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Challenges and prospects

The ‘rainbow nation’ still retains deep social divisions arising from its troubled past and the mixed results of various initiatives over the last 18 years to build a truly cohesive society. A number of things need to be done to aid this process.


Social cohesion has long been a topic of inquiry and investigation for social scientists both on a sociological and psychological level. In South Africa in particular one of the main objectives of the new post-Apartheid government under the leadership of Nelson Mandela was to build an inclusive, non-racial and democratic society. Even though progress has been made over the past 18 years, indications are that South Africa is still a hugely divided country that is characterised by high levels of inequality and social division. This policy brief provides a definition of the term social cohesion and discusses social cohesion in the South African context. It then goes on to identify challenges the country still faces with regards to social cohesion as well as the prospects of making the vision of social cohesion a reality in South Africa.


From a government point of view, the South African government sees the transformation and unification of the South African society as one of the main objectives that are outlined in its 2030 National Development Plan. [1] The vision is that the Constitution of South Africa must serve as the basis of any discussions on national unity and social cohesion in the country so that the things South Africans have in common can be strongly emphasised and promoted rather than the differences between people. Thus, the experiences people have together will be able to progressively undermine and cut across the divisions of race, gender, space and class.

The vision is that the people of South Africa ultimately will become more accepting of the multiple identities of people [2] and the values of an inclusive society and economy that is contained in the Constitution. [3] Attempts to work towards the realisation of this vision have been championed by the South African Department of Arts and Culture through the National Social Cohesion and Nation Building Summit that took place in June 2012. Delegates at the summit acknowledged that social cohesion to a large extent depends on the ability of us as society to address the challenges of building a socially cohesive and inclusive society. Furthermore they recognised the necessity for citizens to cohere around a unified vision for a better South Africa and that such a vision can be attained by working together. As such the delegates at the summit resolved that to address the challenges of social cohesion effectively the following needs to happen:

• Society needs to be mobilised in its entirety to work together to build a caring and proud society based on shared values and a vision informed by the principles of the Constitution;

• We need to work towards the implementation of the recommendations of the 2030 National Development Plan;

• We need to ensure that social cohesion and nation building underpins all national, provincial and local government strategic priorities;

• All indigenous cultures and knowledge needs to be promoted and preserved;

• Acceleration of change in improving the quality of life of all people of South Africa with special attention to the needs of the youth, women and people with disability;

• The state must continue to build capacity to drive its agenda of socio-economic improvement in the country;

• Any form of discrimination that can act as a threat to social cohesion and nation building must be fought against;

• Human dignity and equality must be respected;

• Existing national, heritage and other honours and awards to recognise contributions to social cohesion and nation building must expanded;

• A Nation-Building Project Management Manual and Toolkit must be developed that can be used by practitioners at all levels;

• A National Social Cohesion Report Back and Monitoring Summit must be convened in 2014 to coincide with the celebration of 20 years of freedom and democracy. From there onwards such summit should be held every five years to report back on progress with regards to social cohesion and nation building; and lastly

• A detailed plan arising from the proposal made during the summit should be developed and presented to the President and Cabinet by a group of eminent South Africans. [4]


Many studies on social cohesion have tried to come up with a concrete definition for the term social cohesion but no single definition has ever been agreed upon. [5] According to Friedkin it is this lack of a combined definition of social cohesion that has led to confusion among academics and researchers. [6] He further notes that individual-level indicators of social cohesion firstly refer to individuals’ membership attitudes or the desire or intention of an individual to remain in a specific group, their loyalty to that group; and their attitudes towards other members of that specific group. Second, indicators of social cohesion at an individual level can refer to one’s behaviour to build loyalties, participation, belonging, commitment to that particular group. [7]

Kunene (2009) writes that

‘The term Social Cohesion refers to those factors that have an impact on the ability of a society to be united for the attainment of a common goal. It is the extent to which members of a society respond collectively in pursuit of these shared goals and how they deal with the political, socio-economic and environmental challenges that are facing them that needs to be assessed.’ [9]

