top of page

South Africa: A country in pursuit of social cohesion

Occasional paper 1/2020

Copyright © 2020

Inclusive Society Institute

50 Long Street

Cape Town

South Africa


235-515 NPO

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the Inclusive Society Institute


Views expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of the Inclusive Society Institute or those of their respective Board or Council members or Members.

by Prof David Luka Mosoma

Chairperson of the CRL Rights Commission


Like many other drastic events in our country’s 26-year-old democracy, the COVID-19 lockdown has uncovered the deep social divisions in our society. Different classes, races and cultures are differently affected by the crisis, facing vastly different challenges. Indeed, social cohesion remains one of the most fundamental policy challenges facing South Africa since the dawn of our democracy. This paper contextualises the work of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (or “the CRL Rights Commission”) against the backdrop of our nation’s pursuit of social cohesion. It firstly suggests that no effort aimed at creating a truly cohesive society will succeed if it disregards the enormous challenges facing the South African nation. These include gender-based violence, women and children abuse, home lessness, unemployment, and economic exclusion. Moreover, social cohesion initiatives must be responsive to the needs of those on the receiving end of the seemingly endless string of human dignity violations perpetrated of late. Anything less will merely serve to perpetuate a cosmetic social cohesion, which is empty and meaningless to most. Secondly, the contribution advances the notion of ubuntu as a vehicle to achieve a social cohesion paradigm that is meaningful to all. Finally, it calls on all South Africans to reflect on, and start breaking free from, their decades-long social “lockdown” from their compatriots.

Over the years, various scholars and policymakers have expressed the view that social cohesion is arguably one of the most fundamental policy challenges facing South Africa since the dawn of democracy. Like other drastic events in the past 26 years, the current battle against COVID-19 has again exposed the deep lines of social division in the country, with different classes, races and cultures being differently affected by the crisis. Ironically, South Africans marked Freedom Day 2020 in lockdown, each confined to their own space, their own thoughts, and their own problems. But apart from the fact that we are normally physically free to move as we wish, haven’t we perhaps been a socially locked-down nation all along, with each class, race and culture keeping to themselves? And, more importantly, is it truly possible for our society to achieve a state of true social cohesion, or are we still trying to define what this means as we struggle through our diverse interpretations of the concept?

Among the many authors who have attempted to capture the essence of social cohesion over the years was influential sociologist Emile Durkheim, whose writings have informed the thinking of scholars, development agencies, government institutions, policymakers, and ordinary people. According to Durkheim, social cohesion can be summed up as

“as the interdependence between the members of the society, shared loyalties and solidarity. Aspects often mentioned in describing social cohesion are the strength of social relations, shared values and communities of interpretation, feelings of a common identity and a sense of belonging to the same community, trust amongst societal members as well as the extent of inequality and disparities (Berger-Schmidt, 2000:2-3)”

This he conceptualised not as a cosmetic idea, but in response to the challenges that society of the late 18th to early 19th century faced. At the time, Durkheim was searching for solutions to the deep divisions and discrimination that had been caused by economic deprivation, social and class exclusions, migration, cultural conflicts, and industrialisation. In a profound way, his call for interdependence among members of a community, glued together by a willingness to work together to foster social and economic equilibrium to help them survive and succeed, is as relevant today.

In South Africa’s case, the pursuit of social cohesion should be aimed at unifying society across its diverse backgrounds through the creation of a shared vision and a common economic development agenda. This should result in social justice based on a sustainable economic distribution model that brings value to every citizen. This is also why the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 emphasises the need for a more prominent role for social cohesion in the national policy framework (RSA, 2012).

However, unless we, as a nation, embrace a mutually acceptable and practical understanding of what social cohesion is, and collectively implement substantial, measurable programmes that respond to our socio-economic realities, its attainment will remain a pipedream. In the context of South Africa, no programme or intervention will bring about true social cohesion if it ignores the facts. These include the impact of the various forms of gender-based violence perpetrated in our country, the abuse and killing of women and children, general inequalities, spatial disadvantages, homelessness, unemployment, unequal job opportunities and unequal pay, the demeaning cycle of poverty, economic deprivations, and exclusions.

In addition, no effort aimed at achieving social cohesion will succeed if it chooses to ignore the serious violations of human dignity our nation continues to witness. Instances of racial, religious, and cultural intolerance and prejudice seem to be escalating, with some among our communities shamelessly refusing to accept that the Constitution endows all of us with equality in all its forms. Those on the receiving end of this abuse cannot be blamed for seeming less interested in a cosmetic concept of social cohesion. Their lived realities call for a meaningful experience of social cohesion – a social equilibrium that substantially empowers them in ways that will prevent them from being social outcasts in their own country.

