South Africa’s Perpetual Struggles with Reconciliation and Social Cohesion: “It’s The Economy, Stupid”

By Published On: 7th March 2017

A contrast image of one of South Africa’s overlooked inequality, Imizamo Yethu Township next to the leafy Hout Bay suburb in Cape Town. Photo by: Johnny Miller

Just as James Carville had used the phrase as one of the core messages to help president Bill Clinton get elected in the 1992 US election, this should be the central message to all those concerned with social cohesion, reconciliation and a more united South Africa.

As per the United Nations Development Department, there are two principal dimensions of social cohesion: (i) the reduction of inequalities, disparities and exclusion and (ii) the strengthening of social relations and ties. From the Truth and Reconciliation process onwards, tremendous amounts of work have been done on the latter. However, it is becoming evident that people are increasingly unwelcoming towards public engagement and dialogue, frustrated by the lack of material change. It is with addressing inequalities, disparities and exclusion where our gains must now be made primarily. Quite simply, reconciliation and the project of building of a socially cohesive society cannot take place without socioeconomic justice. The project of building a more cohesive society is restricted to marginal returns as long as it continues to build on an unequal economic base, where a large constituent of the country’s citizens lack access to resources and realistic opportunity to improve their own lives (i.e. social mobility).

Social cohesion and reconciliation, as characteristics of a society, are often best recognised in their absence. We recognise a society’s lack of cohesion in the extent of its divisions. These divisions and frustrations in South Africa are clear, and have over the past few years found an outlet in the form of the #FeesMustFall protests, the general upward trend in the working days lost to labour unrest since 2009, and an upsurge in the amount of violent protests over the same period. Relatedly, our labour-employer relations are also consistently ranked the worst in the world by World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index. This is in addition to other important divisions highlighted in IJR’s own research: (i) the levels of racism experienced by citizens (experienced by 6-out-of-every-ten South Africans), (ii) the general distrust of other race groups (67% have little or no trust in other race groups), and (iii) a high level of distrust and dislike of foreigners (in which South Africa ranks near the top amongst African countries for levels of intolerance toward foreigners).

This material basis for social cohesion and reconciliation is clearly understood by South Africans, the majority of whom (61%) agree that “reconciliation is impossible as long as people who were disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor.” This finding is consistent across race and LSM groups. Survey respondents to the 2015 South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) highlight that inequality between the rich and poor is the country’s greatest source of social division, and two-thirds of respondents indicate that inequality has gotten worse or remained the same since 1994.

Our key challenges in fostering a more cohesive society are thus to a large extent synonymous with the issues that leading economic researchers have identified as the obstacles in creating an inclusive economy. Amongst others, these are “rising unemployment that affects young people, in particular, huge disparities in earnings and wealth, and an education system that perpetuates inequality.” A few of their noteworthy findings include that:

  • If your parents are poor, the chances of your being poor are about 90%.
  • About 10% of the population owns 95% of the wealth.
  • Our public education system is generally so poor that only 4% of those who enter school are likely to get a tertiary degree (and most of these students will have attended former white Model C or private schools).
  • Those who live in urban areas and earn the least, pay up to 40% of their incomes in transport costs because they live far from their work.

In sum, those of us who are in the business of building more cohesive and peaceful societies cannot afford to neglect issues of equality and social justice. Whilst fostering debate, dialogue, and public engagement with the aim of building relationships are admirable and necessary, we seriously need to engage with issues and policies pertinent to redistribution, access to resources and equality of opportunity.

Tiaan Meiring is an Intern in the Policy and Research Programme at the IJR.

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