The disruptive nature the COVID-19 pandemic has instigated significant effect not only on the economy and public health systems but also on social life and various societal structures. The shocking events from the pandemic have further unveiled deficits on social cohesion in South Africa with its effect exacerbated existing social inequalities and tensions at household, community, local, regional and international levels. Moreover, the resultant stress from the pandemic such as unemployment, loss of business, depression from social isolation and the increased fear from death have made South Africans desperate and in some cases act irrational further enacting the already fragile social cohesion. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the uncertainty to provide for basic needs such as food, shelter and clothes, thus making people frustrated and desperate. For instance the recent #FreeJacobZuma movement that resulted into violence, looting, destruction of property and brutal and senseless killings of 36 people in KwaZulu-Natal, marks the display of frustration, depression and desperation resulting from the pandemic disguised in politics. However, social cohesion is a critical resource not only for national building but also in disaster recovery. Social cohesion is the degree of social connectedness, solidarity and trust between different community groups and individuals in a society. Given the persistence of COVID-19 pandemic in the world coupled with the widening inequality, persistent racial inequality and growing economic stress including loss of business and unemployment it is particularly critical to examining social cohesion in South Africa. Additionally, as social cohesion hinges on overcoming predominant interracial mistrust, prejudices, gender conflicts and negative attitudes towards integration it is critical for national building. How South African’s perceive inequality or not determines their likelihood for interracial interactions. Therefore, South Africa needs to recollect and assess inhibitors of social cohesion as well as reflect on what is needed to forge ahead social cohesion amid the increased tension by the pandemic.
Despite its short leaved history predominantly in the post-apartheid period, social cohesion has become an important construct in South Africa. Persistent calls to harmony and recurring events of racism, prejudice, bigotry and xenophobic attacks are an indication of how conflicted and divided South Africans remain. In giving nuance understanding, division within and across group boundaries in South Africa are perceived to be rooted in four systemic and structural issues of race (racism and discrimination), culture (tribalism, language, customs and religious rites), politics (patronage, empty promises and exclusion) and economics (unemployment, poverty, hunger, money, class, gap between rich and poor). Fundamental, any inequality on these four factors that exist among people in South Africa triggers discrimination and hatred. Social cohesion increased between 2008 and 2011, however, the trend thereafter is less clear. A number of initiatives have been implemented to address the problem; including the Social Cohesion summit launched under the national building strategy. Nonetheless, none seem to have made decisive stride, with xenophobia remaining a constant threat and racisms a horrendous reality in South Africa. Among the reasons contributing to unreachable and unfulfilled social cohesive South Africa include:-
The consequences of growing global inequalities and uneven development are noticeable for their effect on social cohesion in South Africa. The nation with an income Gini index of 0 bears the consequences of having the most unequal society in the world with social and economic inequalities undermining social cohesion. The apartheid legacy and the present government’s governance style are the two main contributors to high Gini index, which is a testament to failure in redistribution of socio-economic benefits. Consequently, the rising inequalities have adverse impact on not only economic development but also the socio-political stability.
The national cultural symbols and particularly, the actual beliefs and codes transmitted, at times indicates distinct deviation from what social cohesion initiatives seeks to achieve. In some instance they have encouraged rather than curtail the divisions so widely experienced throughout the nation.
There is a perpetual loss of optimisms due to the continuance of the government to preside over austerity pushing citizens further into poverty and precarity, combined with the failure to fulfill its duties. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced large majority of people to what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” further widening the social and economic gaps contrally to the advocates of social cohesion.
The low trust levels both inter-personal and institutional as a result of high levels of crime and violence, corruption, dishonesty and the absence of good governance undermine social cohesion.
The defunct notion of the rainbow nation with nothing to bind the people to some extend has acted to divide rather than unite the different social groupings in South Africa. Its distinct colour configuration has effectively conveyed an underlying creed of the past – the notion of “separate-but-equal”, consequently propagating the “them vs us” motif in formal structures, thus not transmitting the primary objectives of social cohesion.
The national motto that is officially and socially-dominantly interpreted generally as “unity in diversity” is also ambiguous in that what it promotes, is it unity or diversity? It appears to promote prevailing, individually distinct, and historically separated cultures. The current national building campaign inadvertently perpetuates past cultural patterns, including those imposed or tainted by a belief system rooted in separateness.
What needs to be done?
Reflecting on the mid-July civil unrest where people died, properties were destroyed and goods looted, the nation needs to realize how crucial a cohesive society is especially in the times of a pandemic. Rhetoric and ideologies are losing their disciplining power, proving less effective at pacifying a troubled country. Therefore, to continue subjecting people to poorly conceived and outdated initiatives will only worsen an already abnormally dire situation. As deputy president Mabuza, the patron of the Moral Regeneration Movement pointed out, this is a collective responsibility for government, businesses, civil societies and non-governmental organisations. To propel South Africa into a society envisioned in the national development plan, the following content highlights what needs to change:-
Redistribution of social and economic resources – The nation needs to redistribute social and economic resources to bridge the existing social and economic gaps. Among the resources that need much focus is in the redistribution is access to land and capital. While other nations suffer from an economy completely dominated by majority of their population, South Africa suffers from the adverse of this. Historically the country is built on a system where minority of the population (less than 10%) owning a significant portion of the economy, with majority population (more than 80%) owning less than 10% of the economy.
Increase spending in black businesses – To accelerate radical economic transformation that will curb economic inequalities, the government needs increase its spending in African businesses to more than 65%. With Africans making 80% of the population such an increase will stimulate economic empowerment to majority and thus lessening the economic gap. It is not expected to happen overnight, but plans for gradual progress must be stipulated towards realising this. Investing in transformation could lead to improved economic distribution for all South Africans.
Increasing minimum wage – The best possible strategy for cutting income inequality and at the same time act respond to poverty is by increasing the minimum wage and also protecting informal workers. South Africa has adopted a minimum wage of R3500 per month and R20 per hour, however this is below the poverty line that means people will still be mired in poverty. The country should implement a minimum wage above the poverty line as a strategy to bridge the economic and poverty gap.
Tackle corruption in the public and private sector. Addressing corruption will ensure that there are sufficient resources to deliver on basic services to communities. Inefficiencies emanate from maladministration and mismanagement of both public and private sectors tend to undermine good intentions of equitable redistribution. This includes illicit capital flows that are stealing the future of millions of South Africans. The government needs to introduce stronger and rigid tax systems that will limit tax evasion and illicit cash flows. Also, people need to witness the conclusion of other corruption fighting strategies like the state capture which due to its prolonged process it has attracted serious attention with violence, placing a wider wedge of division on the society.
Promotion of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) – The government needs to promote rigorous BEE policies measured in terms of results in the distribution of economy. The policy should further ensure that the redistribution of the economy is measured in terms of the number of hands that are equally benefiting from rather than participants in the economy.
Restructuring unemployment and poverty reducing programmes – A relook into programmes aimed at reducing unemployment and poverty is necessary because currently these programmes are not yielding the necessary results. It is also essential to restructure resource allocation towards these programmes.
Promotion of nation building programmes – Programmes aimed at building a cohesive society among citizens and foreign nationals needs to be promoted. Programmes like cultural exchange programmes that will foster cohesion. The low levels of social cohesion are contributory to the current xenophobic attacks that the country is experiencing in some parts of KwaZulu-Natal, Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.