There are two traditions of analysing social cohesion. The first of these traditions are to analyse social cohesion from the perspective of the academic social sciences and the second is to analyse social cohesion from a policy perspective. [9] In terms of the intellectual, more academically oriented perspective, the origin of the term social cohesion can be traced back to sociological theory and, according to Chan at al, at least to the time of Emile Durkheim. [10] The literature on social cohesion has provided considerable insights into the conceptualisation of social cohesion, even though most sociologists are mainly concerned with and interested in viewing the questions of social integration and stability in systemic terms. Social psychologists however have provided useful frameworks of measuring social cohesion in the context of group cohesion as a whole. [11] The second tradition of analysing social cohesion that comes from the perspective of policymakers and social policy analysts has to deal with the problem of measuring social cohesion in a more direct way due to the pressure to come up with a solution to the problem. [12] Chan, To and Chan argue that this largely problem-driven approach can also account for some of the common problems with regards to the way that social cohesion is being defined in the policy-oriented literature, mainly because of confusion between the constituents and the causes and effects of social cohesion. [13] Both perspectives however are inadequate by lacking a clear and operational definition that can facilitate empirical investigations on the possible correlation between the levels of cohesion and other socio-economic qualities of or indicators of a society. [14]


The country’s transition to democracy has been hailed as a miracle by many commentators, as Gibson (2004) highlights that ‘[f]rom the point of view of a society that formally abandoned apartheid less than a decade ago – a society in which civil war was a very real possibility in the not-too-distant past – the levels of racial reconciliation discovered in this survey are remarkable’ [15] The first major step that the country took towards nation-building, reconciliation and social cohesion was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process which was undertaken between 1996 and 2001. The TRC was enacted by the South African Parliament through the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (Act 34 of 1995). 16"> The responsibilities of TRC were to investigate incidents of gross human rights violations that took place in South Africa between 1st of March 1960 and 10th of May 1994. It also intends to grant amnesty to persons who were willing to make full disclosure about their participation in such crimes. The Commission was further tasked to make recommendations to the presidency with regards to the creation of institutions that can be conducive towards the creation of a stable and fair society. [17]

According to Kunene the questions South African citizens should ask themselves 18 years after the end of Apartheid are:
• How successful has efforts been in uniting the South African people and promoting change and cohesion amongst themselves?

• Has there been any significant progress with regards to the factors that determined cohesion in post-Apartheid South Africa?

• What still needs to be done to achieve an integrated and socially cohesive society? [18]

The South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey since its inception in 2003 continuously found that South Africa remains a deeply divided society. [19] The National Planning Commission (NPC) also concur that race is a major dividing line in South African society. [20] The 2011 edition of the SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey further found that race is not the only dividing factor and that income inequality emerged as the biggest social divider in South Africa. Other big dividers that were identified by the survey are political party affiliation and membership, disease or HIV/AIDS, religion, and language.

A very positive outcome of the survey was that 66 percent of all respondents agreed that creating a unified country is a desirable goal whilst 60 percent indicated it as an attainable goal.[21] This was shared by views which indicated that it is indeed an achievable goal. [22] This raises concerns regarding the sustainability of relations across historic dividing lines.

Identity seems to play bigger role in disintegrating people, as shown by 18% of South Africans who reported that they associate most strongly with people who speak the same language as them. Furthermore, about 19 percent of people associate with people of the same ethnic group as well as people of the same race. About 73 percent of the respondents agreed that sense of belonging makes them feel good about themselves, while 65 percent them feel important and 63 percent feel secure. [23] Another aspect that the survey asked respondents about was their levels of comfort in talking about race. This indicates that almost two decades after the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa people are still uncomfortable discussing issues of race out in the open, especially with people whom they consider or perceive to be different from themselves. This is a big challenge to the creation of a unified South African society.

