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Promoting social cohesion: Getting symbolism, action and rhetoric right

Occasional Paper 3/2023

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MARCH 2023

by Robert Mopp and Daryl Swanepoel

“Then the flag and the palace where sits the government cease to be the symbols of the nation. The nation deserts these brightly lit, empty shells and takes shelter in the country, where it is given life and dynamic power. The living expression of the nation is the moving consciousness of the whole of the people; it is the coherent, enlightened action of men and women” (Fanon, 1963).


This essay begins with some background on the concept of social cohesion and then defines the constitutive elements of the term. Various approaches, by key theorists, to the concept of social cohesion are then outlined – the terms “social cohesion” and “social capital” will be used interchangeably in this context.

Some of the key elements of social cohesion relate to trust, social networks, well-being and happiness. With reference to South Africa, the challenges facing the country and that pose a threat to social cohesion will be highlighted and some of the programmes that are in place to facilitate improvement in these areas will be discussed. In the conclusion, our levels of social cohesion will be assessed.

In brief, despite a plethora of initiatives to foster social cohesion and many government initiatives, and some progress made, we still have a long way to go on the social cohesion front and in the creation of a stable, vibrant, harmonious and prosperous society.

Social cohesion is deemed to be a critical ingredient for people to co-exist meaningfully and in harmony; it is also important for their social progress, well-being, happiness and overall development. Social cohesion is seen as part of the cure for the manifold challenges that South Africa faces such as high levels of unemployment, poverty, inequality, crime, corruption, gender violence, etc. It is also seen as important in restoring trust between, especially, the prosperous and the poor, who are the majority.

The country is not well governed and service delivery is abysmal. Confidence in government, political parties and other institutions is low. At the same time, honest and frank social dialogue is required to deal with lingering legacies and the enduring economic marginalisation of the majority. At a broader societal level, our economic growth levels must be much higher to absorb labour and to make people feel that they have worth and restore flagging dignity. This is in addition to some of the other negative features that plague our country.

Norton and de Haan (2013) remind us of the positive attributes of social cohesion in achieving a prosperous and happy populace. They state that “social cohesion can stand for the elements of social progress which include human security and solidarity, and can be both constitutive to development, and instrumental to other elements of development, for example the ability of social groups to sustainably improve living standards, or the ability of representative institutions to facilitate economic reforms” (Norton & de Haan, 2013). This is important for turning the fortunes of South Africa around in the period ahead.

The Background of Social Cohesion

Social cohesion is a core concept in social science and can be traced back to changes that were regarded as undermining the social fabric. Emile Durkheim is credited with being the first modern sociologist to theorise about the concept, in his De la Division du Travail Social (The Division of Labour in Society).

Some of the earliest references to social cohesion can be found in the writings of the Arab polyglot, Ibn Khaldun, regarded as the last great scholar of the Islamic Golden Age and one of the founders of sociology, economics and historiography. Khaldun’s concept of assabiyah (group feeling) is loosely translated as social cohesion; the solidarity of small groups (tribes) that have the power to promote broader social integration, through a number of stages.

The process of industrialisation and the development of the market economy (capitalism) and the notion of solidarity between individuals in society found different expressions in various theorists. For Marx it was mainly about class conflict, whereas for Durkheim it was about solidarity (Norton & de Haan, 2013). Pre-modern societies were marked by “mechanical solidarity and a strong collective ethos based on relatively homogeneous patterns of life and work” (Norton & de Haan, 2013). In contrast, advanced capitalist societies, with the now complicated division of labour, were characterised by “organic solidarity based on merit, respect for different roles within the labour force, with a need for moral regulation” (Norton & de Haan, 2013).

Ferdinand Tönnies surveyed modernity and individualisation by distinguishing between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. The former is a group of individuals who are socially connected and act for the sake of the community, whereas the latter is a group of individuals who are living together geographically but are socially more isolated (Schiefer & Van der Noll, 2017).

Max Weber was concerned about the development of capitalism in modern society, highlighting the role of religious beliefs (the Protestant ethic of hard work). Weber saw rationality as a binding force in modern society, with the bureaucracy the “embodiment of that rationality” (Norton & de Haan, 2013). Jürgen Habermas highlights the importance of “critical rationality” as a binding force in today’s society that illuminates processes of socialisation.

