State of cohesion in the nation needs to be seriously addressed


A State of the Nation address (Sona) reflects on the progress in government’s delivery of programmes and services, and its plans and priorities for the coming year. But there is another “state of the nation” we don’t hear or talk about much, even though it is of critical importance for the wellbeing of the country.

This invisible state of the nation is about the social cohesion of our society. Loosely, this cohesion can be explained as a state of “gelling” as a country through a common sense of identity and belonging. Such social cohesion can lead to higher levels of trust, respect, co-operation and a desire to work together in the interest of the nation or smaller groups, including for those who remain marginalised.

Social cohesion is associated with higher social and economic productivity, inclusivity, tolerance, and a more stable and participatory democracy. Importantly, in the context of poverty and inequality in South Africa, it is also linked to a better quality of life.

Social cohesion can therefore assist the kind of inclusive development that South Africa and its people need to push back against widening inequality — especially persistent on racial lines — and growing unemployment and poverty.

A lack of social cohesion can be a cause of structural poverty and persistent inequalities, as well as the consequences of these.

We know that race and socioeconomic status are still leaving us greatly divided 24 years after the emergence of the “rainbow nation”, resulting in low levels of trust, prejudices, conflict, violence and negative attitudes towards integration — and these all affect social cohesion negatively.

As the storm over Sona gathered a significant study, which explores the relationship between social cohesion and economic inequality in South Africa, and the institutional changes needed to promote social cohesion and reduce inequality, was released. It is the result of a two-year research project between the French Development Agency, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and the University of Cape Town’s Poverty and Inequality Initiative.

It tackled one of the most pressing challenges for those concerned with social cohesion in South Africa: the lack of consensus on a definition of social cohesion in the South African context. Without such an agreed definition we are unable to monitor and track social cohesion over time, which in turn hides the links between social cohesion, poverty and inequality. Without the evidence from regular measurement, it is also difficult to formulate polices to help improve social cohesion and inclusive development.

After a working definition for social cohesion was formulated and agreed, the researchers applied this definition to five large nationally representative surveys that contain the components necessary to construct an index that defines and measures changes in social cohesion. The index covers five dimensions: feeling of belonging, co-operation, institutional trust, relationships and identity.

The study was further informed by 11 focus groups in four provinces to get a better understanding of how South Africans view social cohesion, and divisions within and across groups and the country.

Some of the results of the objective (survey) and perception (focus groups) data that stand out are:

  • Social cohesion increased somewhat between 2008 and 2011 but the trend thereafter is less clear.
  • Interracial interactions improved slightly between 2003 and 2013 but then declined. Startlingly, less than one out of every three South Africans often or always talk or socialise with someone from a different race. Individuals with higher levels of education were more likely to have interracial interactions.
  • The index shows that inequality of living standards between individuals (vertical inequality) slightly increased from 2003 to 2008 but then significantly declined in 2012. Horizontal inequality (between race groups) declined between 2003 and 2012. This is attributed to improved basic services and household assets.
  • In contrast, people’s perceptions about inequality trends do not mirror this quantitative situation, with about 70% of South Africans believing the gap between rich and poor has not changed much over time or has worsened.

People who view themselves as financially the same or better off than others are less likely to consider inequality as the main social division in South Africa. The implication of this finding is that those most economically privileged are least likely to view inequality as important and are the most detached from the realities of inequalities in the country.

  • Higher levels of income and employment are associated with higher measured social cohesion.
  • Conversely, poverty, unemployment and service delivery protests are linked to less social cohesion. Similarly, provinces with higher inequality between individuals have lower social cohesion than those where the inequality gap is smaller. Municipal policy and competence are closely linked to better social cohesion.

Although much more can be said about this comprehensive study, an important implication is that the high levels of inequality and the perception that inequality has not improved since 1994 are the key barriers to social cohesion.

For this reason, the researchers recommend two minimum requirements for increasing social cohesion.

First, the country needs to prioritise a defined and monitored agreement to overcome poverty, inequality and social exclusion. Second, this agreement — a social pact of sorts — needs to give voice and agency to marginalised individuals and groups, including their participation in setting priorities and monitoring progress.

Overall, it is these policies, behaviour and everyday practices that will show a real commitment to overcoming racial prejudices, interactional mistrust and negative attitudes.

These recommendations will require hard work because the data showed that, while levels of identity in the nation were constantly high over time, levels of co-operation across — and in groups — were lower on average.

We need to rise to the challenge of showing real commitment to inclusive development that will benefit everyone. In the absence of this urgent undertaking, the state of the nation is bound to reflect a society in which continuing and increasing racialised inequality are damaging the social cohesion of our society and acting as serious challenges to a stable — and deepening — democracy.

Charmaine Smith is the communication manager of the Poverty and Inequality Initiative, University of Cape Town. More information on the study is available at

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