How we became a society

Innocent Nkatha, social mobilisation executive at Soul City

Innocent Nkatha, social mobilisation executive at Soul City

Numerous scholarly articles exist on social cohesion and its impact on communities, cultures and countries. Yet it seems that for all the academic research that exists on what can be done to improve the way people engage with one another for the common good, there are challenges that make this goal seem unattainable.

One of the biggest question marks about how to effectively champion social cohesion relates to the level of violence a country experiences.

"Several research studies have been completed that look at the various causes of the levels of violence experienced in countries. There seems to be a common thread in many of them, with factors ranging from the role of violent content in the media to ethnographic issues that are highlighting poverty, unemployment and other socio-economic conditions," says Innocent Nkata, executive for social mobilisation at the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication.

Poverty and unemployment have become the two most cited causes for violent crime.
One only needs to look at crime reporting in developing countries such as Brazil, India, Mozambique, Nigeria and South Africa to see that this is almost always taken as gospel.

Inequality breeds contempt
A January 2013 Oxfam report rated South Africa as the most financially unequally place on Earth. "The cost of inequality: how wealth and income extremes hurt us all" states that it is now widely accepted that rapidly growing extreme wealth and inequality are harmful to human progress.

"Extreme wealth and inequality undermines societies. It leads to far less social mobility. If you are born poor in a very unequal society you are much more likely to end your life in poverty," states the report.

"Inequality has been linked to many different social ills, including violence, mental health, crime and obesity.

"Crucially, inequality has been shown to be not only bad for the poor in unequal societies but also the rich. Richer people are happier and healthier if they live in more equal societies."

Such is the extent of this division that Oxfam is calling for a new global goal to end extreme wealth by 2025 to reverse the increase in inequality seen in the majority of countries in the last 20 years.

Nkata says that although the social and economic divisiveness of inequality places a significant strain on social cohesion, it is interesting to note that Mozambique does not have the same rate of violent crime as the other countries who contend with high poverty and unemployment rates.

"Could it be that poverty and unemployment might not be such a significant cause of violent crime? One can even take a step back and look at it from a country-specific perspective.

"For example, in South Africa the Northern Cape is one of the country's poorest provinces but when it comes to violent crime, Gauteng has significantly higher statistics," he says.

Deeper issues
For Nkata, this means that the cause of a lack of social cohesion goes much deeper than just poverty and unemployment.

Dr Malose Langa, a community psychologist at Wits University, in a research paper published in a social cohesion report ("The smoke that calls"), investigated the increasing levels of collective violence that accompany many service delivery protests in South Africa. He used the Azania township in Mpumalanga as a focus point, given the protests that took place there between July 2009 and February 2010.

Langa found that although it is easy for commentators and government officials to dismiss protestors as criminals or hooligans, it remains important to understand the violent nature of the protestors in the context of every community.

"Causes of collective violence for each community are unique. In Azania, our research has revealed that the protestors have explored non-violent methods for a period of four years, but still nothing happened. It seems violence was used as the last resort to send the message to the top.

"It is important for the state and relevant stakeholders to be proactive rather than reactive when dealing with service delivery complaints," he wrote in the report.

Langa cites the community of Bokfontein in the North West Province as an example of how better social cohesion exists when projects are driven by community members themselves, rather than being reliant on those outside the community.

"Community members play a significant role in identifying problems, priorities and projects that need to be initiated to solve all community problems. This has helped give them a sense of ownership over all their community projects. Community leaders are also feeling empowered to network and mobilise more resources to achieve their ideal future goals."

The culture of consumerism
David Bruce, an independent researcher who spent more than 14 years at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, says that there are very powerful factors that contribute to a breakdown of social cohesion.

"High levels of inequality can be associated to a prominent culture of active consumerism and also to what extent the advertising industry is contributing to this.

"Investment in advertising in South Africa is massive when compared to countries like Mozambique. The consumerist consciousness and the associated consumption and way it is equated with status is very powerful in South Africa," he says.

In South Africa, he says, the aggressive promotion of consumption might be healthy to promote economic growth, but it does nothing to promote social cohesion.

He believes that the standard entry point should be to focus on the issue of inequality that underlines the potential for the promotion of central social cohesion.

"Mozambique recently had a revolution but the trajectory to South Africa is quite different. Our revolution or transition here is based on the context of racialised inequality.

"Many black people interpret 'transformation' as achieving a lifestyle which is the equivalent of that enjoyed by white people.

"This has resulted in a dramatic increase in the levels of inequality in black South Africans associated with the economic elite and the culture of consumption."

Bruce says that although countries like Brazil, Nigeria and India share many similarities with South Africa, there are other elements at play that impact social cohesion. India, for example, is also impacted by an increasing inequality but the people there do not share the same psychological legacy as South Africa.

"We come from the legacy of apartheid but India and Brazil have totally different dynamics when it comes to their consumer culture," he says.

Looking to the future
Nkata believes that by studying the relationship between economic growth and the associated issues of each of the countries, one will be able to see the contribution to the levels of violence and crime.

"We are aiming to find out if there is an inkling of a relationship between emerging and economic growth, levels of gross domestic product, unemployment, levels of violence and which segment of society it impacts on the most.

"If the lack of social cohesion happens as a result of disenfranchisement of a younger population segment, then more jobs need to be created. "However, if the issues are focused on a more mature part of the population, then other solutions need to be found."

Oxfam recommends that, although there are many steps that need to be taken to improve social cohesion, the most important one is recognising that the inequality gap between the super wealthy and poor needs to be reduced.

Inequality cannot be left unchecked. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, reducing inequality and promoting social cohesion becomes more important than ever before.

What is social cohesion?
Chief Director of Social Cohesion at the Department of Arts and Culture, Dudu Nchoba, believes that social cohesion is how South Africans unite and work towards a common goal. She says it comes down to recognising our common humanity in meaningful ways, which involves meeting basic human needs such as having access to decent shelter, food, meaningful work, family and friendships.

However, one cannot discuss social cohesion without examining the importance of diversity. Diversity forms the cornerstone of any society. In the rainbow nation that is South Africa, diversity comes up in spades. From our communities and cultures to our languages (11 official and numerous dialects) and sexual orientation, South Africa has long been viewed as a country that has managed to work together despite (or perhaps because of) its differences.

Innocent Nkata, executive of social mobilisation at the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication, says that diversity comes with many different implications and complexities.

"It is only natural that when diverse groups come together that conflict will happen at one time or another. People interpret things differently and this interpretation could give rise to unhappiness. This leads one to question if it is even possible to have an entity that can approach the issues from a collective viewpoint and resolve those conflict situations," he says.

He says there needs to be a common vision and shared values, aspirations and dreams for social cohesion to work.

"It is these things that we have in common that can unite us despite our differences. We can work together to reconcile our differences. For me, social cohesion becomes about us as a collective that acknowledges our diversity and recognises our shared visions and the things we have in common to work together," says Nkata.

To help achieve this, Soul City comes in as a catalyst to facilitate and enable dialogue between community members to identify their difference as well as their shared values and dreams.

Nkata cites the example of the Kwakwatsi community near Sasolburg in the Free State. The community won the Kwanda development-oriented competition in 2009 and received R1.8-million worth of prizes. Unfortunately, this resulted in conflict between the community members and how best to utilise the resources.

"We went to assist the community last year and were involved in extensive mediation efforts to help them resolve their issues. There has been significant progress made and we are happy to report that they have resolved many of the disagreements that gave rise to the conflict," concludes Nkata.

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger supplement.

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