The French theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1986) is regarded as the founder of the term “social capital”, which many use interchangeably with “social cohesion”. This term displays the benefits that accrue to individuals for participation in groups and the necessity to invest in these relations. Whilst many theorists view social capital as a rewarding network of social connections, Bourdieu sees it in terms of the cold realities of social inequality; how people are inserted into the hierarchy of society (Gauntlett, 2011).

Putnam (1998) is another important theorist on social capital, with his influential study of civic traditions in Italy. The crux of the study was to “determine the conditions for creating strong, responsive, effective representative institutions” (Norton & de Haan, 2013). Bourdieu and Putnam both emphasise the “role of social networks for the functionality and problem-solving capability of societies” within the social capital framework.

Social Cohesion as a Concept

There is no single, universally accepted definition of social cohesion (OECD, 2012). Indeed, a purview of the literature on the subject matter reveals that the term “social cohesion” holds numerous definitions. The term is differently appropriated and utilised in many countries across the globe, depending on the context, as there are multiple challenges in countries and different responses are developed to deal with the diversity. A number of theorists propose that the definition of the term “social cohesion” should be broad enough for people to embed a wide variety of ideas which reflect their own concerns and beliefs (Ballard, 2019).

Delhey et al (2018) define social cohesion as the quality of social cooperation and togetherness of a collective – defined in geopolitical terms – that is expressed in the attitudes and behaviours of its members.

The European Committee for Social Cohesion (2004) defines social cohesion as a set of social processes that help instil in individuals the sense of belonging to the same community and the feeling that they are recognised as members of the community.

The French General Planning Commission (Commissariat général du Plan) (Eurofound, 2004) defines social cohesion as the capacity of a society to ensure the welfare of all its members, minimising disparities and avoiding polarisation. A cohesive society is a mutually supportive community of free individuals pursuing these common goals by democratic means.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines a cohesive society as one that “works towards the well-being of all its members”, minimising disparities and avoiding marginalisation, and entails fostering cohesion by building networks of relationships, trust and identity between different groups, fighting discrimination, exclusion and excessive inequalities, and enabling upward social mobility (OECD, 2012).

Easterly (2006) sees the lack of social cohesion as based on “the nature and extent of social and economic divisions within society” – divisions such as income, ethnicity, political party, caste, language, etc. – which create societal cleavages.

Pierre Bourdieu defines social capital as “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Gauntlett, 2011).

South Africa’s National Planning Commission (NPC) states that social cohesion seeks to address “the divisive effects of racism, class divisions, social fragmentation, language, spatial exclusion, sexism, unemployment, crime and inequality” (NPC, 2012). The National Development Plan 2030 situates social cohesion at the centre of South Africa’s socio-economic transformation agenda to promote ubuntu, trust, tolerance, social interaction, inclusion and solidarity in communities and society at large. The country’s motto speaks of “unity in diversity” and this concept seeks to harness this energy and its character traits to improve relations between people, irrespective of background, status or colour. It is seen as a constructive process of addressing division and exclusion, which continue to replicate and buttress the racial, ethnic, and other identities of South African society (NPC, 2012).

Approaches to Social Cohesion

Contemporary approaches to social cohesion put more stress on the “operationalisation and usability” of the concept to policymakers (Schiefer & Van der Noll, 2017). The paradigm of the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN) advances five dimensions for social cohesion:

  1. Belonging/isolation (i.e., shared values, collective identities in the social entity)

  2. Economic inclusion/exclusion (e.g., in the labour market)

  3. Participation and involvement of the society’s members in public affairs

  4. Recognition versus rejection of diversity and pluralism

  5. The degree of legitimacy of societal institutions.

Bernard developed the CPRN’s framework further into three specific fields, namely economic, political or socio-cultural, and the type of social involvement (attitudinal or behavioural). This addition makes it six dimensions.

Chan, To and Chan (2006), for example, differentiate between subjective (trust, attitudes, identification) and objective (participation rates, crime rates, etc.) divisions, which apply to both horizontal relations (between members of society) and vertical relationships (between individuals and institutions).

Chan, To and Chan went further and proposed four main areas of social cohesion, namely, legitimacy versus illegitimacy (i.e., institutional trust), acceptance versus rejection (i.e., solidarity, and concern for the common good), political participation, and socio-cultural participation. A supplementary distillation results in six distinct magnitudes of social cohesion commonly found: social relations, identification, orientation towards the common good, shared values, quality of life, and equality/inequality.

