Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu coined the term in 1994, but 18 years on, the "rainbow nation" is battling entrenched social and economic divisions.
Observers argue that while the much-emulated 1996-2001 Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by the Nobel Peace prize laureate focused on the abuses of white minority rule, social issues were being overlooked.
The bitter realities sugar-coated by the euphoria of the early years of Nelson Mandela's presidency are resurfacing to haunt South African society and spurring a bout of intense soul-searching.
After the end of apartheid, "the focus was on building the country… and the people were left behind," Futhi Mtoba, the chairperson of Business Unity South Africa, said at a social cohesion forum held last month.
"Now is the time to begin to understand each other and work on what divides us and try to heal those divisions and pull each other up," she said.
A melting pot of diverse cultures, post-apartheid South Africa recognises 11 official languages. Besides the black majority, it is home to the descendents of British, Dutch and French settlers, as well as large Asian communities.
Lack of social cohesion
But racial tensions remain evident and a general lack of social cohesion is threatening the continent's political and economic powerhouse, delegates said at the forum held late last month, the first of its kind.
Some accuse the whites of failing to give up any of their privileges and extend the hand of reconciliation to blacks.
"History has shown that black people are the ones who are always willing to extend a hand of reconciliation and they continue to suffer racial prejudice," said social commentator Andile Mgxitama.
"Whites retreat to their comfort zones. So how can black people address issues of racism and economic inequality alone," he asked.
President Jacob Zuma stressed at the talks held in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that became synonymous with South Africa's struggle for freedom, that reconciliation had to involve both sides.
"Whilst we have made progress in institutionalising the principle of an inclusive citizenship since 1994, there are certain matters that still cause divisions and frustrations," said Zuma.
Late last month he told his ruling ANC party police conference that South Africa's economy is still largely under white control.
South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) chief reseacher Lucy Hornbill however argued that it would be incorrect to suggest that no economic ownership had changed hands.
In terms of ownership of unlisted companies, property ownership, income levels and senior management positions "the picture is mixed, but is generally one of continuing, yet narrowing disparities between white and black."
She blamed the government's post-apartheid policies for failing to sufficiently address wealth and income disparities.
The policies have left nearly 20-million blacks in the country – out of a population of around 50-million – in relative poverty and up to 2.5-million in severe poverty, scraping by on less than two dollars a day.
Complex and challenging
A declaration at the end of the social cohesion meeting conceded that "the task of uniting diverse peoples to work together to build a caring and proud society is complex and challenging."
It cited poverty and racism among some of the major issues that hinder social cohesion.
Zuma called for the national social cohesion forum after a painting in which his genitals are depicted sparked a furore that exposed the racial and cultural differences that still dog Africa's top power.
Two days after the talks, Zapiro, a leading white cartoonist dismissed the forum as an attempt to "encourage conformity rather than real diversity", raising a fresh storm with his cartoon depicting Zuma in the shape of a penis.
The ANC said it had hoped that the forum, "would have assisted the likes of Zapiro and his ilk to appreciate that as South Africans we need to respect each other immaterial of the positions we hold in society". – AFP