Why forging social cohesion still eludes post-apartheid South Africa

A woman arrives for Nelson Mandela’s memorial. The idea of a rainbow nation has been futile. EPA/Jim Hollander

The call on South Africans to commit to the principle of social cohesion has become more strident in recent years. The plea typically gains urgency when issues of racism and xenophobia resurface on the national radar screen.

Persistent calls for harmony offer some indication of how divided and conflicted South Africans remain. Prior efforts to build a cohesive society seemed to have failed. Even at universities, where future leaders are usually groomed, the problems of prejudice and bigotry persist.

A number of initiatives have been launched to address the problem. These include a Social Cohesion Summit in 2012 following harrowing incidents of brutal xenophobia in parts of the country

But none appears to have made any decisive impact. Xenophobia remains a constant threat while horrendous racist attacks remain a reality. So what are the key, overriding aims and goals of social cohesion, as officially defined in South Africa? Why do they remain so unreachable and unfulfilled in the democratic era?

In South Africa the principle of social cohesion can be viewed as an important, humanist philosophical mission intended to counter the apartheid belief system based on racism, exclusion, partition and gross human abuse. But it does far more than that: as the South African culture ministry says.

[A] community or society is cohesive to the extent that the inequalities, exclusions and disparities based on ethnicity, gender, class, nationality, age, disability or any other … are significantly reduced or eliminated.

Reinforcing and bolstering this mission is the principle of nation building. It advocates the actual coming together of the country’s diverse histories, languages, cultures and more. Together these aspirations coalesce, culminating in the quest to establish a single, inclusive, national community. This quite strikingly invalidates a core ambition of the apartheid system.

Despite the noble goals of the new South Africa, in 2012 the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation found that less than a fifth of South Africans always or often socialised with others in residential areas, while only 21.6% sometimes do and 56.6% rarely or never do.

It’s not purely class

Contemporary analysts have generally highlighted the spectacular rise in social inequality, and how this has bolstered class divisions. But the problem does not only exist in the economic domain.

Quite crucial, too, are the deeper and more symbolic aspects of the country’s culture policy. This may offer a clearer perspective of some of the factors that have contributed to the breakdown of the social cohesion project. The American communication theorist William R. Brown played a central role in formulating the now celebrated Rhetoric of Social Intervention Model, which is helpful in this instance. This offers a systematic theory of how human beings symbolically constitute, maintain or change social systems.

So attention was drawn to individuals’ capabilities to figuratively receive and/or convey information and, by extension, values, beliefs, concepts and ideas. Symbols, therefore, can inspire people to transform their hopes and desires into tangible realities – good or bad.

A deeper scrutiny of the country’s national cultural symbols and, more distinctly, the actual codes and beliefs they transmit, shows at times a distinct deviation from what social cohesion really aspires to achieve. This may have impelled rather than curtailed the schisms so widely experienced throughout the country today.

Cultural strategy

Let’s start with the now defunct notion of the rainbow nation. As Mangaung metropolitan mayor Thabo Manyoni rightly sums it up:

when we claimed to be a rainbow nation, there was nothing binding us and there is still nothing that is binding us.

In other words, the rainbow image did not or was not endowed to transmit the primary objectives of social cohesion. Its distinct colour configurations effectively conveyed an underlying creed of the past – the notion of “separate-but-equal”. This was apartheid’s ideological bedrock in the years when it grappled to give human segregation – apartheid – a more acceptable name.

The “them and us” motif is also quite pronounced in the formal structure of the national anthem. Furthermore, the incorporation of Die Stem (the apartheid national hymn) into the new anthem “has an echo of humiliating memories to many black people, a sad reminder of the loss and indignity black people have suffered”.

Unity or diversity?

The national motto – ke e: /xarra // ke, which in San language means “diverse people unite” – is hugely promising. But here, too, we are faced with an immense incongruity. The motto’s official and socially-dominant interpretation generally is “unity in diversity”.

Accordingly, previously marginalised cultures are afforded official recognition and opportunities for expression and development. While cultural restitutive practices remain crucial the focus, it appears, has been on promoting prevailing, individually-distinct, historically-separated cultures.

In doing so, this campaign may have inadvertently perpetuated past cultural patterns. This includes those imposed or tainted by a belief system rooted in separateness. Likewise, the frenzied promotion of individual identities and cultures may also have laid the basis for the preservation of discriminatory beliefs and exclusionary customs. Intransigent champions of apartheid have openly called on like-minded individuals to safeguard the icons of Afrikaner nationalist rule.

The promotion of diversity – in its current form – thus involuntarily upholds group cultural expression, even if such action may be deemed offensive by others.

The much-contested Traditional Courts Bill if signed into law, is set to fuel such divisive trends. It upholds historically-disjointed, traditional governing structures. It undermines equal citizenship in a unified South Africa. It bolsters notorious, outdated apartheid practices. The bill poses a flagrant threat to the code of cohesion as well as constitutional democracy.

So what’s to be done?

In certain influential cultural circles there seems to be a lack of historical consciousness of apartheid ideology and its underlying ambitions. Deeper understanding of the word apartheid, and its most rudimentary meaning – to set apart – seems to be non-existent in mainstream orbits of thought. What, we may ask, was the broad and sweeping anti-apartheid movement all about?

The plea “diverse people unite” must be resurrected from slumber. It persuasively challenges the rudiments of a divisive and distorted belief system. IIt also essentially echoes the code of cohesion which actually reaches out to communities, imploring them to come together for the purposes of cultivating unity.

In its true historical form, ke e: /xarra // ke fortifies the goals and principles of social cohesion.