According to Moody and White (2003), four out of the six dimensions reside under the ideational and relational divisions of social cohesion. The ideational dimension comprises cognitive and affective facets such as norms, values and identification; the relational dimension encompasses the relationships and ties between individuals (Moody & White, 2003). The remaining two dimensions, quality of life and equality/inequality, can be incorporated under a third area, labelled the distributive dimension, comprising the relatively equal or unequal distribution of physical, economic, social and cultural resources (Moody & White, 2003). The last dimension is pertinent to South Africa, given the unequal nature of South African society.

It is prudent to be mindful that there are different approaches to social cohesion, depending on political ideologies or subject focus. Social democracy views equality and solidarity as essential to social cohesion, whereas from a nationalist view, the shared national history and traditional values are important. Liberal views perceive equality in terms of individual opportunities. The World Bank, for example, addresses social cohesion with a focus on economic development and poverty reduction (Moody & White, 2003).

Social Cohesion and Trust

Trust is an important element for social cohesion in society and amongst people. Trust towards institutions is equally significant. They have to trust each other and the “belief that they share a moral community” (Chan, To & Chan, 2006) that engenders trust. Trust is deemed crucial for social development and is an essential element of social capital since it “enhances economic exchange, improves the efficiency of public institutions” (Uslaner, 2019).

Participation or civic engagement is another positive outcome of high levels of trust that conceivably strengthens democratic processes. “Participation in the public life reflects sense of belonging, solidarity and the readiness for mutual cooperation in the pursuit of common goals” (Schiefer & Van der Noll, 2017). It is important for people to feel attached to a social entity (other people, a group or community). A sense of belonging, together with social interactions, trust and willingness to participate and help others (Chan, To & Chan, 2006). It provides security and self-worth, which enhances the willingness for participation and effective social networking in community and societal affairs.

In South Africa, this is expressed through the concept of ubuntu (recognising each other’s humanity), which was expressly referred to in the 1993 Constitution, but not the final 1996 Constitution. It is submitted that ubuntu is impliedly included in the 1996 Constitution by its frequent reference to human dignity. Ubuntu refers to behaving well towards others or acting in ways that benefit the community and encourage trust.

Yet, research findings by Afrobarometer (2021), etc., show low levels of trust in public institutions and representatives in South Africa, which undermines social cohesion. This latest Afrobarometer opinion poll has shown that trust in the country’s Parliament stands at 27%, while the trust in the president comes in at a lowly 38%. Trust in the courts of law has dropped to 43%. The Public Protector received a 42% vote of trust, while only 36% trusted the Electoral Commission of South Africa, with trust levels particularly low amongst younger respondents. With a 56% approval rating, the Department of Health recorded the highest level of trust in comparison to other state institutions.

In fact, trust as a concept is problematic in South Africa. Findings from the extensive GovDem Poll commissioned by the Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) in late 2021 showed that South Africans do not sufficiently trust their fellow compatriots. And that the lack of trust runs across most dimensions, be it race, gender, age, education, or income (ISI, 2022).

Except for high levels of trust within families, with 87,42% of South Africans trusting other members of their family, disquieting trends endure across all other dimensions. Whilst people have reasonable trust in their neighbours – 62,27% indicated that they either completely or somewhat trusted their neighbours – and whilst they grow to trust people who they have gotten to know, they highly distrust people they do not know. There are also disturbingly high levels of distrust amongst people from different religions – less than half of South Africans (47,1%) indicated that they completely or somewhat trust people from religious groups other than their own – and races, where only around 50% of those South Africans from the minority communities indicated that they completely or somewhat trusted people from the black community. Then again, alarmingly, only 41% of black South Africans completely or somewhat trusted their white compatriots, which deepened to only 39% for their coloured compatriots and 35% for their fellow Indian South Africans. (ISI, 2022).

What also emerged in the ISI’s GovDem Poll as an alarming trend, is the extreme lack of trust that South Africans have in foreigners, be they from Africa or other overseas countries. Overall, only 31,23% of South Africans said they completely trusted or somewhat trusted immigrants from African countries and 32,29% of South Africans said they completely trusted or somewhat trusted immigrants from countries other than those in Africa. This is particularly important to take note of, given the sporadic incidents of xenophobia in the country (ISI, 2022).

Within the political sphere, the GovDem Poll revealed that the majority of South Africans deeply distrust fellow compatriots who do not belong to the same party as their own. Results drawn from the three largest political parties show that, across all parties, only 43,26% said that they could completely or somewhat trust people who supported the ANC, whilst this dropped to 33,2% for the DA and 32,39% for the EFF (ISI, 2022).