The disturbing statistical fact is that about 17 percent of people indicated that they rarely do socialise with people of difference race and 42 percent never socialise with people from different race groups. [24]


The key factors that are a threat to social cohesion are mainly the racial tensions and intolerance, which prevent a civil dialogue between racial and ethnic groups. Beyond the racial tensions and intolerance, inequality also plays a bigger role in fuelling the tensions and weakening the country’s social fabric. High unemployment has worsened inequality and poverty, hence dividing the nation to what former president Thabo Mbeki described as a ‘two-nation’ in one. In essence, these ‘two nations’ are characterised by unequal access to infrastructure and unequal access to opportunities. [25] Without opportunities to get ahead, poor people are more likely to face problems like drug addiction and getting involved in violence, gang activities and crime. [26]

The key factors that exacerbate racial and ethnic tensions and prejudices are economic inequality, political instability, and socio-cultural diversity. All these key factors play a critical impact on how South Africans live; socialise and work together as a nation.

Economic inequality: South Africa is still economically divided with the white minority that are on average wealthier that most black South Africans. Although some black South Africans have made economic progress, there is still a long way to go as too many black people still live under immense poverty. [27] Seekins (2007) and Naidoo (2009) argued that the impact of apartheid had perpetuated income poverty and increase income inequality that resulted in wealth disparities between black and white. Seekins [28"> further argued that poverty did not exist alongside wealth, because segregation kept the rich and poor apart in the same country. This is reflected on levels of high unemployment amongst black people that aggravates their poverty condition. This has created racial inequalities as some race got ahead economically at the expense of other groups. [29"> According to a Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) study, unequal economic opportunities divided the racial groups and created economic instability that resulted in people being feeling more intolerant, less satisfied with life and more discriminated against. [30"> It through these socio-economic inequalities that incidences such as the events that took place at Marikana in the North West Province of South Africa can still happen after 18 years of democracy.

Cultural diversity: Although we often celebrate the diversity of our cultures, there is contempt, fear and hatred amongst South Africans. These celebrations have become perfunctory with no real substance to our traditional practices. Naidoo [31"> argues that the vital connection amongst people and narrow race-based traditional cultures was lost when society was structured along racial lines. As a result, cultural diversity and racial segregation has increased racial tension and prejudice. South Africans still live different lives due to geographical areas and cultural backgrounds. Those are the factors that increase the knowledge gap, as we don’t really know each other and lack shared norms. [32"> There is no opportunity to really get to know each other, embrace our different racial background. Almost 49 percent of people believe that traditions and values are under threat as their culture is either undermines or influence by other racial and ethnic groups. [33"> It was also revealed that white people have been found less tolerant of other racial groups. It was also noted that people in rural areas are less tolerant and less cohesive than the urban people as there are more marginalised. [34"> As long as we don’t recognise that culture is a way of life, we will never overcome our racial and ethnic differences.

Growing political discontent: Due to the past injustices that has a bearing on today’s democracy; racial and ethnic groupings feel threatened and compelled to fight for their survival. Although South Africa has made great strides, [35"> racial prejudice and tension remains a time bomb. It has been suggested that racial tensions in South Africa have been on the increase in recent years. An example of one of the biggest recent cases that have contributed to racial tension was the case where the Afri-Forum have lodged a complaint against the former leader of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), Julius Malema and accused him of fuelling racial tensions by singing the song ‘Dubula iBhunu’ (‘Shoot the Boer’) at public events and meetings where he has addressed members of the Youth League. Afri-Forum eventually won the case which has ended up in the High Court and Malema was found guilty of using hate speech against another racial group.

