. This will help build a new social solidarity, empathy, and compassion for the vulnerable across race, colour, religious and political beliefs.

We need a deeper, better quality discussion, information and debate on what constitutes a new post-apartheid South African self-identity at the individual and communal level.

Finally, social solidarity, empathy and compassion for the vulnerable that cuts across race, colour, religious and political beliefs must be a pillar of new individual self, and national communal identities.

Selected Bibliography

Ullrich K.H. Ecker, Stephan Lewandowsky, Olivia Fenton and Kelsey Martin (2014) Do People Keep Believing Because They Want To? Pre-existing Attitudes and the Continued Influence of Misinformation. Memory & Cognition, 42(2) 292-304, February


P.Sol Hart and Erik C. Nisbet (2011) Boomerang Effects in Science Communication: How Motivated Reasoning and Identify Cues Amplify Opinion Polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies. Communication Research, 39 (6) 701-723, August 11


Maria Konnikova (2014) I Don’t Want to Be Right. The New Yorker, May 16


Bee Rogers (2016) What is that makes us change our minds about certain long-held religious beliefs? Quora, July 18


Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler and Gary L. Freed (2013) Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial. Dartmouth College, February


Jennifer Ouelette (2015) What Does It Take to Change a Mind? A Phase Transition. Scientific American, February 13


Claude M. Steele (1999) The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Key readings in social psychology. The self in social psychology (pp. 372-390). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.

Evan Wolfson (2015) How to change the deeply held beliefs of a nation? Here’s one strategy. The Great Debate, Reuters, April 17


*In memory of Sampie Terreblanche (1933-2018). This was originally a tribute to Sampie Terreblanche, prepared for the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, at a celebration of Terreblanche’s life at the University of Johannesburg, on 29 January 2018.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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