This undermines social cohesion, and points to a high level of political and social naïveté, in that in a mature democracy people should be able to associate freely at the personal, workplace, and societal levels without overt hostility towards those who differ. This is particularly unsettling given the country’s past racial divisions, and party support that remains largely divided along racial lines. This needs to be overcome in order to achieve social cohesion and to build a united nation.

Well-being and Happiness

The well-being and happiness of countries are regarded as extremely important aspects, over and above economic progress, output and prosperity (wealth). There is now much more to consider than simply measuring GDP per capita in determining well-being and satisfaction with life.

Two key determinants of well-being are equality and education (a positive relationship). South Africa performs poorly on both fronts. The level and quality of education influence contemporary well-being, and education matters greatly to social cohesion. South Africa does badly on this front as our output is inadequate, despite having one of the highest per capita spends on the continent. But countries can catch up, as the examples of many East Asian nations illustrate.

The Happiness Index was developed to show how people evaluate their own lives and express the universal desire for happiness, and how people support each other in times of great need, like at the height of the Covid-19 period or when disaster strikes. South Africans, for example, are overwhelmingly kind and display “ubuntu” in their day-to-day interactions.

The Happiness Index was first created by the Global Happiness Council, a group of independent academic happiness specialists, with the first World Happiness Report being published in 2012. The definition of the report originates from the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness Index. In 1972, Bhutan started prioritising happiness over other factors such as wealth, comfort and economic growth.

The Happiness Index has since been revised, and the report no longer makes reference to the term. The World Happiness Report now determines the happiness ranking of countries in the fashion of a "happiness ladder”, known as the Cantril Ladder, which asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10 and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale. This methodology is used in a lot of studies as a simple way to ask people to rate their current satisfaction with life, i.e., happiness.

The latest country ranking shows life evaluations (answers to the Cantril ladder question) for each country, averaged over 2019-2021. Over the years, Scandinavian countries have been placed consistently at the top of the ranking, and this report says no different. According to the Ranking of Happiness in the World Happiness Report 2022, Finland ranks first, at 7.8, followed by Denmark and Iceland in second and third place. The United States (US) ranks 16th (6.97), and the United Kingdom (UK) sits just below at 17th (6.94). In sharp contrast, South Africa can be found way down the ranks, at position 91 out of 146, with a score of 5.19 – below the global average happiness ranking of 5.59 (WHR, 2022).

South Africa’s Societal Challenges Impacting on Social Cohesion

South Africa is characterised by unusually deep inequalities in employment, poverty, income, savings, etc. The narrow definition of unemployment was recorded at 33.9 percent in Q3, 2022. Poverty levels are elevated, and South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, according to the World Bank report, Inequality in Southern Africa. Racial and gender inequalities remain stubbornly embedded.

Millions of South Africans cannot live without credit and are falling further behind on their debt repayments, resulting in over-indebtedness. In fact, more than half of South Africa’s credit-active consumers are over-indebted, an April 2022 report by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) shows. Between 2015 and 2020 the percentage of credit-active consumers with an impaired record fluctuated between 38-48%, according to the report. A whopping 95% of the surveyed low-income individuals engaged in debt financing to afford basic needs such as food, clothing, transport and bills (FSCA, 2022).

Over-indebtedness is coupled with high levels of crime, corruption, and alcohol and drug abuse. Additionally, the majority of the population has been excluded from the body politic and mainstream economy for the longest time, despite policies that have been developed, post-1994, to address this iniquity. This has a negative effect on social cohesion efforts in the country. It is generally recognised that these levels, apart from being unacceptable, are unsustainable and pose an existential threat to the long-term stability and functionality of the country.

According to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s (IJR) South African Reconciliation Barometer, the legacies of apartheid continue to have an economic and psychological impact on South Africans. The public discourse has become louder, questioning the outcome of the 1990s negotiated settlement. Many are saying that reconciliation has been emphasised at the expense of justice. The IJR Barometer further says that in the absence of memory, a society is likely to repeat previous catastrophes. In the same vein the Barometer states that “South Africans do not have enough of a shared understanding of their history, and the country is replete with ‘silent non-agreements’ underlying conflicts that are not spoken of, so as not to upset the democratic transition” (IJR, 2021).