There has also been an increased power struggle between the ANC and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA blames the current national problems on the leadership of the ANC. This has posed a serious threat to the political peace and stability of the country, as the ANC has been criticized for lacking the necessary skills to build a productive cohesive nation. [36"> Other critical issues being reported on media are the level of corruption within party officials, with reports of politicians who embezzle public funds. It was argued that official engagement in corrupt activities and partaking in dodgy deals are indications of an uncaring leadership and threats to society. [37"> Moreover, the high level of service delivery protests since 2004 have highlighted the dissatisfaction of citizens on the current leadership and poor service delivery. [38">

The Multi-Level Government Initiative (MLGI), a multi-disciplinary research, policy development, advocacy and consulting project based in at the Community Law Centre of the University of the Western Cape have launched the Service Delivery Protest Barometer which is an initiative that aims to facilitate greater understanding of the prevalence, nature and reasons for service delivery protests in South Africa. [39"> According to the findings of the Barometer, there have been more service delivery protests in the first 8 months of 2012 than in any other year before with 226 protests or an average of 28 protests per month. If these trends and figures continue as towards the end of December, 2012 would have had twice as many service delivery protests as in 2011 (average of 12 protests per month) and more than in 2010 and 2011 combined. [40"> Even more disturbing is the fact that in the first 8 months of 2012 79, 2 percent of all protests ended in violence which is a 27 percent increase in between 2012 and the preceding five years’ average. [41">

Gradshaw [42"> argued that there is tension between democracy and service delivery as government continues to confront high levels of unemployment and poverty. He further argued that the institutional legitimacy is a big concern as it threatens the country’s stability and impede conflict management. It was also noted that the public feels powerless to hold their public officials accountable and believe that officials lack leadership qualities that can unify the nation. [43">

Social diversity: The socio-political history of South Africa has contributed significantly to the segregation of people. For many years, black and white people were forced to live separate lives and enjoyed different opportunities, to the neglect of black ethnic groups. Today’s racial and ethnic tensions are a result of the past, though the nation celebrates diversity, apartheid structures will never disappear and will remain a pain to most black people. [44"> It was noted by Gramshaw [45"> that although South Africans believe that respect for religious and language groups will increase, may be in the future white people still display the least optimism than most black people do. It is unlikely that the situation will change for most part of our lives; we still live separated lives, still exhibit signs of xenophobia, still do not trust one another, still assert attitudes of superiority or succumb to feelings of inferiority. [46"> Although people may see each other from work, our lives are still different as we attend different churches, socialize at different places, and attend different schools. According to Lombard [47">, most people agreed that they never talk nor socialise with their compatriots of other races and ethnic groups.


Despite South Africa being regarded as a 'rainbow nation’ due to its diverse cultural background, many South Africans feels that the name is not living up to its promises of inclusiveness. [48"> The notion of a ‘rainbow nation’ was coined by Nelson Mandela to embrace cultural diversity in order to promote a civic culture based on the principles of liberal democracy, non-racism, equality and the protection of individual rights. However, the discourses around this name reflect that it is losing its significance. These obstacles make the prospects of building a caring and proud society fruitless and hopeless as citizens are disintegrated and remains deeply divided by race, ethnicity and economic inequality. This kind of cohesion is a far cry from the notion of ‘unity’ often bandied about by self-serving politicians who are trying to rustle up support for themselves and their parties. [49">

Our constitutional values are embedded on building an equitable society where opportunities are not defined by race, gender, class or religion. These values further encompass economic growth, social inclusion, social cohesion, active citizenship that binds the country together in moving forward. However, the striking constitutional values that state “South Africa belongs to all who live within it” does live up to those constitutional values and expectations as society remains divided with unequal distribution of wealth. The citizens still face injustices in many forms, be it economic, social, and are disintegrated to such an extent that social cohesion will remain a challenge for as long as injustices still prevail between racial lines.

