In SA, friendship has become dangerously unfriendly

There is a tendency in South Africa to think that the future is dependent on what happens in the political domain.

We debate the prospects of long-term political stability and economic growth as a question of the future of the tripartite alliance, economic policy and globalisation. This is all very important.
Yet it draws attention away from an area of South African society that may be equally important.

We rarely talk about love and friendship, that is, about the state of social solidarity in the country. In a democratic society people must be willing to delay the satisfaction of their needs in favour of others. It is implicit in the idea of majority rule or in the paying of taxes, for example.

This is much easier, the argument goes, when citizens feel a special bond with each other. “I don’t mind giving up some of what I earn, because when I see a poor person, I think, but for the grace of God, there goes me.”

Inversely, democracy is much harder when solidarity in society is weak. If, in effect, people live in separate societies (of class, of culture, of language, of race), voluntary obedience to democratic norms is low.

What is the state of social solidarity in South Africa?

Given the character of apartheid and the terms that informed resistance to it, the most dramatic feature of post-apartheid South Africa is this: the major sites of conflict are not chiefly between races nor economic classes.

Moreover, despite appearances, cohesion within the political community is high. In other words, even if there is fierce competition, dislike and distrust between and even within political parties in South Africa, there is nonetheless an overwhelming sense that differences should be resolved through non-violent deliberation.

Even in KwaZulu-Natal rivalry between the IFP and the ANC seldom takes the form of armed conflict. There is commitment, at least in principle, that political cohesion should refer to national cohesion.

This is certainly a far cry from the environment during the early 1990s when the very project of a unitary South African state was violently contested.

If we lower our gaze from the political arena, however, to consider the state of social relations in South Africa, the country’s fragile stability looks more fragile than stable.

The fault lines in South African society, in other words, are in the family and between friends. More than 80% of murders occur between people who know each other. They also tend to occur mostly during the festive season and on weekends, and generally near liquor outlets - shebeens, bottle stores and clubs. The peak hours for homicide are between 8pm and 11pm. They are most common on a Saturday and they occur most frequently during the month of December.

Conviviality, it seems, has become a bloody pastime. Or friendship has become dangerously unfriendly.

Secondly, if friends are the biggest enemies, it is woman friends who are most at risk. There were 55 000 rapes last year alone. Most of these were perpetrated by lovers, friends and/or family members. A Medical Research Council study found in 2004, that half of all the women who are killed in interpersonal violence are killed by an intimate partner.

The family, as one commentator put it, has become “the cradle of violence” in South Africa. This speaks to a crisis, not so much in the political arena, but in the social fabric.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this has become a major concern for the Presidency. In August 2006, it released A Nation in the Making, a review of social trends in South Africa, paying especial attention to “social cohesion”.

The family is today the key institution through which attempts are being made to moderate the effects of growing unemployment and poverty. At the moment, welfare provisions take primarily two forms: pensions and the child support grant. More and more people are dependent on family solidarities in order to survive. And therein lies the rub.

The family, more than any other institution in South Africa, is in trouble. There is evidence that remittances between urban and rural families are declining. More and more people in rural areas are surviving on a grandparent’s pension. At the moment the system is working more often than not.

The child support grant, for example, is proving to be fairly effective in reaching the children of the poor. It is not being squandered on designer clothes and cellphones as public perception would sometimes have it. But what happens when the pressure on these institutions gets too much?

We already have some idea. Other institutions come to replace them. In the Western Cape, for example, these “other institutions” are violent gangs involved in a drugs economy. We have to wonder: What are the institutions in which South Africans are growing up and living? What kinds of values do they promote? How do they generate their loyalties and solidarities?

Are they conducive to the kind of social solidarity needed in a democracy? In short, do South Africans all live in the same country?

Ivor Chipkin is chief research specialist in the democracy and governance research programme at the Human Sciences Research Council. He writes in his personal capacity

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