The post-1994 nation-building project designed to create unity and a common nationhood was also seen as instrumental for redistribution of wealth and other benefits, which historically had been denied to the majority. The levels of mistrust and anger are growing simultaneously, with negative consequences for the social cohesion agenda in South Africa.

The 2020 ANC Discussion Paper on Social Cohesion, Gender and Nation-Building states that social cohesion can be a critical element of our attempt at uniting the country, deepening our democracy and making it safer for all who live in it. The underlying causes contributing to the less than satisfactory levels of social cohesion have to be urgently addressed to improve the situation in the country.

Poverty and Crime

In 1917, George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, argued that “the greatest of all evils and worst of crimes is poverty”. Amartya Sen (2007) notes that poverty is a tragedy. Sen further highlights the “calamity of deprivation and penury” and how “lives are battered, happiness stifled, creativity destroyed, and freedoms eradicated by the misfortunes of poverty”. Sen says that poverty is more than the ‘lowness of income’ (primary poverty), it is about the ‘inability to lead a decent, minimally acceptable life’ (secondary poverty).

Sen also examines the connection between poverty and crime, of which South Africa is seen as a prime example given the high levels of both indicators. Many theorists have argued that countering poverty is one of the guaranteed ways to decrease crime, enhance social cohesion and prevent social turmoil. Sen mentions that then (2007) Calcutta had the highest level of poverty in India, but the lowest incidence of murder among all Indian cities. How to account for this anomaly, this seeming paradox? For Sen, it demonstrates that “poverty does not inescapably produce violence”.

One of the positives of Calcutta is that it has a “long history of being a thoroughly mixed city, where neighbourhoods have not had the feature of ethnic separation”, like many other cities in India (Sen, 2007). There are also other social and cultural features that impact positively in Calcutta, as opposed to the situation in South Africa – many point to the apartheid legacy of divided neighbourhoods, deprivation, and lack of access to equal opportunities.

A number of theorists have asserted that inequality, poverty, injustice, and continued suffering can generate intolerance and provoke anger and fury. For example, the banlieues on the outskirts of Paris, where mostly immigrants reside, have high crime rates and there is intermittent violence linked to neglect, marginalisation, and bad treatment by authorities. For Sen this demonstrates that ‘’we do not know enough about the empirical relations and their fragility and robustness to be confident of what the exact causal connections are” (Sen, 2007).

Sen concludes that the “tendency to see a universal and immediate link between poverty and violence is hard to sustain”. Sen says that the “economy of poverty involves much more than just economics” (Sen, 2007). Many theorists feel differently with regard to the South African situation. There is something different in the psyche here that results in the high levels of crime and the violent nature of crime.

South Africa’s Risk Profile

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2022, the five biggest risks facing South Africa are:

  • Prolonged economic stagnation

  • Employment and livelihood crises

  • State collapse

  • Failure (and destruction) of public infrastructure

  • The proliferation of illicit economic activity.

(WEF, 2022)

South Africa was also identified as one of 31 countries – including Argentina, France, Germany and Mexico – with high risks around the ‘erosion of social cohesion’. The country where most people say that things are heading in the wrong direction is Colombia (89%), followed by South Africa (85%), Peru (81%), Argentina (80%) and Brazil (79%) (Ipsos, 2021).

The Aug-Oct 2021 Afrobarometer survey reflects the following findings:

  • Trust in institutional checks and balances on political power is weak.

  • Trust levels in local councils are very low, at 24%. Only 10% of South Africans indicated that they thought that politicians were trustworthy (Ipsos, 2021).

  • Only about one in three citizens (36%) trust the IEC, with trust levels particularly low among younger respondents. Equally concerning is weak trust in the country’s courts of law (43%).

  • Trust in both the ANC (27%) and opposition parties (24%) continues to decline. Trust in the ANC is especially low among younger and more educated respondents.

  • Two-thirds (67%) of South Africans would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing and jobs. Nearly half (46%) say they would be “very willing” to do so, with higher levels of support among younger and more educated respondents.

  • Only 35% think their Local Government is doing well.

  • Most South Africans feel unsafe and only 13% had trust in police (Ipsos, 2021).

  • Almost two-thirds (64%) of South Africans say that corruption increased in the past year, including half (49%) who believe it increased “a lot”.

  • Most South Africans believe that GBV is getting worse (Dec 2021); (73%) of South Africans believe that GBV increased “somewhat” or “a lot” over the past year.

  • Citizens point to alcohol and drug abuse and unemployment as primary contributing factors.

