/ 25 April 2024

Trends suggest social cohesion is on downward slide

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South African flag. Getty Images

Since the French Revolution, with its mottos “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, discourse on the cohesion of geopolitical entities has seen waves of greater and lesser intensity, but one thing is clear: a healthy social entity needs fraternité or, in modern terminology, social cohesion.

The level of social cohesion is an indicator of the country’s well-being. People act in the interest of the common good and do not evade social rules to pursue their personal interest. They identify with their country and its institutions; they perceive themselves as treated fairly by the authorities; they accept other people’s lifestyles, treat them with initial trust and integrate them into their immediate social networks. Social cohesion is the pathway to happiness and optimism. 

In recent years, when social cohesion has been discussed in South Africa, it has been with an increasingly critical undertone. The sentiment is that the Rainbow Nation is drifting apart. Evidence reviewed by Caryn Abrahams, of the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, a partnership between the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg and the Gauteng government, suggest that social cohesion is on a downslide or, at least, not on a trajectory of growth in the country. 

But little hard data is available to corroborate this feeling. Thus the Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) commissioned a study by Constructor University Bremen to develop an instrument to measure social cohesion levels in South Africa’s provinces in line with the approach developed for the Bertelsmann Social Cohesion Radar. A measuring instrument such as this is important for any nation, more so a nation emerging from a divided past.

The Bremen research team has collated 60 questions found in the Khayabus syndicated study undertaken twice a year by Ipsos South Africa — and in which the ISI participates to compile its GovDem Poll. It is testing how the selected items are to be applied to assess the nine dimensions of social cohesion — intact social networks, general trust, acceptance of diversity, identification with the country, trust in its institutions, perceived level of fairness, level of solidarity and helpfulness, respect for social rules and a high degree of political participation, which the ISI has categorised as demographic integration, connectedness to the country and sense of community.

According to the data in the ISI’s GovDem Poll, it becomes clear that the development of the South African Social Cohesion Index is overdue. Thirty years into the new dispensation, somewhat disturbing trends have emerged.

As they relate to demographic integration, downward trend lines have emerged to a point where 40% of white people completely or somewhat trusted their black compatriots, and 41% of black people completely or somewhat trusted their white compatriots. Only 48% of South Africans completely or somewhat trusted people from a different religion to their own; and only 43% of South Africans completely or somewhat trusted people from different nationalities. 

Of particular concern was the finding that 68% of South Africans did not trust immigrants from other African countries, and some 66% did not trust immigrants from overseas. That said, there is reason for hope: 69% of respondents said they wanted a united South Africa. 

As they relate to connectedness with the country, here, too, the position is not healthy. About 11% of high income earners and those with tertiary education were considering emigration. Regarding white and Indian people, 15% and 14%  respectively were considering doing so.

On the positive side, a far healthier picture emerged in relation to South Africans’ sense of community. About 75% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that it important to get involved in the community in which they lived, 47% agreed or strongly agreed that it was important to work for the welfare of their community, and 58% said they actively looked for ways in which they could support people who were less fortunate than themselves.

The data suggests that it is important that the policymakers pay particular attention to fostering much higher levels of social cohesion in the country, more so given the rather precarious level of economic growth and development. 

Social cohesion is far more than a cultural imperative. It affects all aspects of societal life. It is necessary for creating business and investment confidence, the prerequisite for economic growth and job-creation; and it is necessary to ensure a peaceful and stable environment. It nurtures a sense of belonging and creates hope for the future for all citizens, who then see a place for themselves in the country. This builds trust and patriotism among the various communities of the country, who then work together to build prosperity and a shared future.

Professor Klaus Boehnke, of Constructor University in Bremen, Germany, is the project leader for the development of the South African Social Cohesion Index. Daryl Swanepoel is the chief executive of the Inclusive Society Institute and a research fellow at the School for Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University.