Such a meaningful form of social cohesion should be propelled by an unwavering resolve to address the aforementioned challenges being justly guided by the principle that all human beings are born free, equal in dignity and rights, which dignity is inherent, inalienable and independent of any state or system. Therefore, this equality in dignity should under no circumstances be denied, harmed, or devalued by anyone, whether governments, systems, individuals, communities, or socio-economic conditions. Our actions and interactions should be firmly grounded in justice-based values that lead to genuine transformation in our communities. Importantly also, everyone must be unambiguously committed not to be party to any attempt to enforce a social cohesion paradigm of “unequals,” as that may be no more than injustice by another name.

Notwithstanding its various challenges, our country is endowed with the positive value of ubuntu, which offers enormous potential to help realise a social cohesion paradigm that is meaningful to all. Fundamentally, ubuntu encompasses what social cohesion is truly about – a deep bond among human beings based on a sense of belonging and connectedness that acknowledges that an individual’s humanity can only be actualised in relationship to others. Practising ubuntu in South Africa has to empower all of us to embrace, respect and uphold our compatriots’ dignity, as my humanity is inextricably linked to yours, and yours to mine. If I dehumanise another, I de humanise myself, because, though we are different, we belong together and, so, we can live together (Phasha & Condy, 2016). This is the kind of social cohesion that ac knowledges our diversity as the glue that binds us rather than walls that divide us.

It is for this reason that the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (or “the CRL Rights Commission” for short) was established. The commission finds its mandate in the Constitution as well as the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities Act 19 of 2002. Its task is to help create a truly united South African nation whose cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity is a source of strength that contributes to a common and indivisible bond of loyalty to the country and its people. It is against this context that the CRL Rights Commission has been collaborating with other state agencies to protect the rights of communities, thereby giving actual, real-life, meaningful content to the concept of social cohesion.

In implementing its programmes, the commission seeks to contribute to socio-economic development, the restoration of human dignity and the creation of national unity among cultural, religious, and linguistic communities on the basis of equality, non-dis crimination and free association. The CRL Rights Commission continues to run campaigns, initiate engagements, and conduct research in an effort to promote dialogue and mutual understanding among our communities, and thereby help advance the dis course on social cohesion.

Navigating our way out of a few months’ COVID-19 lockdown will be difficult but can be done. The tougher challenge is to cast off the shackles of our decades-long socially locked-down existence as South Africans; to move from superficial to significant social cohesion, which will make us stronger in the face of disasters. This is the challenge the CRL Rights Commission invites each and every South African to tackle as we move forward.

Prof David Mosoma addressing an Inclusive Society Institute Social Cohesion Dialogue in Pretoria, February 2020.


Berger-Schmitt, R. 2000. Social Cohesion as an Aspect of the Quality of Societies: Concept and Measurement. Mannheim: Centre for Survey Research and Methodology.

Phasha, & Condy, .2016. Inclusive Education: An African Perspective. Cape Town, South Africa: Oxford University Press Southern Africa (Pty) Ltd

Republic of South Africa (RSA). 1996. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108, 1996. Pretoria: Government Printers

Republic of South Africa (RSA). 2002. Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, Act 19 of 2002. Pretoria: Government Printers

Republic of Republic (RSA). 2012. National Development Plan 2030. [Online] Available at: [accessed: 29 May 2020].

Contextualising note from the CRL Rights Commission

by Renier Schoeman

CRL Rights Commission, and Chairperson: Committee for Corporate Linkages and International Liaison

This occasional paper followed a social cohesion dialogue hosted by the Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) in Pretoria earlier this year.

The paper is important not only because of its immediate relevance to South African society, but also in light of the fact that social cohesion has been selected as a major theme of the CRL Rights Commission’s new term of office. As such, the paper sums up the commission’s agenda for the months and years ahead. Therefore, the CRL Rights Commission will be circulating it widely and strategically, both nationally and internationally, advocating for a socially cohesive society and the benefits the South African nation stands to derive from it.

This will be done in key national and sectoral structures such as Parliament, academia, business, think tanks, etc., on a wide and representative level. Internationally, the CRL Rights Commission will also share the views expressed in this paper with countries and organisations aligned with South Africa, as well as with appropriate non-governmental organisations with international linkages. Working in partnership with the ISI will no doubt add considerably to the commission’s impact and will support efforts to advance social cohesion in both a local and global context.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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.

Phone: +27 (0) 21 201 1589



bottom of page