(Afrobarometer, 2021)

Identity in South Africa

This is one of the key aspects of social cohesion that South Africa battles with and that is baffling. The question arises as to how we identify as South Africans and identify the factors that constitute the South African nation beyond birth and citizenship (inclusive of naturalisation). English has become the lingua franca (common language) and other languages, with the possible exclusion of Afrikaans, are on the periphery and have not been developed as mediums of instruction in the post-1994 period.

South Africans would struggle to answer the following: What are our common dishes, clothing, major sporting codes, cultural artefacts, music genres, etc.? These are issues that we still grapple with, but don’t seem to have answers for, 28 years after our democratic breakthrough. These questions have no easy answers, but government and political parties, civil society formations, the religious sector, etc., are not doing enough to foster an inclusive, albeit diverse South African identity. There is rhetoric from government departments, but programmes are not rolled out on a large enough scale and consistently; it is done piecemeal and ad hoc. Speeches are given on national days, which are largely ignored.

It should be noted that government programmes on their own, are insufficient. Rather, an identity is largely formed through life practices and choices – in other words, people choose to be identified in a certain way and it reflects their life choices. Schools, workplaces, religious institutions, sports association, etc., also contribute to identity.

The dark side of our identity is that the social fabric is not robust and relatively minor infractions and incidents cause discomfort or outrage. The recent attempts to address lingering discomforts around prejudice and potential racial views, allied to dealing with our divided past, created a huge furore at Fish Hoek High School, for example, and had to be abandoned. There were also the unfortunate incidents at Stellenbosch University and various other such incidents across the spectrum – including many actors from different backgrounds and one political party that features prominently on a regular basis.

Efforts to deal with the underlying unease and unhappiness in various institutions and in society have to continue and multiply if we are to create a positive South African identity.

Government Programmes to Foster Social Cohesion

Government has a variety of interconnecting interventions to encourage social cohesion and unite the country. Values like ubuntu, solidarity and instilling a culture of participation and equality are important to the vision in the Constitution and to realise our motto of “unity in diversity”. Many efforts are underway to make communities safer, but there remains an overwhelming sense of people feeling unsafe in their homes, public spaces and in communities.

Healing the wounds of the past focused on redress and forging a united nation through culture, sport, etc., but with mixed results. Our national symbols have been promoted, including the constitutional values, to assist in forging a common national identity. Yet, how united do we feel as South Africans in 2023, after 28 years of democratic rule? To what degree have attitudes been shifted in a positive direction? Have the values enshrined in the Constitution found increasing expression in behavioural change in society at large?

A New Value System

A new value system would see social cohesion as more than moral ‘regeneration’, or nostalgia for an idealistic past that never was. It would be inspired by the humane values of a caring society. To achieve this, there should be a thorough understanding of the socio-economic environment that today shapes the South African political and socio-economic landscape, which is infused with the forces of individualism and greed that simultaneously suppress the imperatives for solidarity within the community.

In South Africa, we have a mindset of taking shortcuts and the easy way out to reach goals. Too often, incentive systems are vastly inflated and distorted and not commensurate with individual contributions to an effort or to society. Excessive displays of wealth are common and serve as the wrong example for young people.

These are, unfortunately, the dominant values that permeate mediums like social media and imagery globally by persuasive and powerful influencers and personalities. These must be countered to coincide with values like fairness, justice, respect for the rights of others, and the importance of solidarity and helping the less fortunate in life. The Covid-19 crisis showed us that this is possible. We need to build upon this, and the acts of kindness and solidarity displayed by most people on a daily basis.

South Africa is in need of a national dialogue to determine what we understand as “unity in diversity”. A good starting point is to look to the concepts and ideas of the Constitution, which form the bedrock of South Africa's national culture. The first words of the preamble to the Constitution state, "We, the people of South Africa", words that serve to right the wrongs of a long battle against authoritative and repressive state power during apartheid. This phrase is encapsulated in the national motto – ! ke e: /xarra /Ike (diverse people unite) – a call to South Africans of all races, religions and gender identities to create justice, unity, peace and prosperity together (Kotzé, 2023).

Therefore, to create a new value system that steers us towards social cohesion, we must adopt democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights to transform our society. We need people-centred transformation. “In liberating all South Africans from the over-reach of repressive state power, transformation, is first, the freedom and duty of all to ‘improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person’” (Kotzé, 2023). Uniting in this goal and speaking with one voice should be every South African’s holy grail.

