Seeking the ‘glue’ that can help us grow together

South Africa remains a country that is deeply divided and troubled by tensions in the face of slow socio-economic reform for the majority who are trapped in poverty and disadvantaged by inequality. Government officials and academic experts regularly point out that, without addressing these challenges, we will not be able to move forward as a nation – not in our economic development, nor in our oneness under the South African flag.

But, to improve the quality of life effectively for the majority in our country and to enable stability to deal with the past’s legacies and the new economic challenges of a developmental state, we need to “gel” as a nation. This, however, requires trust, respect, dignity, tolerance of diversity, and a shared desire for social justice. These are elements of the “glue” that can unite people in a common sense of identity, humanity and belonging, and result in a more socially cohesive society.

Social cohesion, as envisaged in the Constitution and in the National Development Plan, can enhance productivity and support economic growth by addressing costs associated with mistrust and conflicts in a diverse society like ours. The NDP stresses the need to address poverty, inequality and unemployment not only to stimulate our economy but also because of the deepening societal divisions that these are causing. Tackling this triad effectively, however, requires the coming together of role-players from all sectors through innovative and effective partnerships.

The Mandela Initiative – a multi-sector platform to investigate and develop strategies to overcome poverty and inequality – has been foregrounding such innovations and collaborations at more than 20 “action dialogues” over the past five years. As one pillar of its work, the dialogues are guided by the Initiative’s strategic themes and were developed as a way of pollinating experience, ideas and research to encourage action, including exploring how to multiply and expand successful projects.

The social cohesion dialogues brought together academics, civil society, government, the clergy, and the private sector. Some key points that emerged at these gatherings are worth considering when we think ahead of strategies that can contribute to a more united and collaborative nation:

  • Social cohesion is a complex goal given our diversity and the divisions caused by racial oppression.
  • A common definition for social cohesion that reflects our unique local context will go a long way in helping us to monitor and track progress in this domain of the nation’s well-being.
  • Our history, rapid urbanisation and the psychological traumas of daily life in contemporary South Africa have left us with ‘psychological woundedness’. Healing and rebuilding trust are essential for the social cohesion project. This include building trust between individuals and groups, between and across communities, and trust in institutions. Trust – like equality – is both an input for social cohesion, and a result of social cohesion.
  • In our quest for social cohesion by addressing economic welfare for all, we need to improve services, build on what works, and innovate.
  • In building on what works, there is potential in the Community Works Programme, and in community health workers, community development workers and youth workers. Collectively, these could help strengthen communities in ways that benefit not only their general well-being, but also their integration, trust, and a sense of belonging.
  • Many of our priority policies will improve social cohesion. For instance, through the universal delivery of quality services, prioritising education and health as pathways to development, and investing in infrastructure to link communities physically as well as socially.
  • The business sector’s contribution to social cohesion as a form of ‘corporate citizenship’ is important. But, corporates do not necessarily know or see the links between themselves and social cohesion. Therefore, we need to innovate with policies that encourage or incentivise the private sector to contribute to social cohesion – in the workplace or in their workers’ communities, for example. These are integral to nurturing a committed and productive workforce.
  • We need integrated urban living spaces, such as mixed housing developments. Imagine the potential contribution to social cohesion if these were considered by large property development companies that are currently targeting 10 urban areas nationally.
  • Participatory processes to ensure inclusive planning for development are critical, and call for dialogue between different sectors. It is important that the links between government, community, family, business, civil society and social cohesion are acknowledged and affirmed in policy processes.
  • A collaborative multi-sectoral approach holds much promise for growing cohesion because it involves people in joint activities, unite them around common goals, and can unlock many existing resources to use to the benefit of social cohesion. But it requires active citizenry and strong leadership at different levels of society, and with various actors and institutions using their agency to promote social cohesion.
  • Lastly, we need to be realistic about the possibilities because building multi-sectoral collaborations starts from the reality of deep mistrust in South African society.

These strategies, or conditions, for a more united and cohesive society will not happen overnight. But they do point to the need for a much more deliberate and focused course of multi-sectoral action that goes beyond symbolic days and events aimed at promoting unity.

Over the last few years, the Agence Française de Développement, the Poverty and Inequality Initiative at the University of Cape Town and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation have worked together on a programme within the Mandela Initiative to measure and address the country’s lack of social cohesion. This project aims to help policymakers identify the factors that can improve social cohesion. The results of this significant study will be released on 8 February.

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