Nelson Mandela embodied these values and inspired others to also become active citizens who live this transformation through their everyday actions. Indeed, to confront our contemporary crises, “we cannot wait idly for another generation of leadership. Instead, we can all take from the approach of Mandela (and others) and embody the Constitutional values” (Kotzé, 2023).

It was only through a robust democratic process, one where different groups pursuing their own ends recognised each other in committed deliberation and negotiation, that the anti-apartheid movement was victorious. People like Desmond Tutu, who advocated for koinonia (a fellowship between different groups), have shown us that it is possible to be a united force without losing our individuality.

Now, as the governing party has loses its authority and the ability to maintain order, there is an increasing call for change, for a new way. But unlike before, where the goal was to defeat apartheid and usher in democracy, today the call is for the competent and just execution of the state. It is the time of the united citizenry; we must seize the national moment and put our heads together to find solutions to the crises. Importantly, we must engage in open, inclusive and robust ways. The process must be guided by the principles and values in the Constitution, rather than being dominated by any group or political affiliation (Kotzé, 2023).

It is through this type of engagement, deliberation and civil action that leaders who recognise the needs of the people will emerge and a national voice will be born.


As mentioned, South Africa is assailed by manifold challenges that range from high levels of unemployment, poverty, inequality, crime, corruption, low economic growth, etc. We have emerged from a divisive past that has left the country with many psychological scars, and efforts to promote social cohesion. Education, as one of the key components of ensuring social cohesion, continues to deliver negative outcomes. Our inequality levels engender envy, resentment, anger, and are most likely a factor in our violent crime patterns. All these challenges make it difficult to become more cohesive as a nation.

The introduction noted that social cohesion is deemed to be a critical ingredient for people to co-exist meaningfully and in harmony, and is important for their social progress, well-being, happiness, and overall development. Social cohesion is needed as part of the cure for the myriad of challenges that South Africa faces. It is also seen as important in restoring trust between, especially, the prosperous and the poor, who are the majority.

During the Covid-19 period, the good character traits that make up the essence of human beings shone through. The best qualities – values like ubuntu, assisting those in need and mutual trust – came to the fore, through big and small acts of goodwill, respect and kindness, which helped people to be more resilient in overcoming the odds. This needs to be harnessed. It shows us how we can assist in breaking down artificial barriers and practices of selfish individualism, especially in the suburbs but also in society at large. These acts must be encouraged to continue and multiply.

The strength of any nation is its people and there is a recognition that South Africa’s people and their ongoing goodwill and resilience in the face of much adversity shows promising potential, which must be mobilised and channelled for the collective good of the country, so that, together, we can produce higher levels of sustainable growth.

More mixed neighbourhoods closer to city centres and places of work must be created as part of growing a more inclusive nationhood. National unity is necessary for the achievement of equality, justice and development. Ethical leadership at all levels of society and in all organisations, together with improved governance and service delivery, is essential to restore faith in the affairs of the country. Trust levels in leadership and institutions must improve urgently to counter cynicism around the political process and to increase civic interest, participation, and accountability by all for the state of affairs in the country.

Social cohesion, as difficult as it is to define, is clearly important to create a prosperous, harmonious society. It is even more critical for us, in South Africa, given our history. Our transition was lauded across the globe, but ironically, now is increasingly being doubted for the supposed benefits it failed to deliver – economic prosperity and increased equality, in the main.

In conclusion, Norton & de Haan (2013) say that social cohesion enables peaceful contestation, voice, respect for cultural difference and, broadly speaking, builds the freedoms of both individuals and groups (as advocated by Sen’s capability approach). Social cohesion thus also implies the capacity of societies to manage social change peacefully, inclusively, and with a view to enhancing individual and group freedoms.

We still have a long way to traverse in rooting and deepening social cohesion in South Africa, but with the necessary willpower it can be achieved. There is an urgent need to have meaningful dialogue on many difficult issues. We have to deal with entrenched challenges like unemployment, poverty, inequality, crime, corruption, ineffective governance, etc. Trust and confidence levels in institutions have to lift to make social bonds stronger. Efforts must be intensified to finalise the social contract that will enable South Africa to achieve higher levels of inclusive growth and employment, and economic development.

The social dialogues and compact will contribute to a culture of tolerance, unity, common nationhood – and, hopefully, lead to commitments across society as part of the national effort to forge the much-needed unity in diversity.


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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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