Many reasons have been put forward to explain slow progress towards social cohesion – with some blaming the apartheid regime, economic inequalities, socio-cultural differences and the government for not addressing social inequalities. The increasing cultural diversity in our communities necessitate that government minimise tension and prejudice. The South African government called for the social cohesion dialogue summit in order to assist citizens to openly examine race relations in order to work together to make progress. In many parts of South Africa racial and ethnical divisions prevent citizens from working together on addressing common concerns such as education, jobs creation and crime prevention. It remains elusive whether the racial dialogue will create an opportunity for people across all races, ethnic groups, political affiliation and all walks of life to address these issues. It is therefore important that government should:

• Empower its citizens to sustain and increase the social cohesion dialogue through understanding and appreciation of our cultural diversity;

• Strengthen polices that address social and economic inequality by providing a conducive environment for equal opportunities;

• Strengthen and support heritage day activities such as National Braai Day; and

• Encourage political tolerance along racial lines. Here especially political parties have a big role to play.


Diversity remains a contentious issue for most South African as the discourse around racial prejudice, inequalities, unemployment and poverty centralise our debates as a country. A new democratic South Africa has brought an awareness of the rich and cultural diversity of our country, hence a constitution that seeks to provide for inclusion, diversity and redress. Nonetheless the National Development Plan has alluded to the fact that inequality hardens society in class systems, imprisoning people in the circumstances of the birth and it corrodes trust amongst fellow citizens. [51"> It is therefore imperative that every South African get involved in forging a social compact that could move South Africa to a higher developmental trajectory, in order to effectively address social cohesion.


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National Planning Commission. 2011. Transforming society and uniting the country. National Development Plan 2030, pp. 457 – 478.

[iii"> Ibid.

[iv"> Ibid, p. 460.

[v"> Department of Arts and Culture. 2012. Declaration and Programme of Action of the National Social Cohesion and Nation Building Summit.

[vi"> Friedkin, N.E. 2004 Social Cohesion. Annual Review of Sociology, Volume 30, pp. 409 – 425.

[vii"> Ibid, p. 409.

[viii"> Ibid.

[ix"> Kunene, Z. 2009. Social Cohesion: A South African Perspective. Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance.

[x"> Ibid, p. 274.

[xi"> Ibid, p. 275.

[xii"> Ibid, p. 277.

[xiii"> Ibid, p. 279.

[xiv"> Ibid.

[xv"> Ibid.

[xvi"> Gibson, J.L. 2004. Overcoming Apartheid – Can Truth Reconcile A Divided Nation? Cape Town: HSRC Press, p. 167. See Chipkin, I. & Ngqulunga, B. 2008. Friends and Family: Social Cohesion in South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 34 (1), pp. 65 – 66.

[xvii"> Gibson, 2004: 9.

[xviii"> Van Zyl, P. 1999. Dilemmas of Transitional Justice: The Case of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Journal of International Affairs, Volume 52 (2), pp. 647 – 667.

[xix"> Kunene, 2009.

[xx"> Lefko-Everett, K., Nyoka, A. & Tiscornia, L. 2011. SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey: 2011 Report. Cape Town: Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

[xxi"> National Planning Commission (NPC). 2011. Diagnostic Overview, p. 26.

[xxii"> Lefko-Everett et al., 2011: 31.

[xxiii"> Ibid, p. 29.

[xxiv"> Ibid.

[xxv"> Ibid.

[xxvi"> Ibid, p. 31.

[xxvii"> Ibid, p. 30.

[xxviii"> Seekings, J. 2007. Poverty and Inequality after Apartheid. Paper prepared for the second ‘After Apartheid Conference’, Yale, 27-28 April 2007.

[xxix"> No name. Facing the challenge of racism and race relations.

[xxx"> Ibid.

[xxxi"> Ibid.

[xxxii"> Gordon, S., Roberts, B & Struwig, J. 2012. Slow walk to freedom: attitudes towards race relations. HSRC Review, Volume 10 (3).

[xxxiii"> Struwig, J., Roberts, B. & Davids, Y.D. 2011. From bonds to bridges: towards a social cohesion barometer for south Africa. HSRC Review. Volume 9 (4).

[xxxiv"> Naidoo, M. 2009. Cultural diversity and racism in South Africa.

[xxxv"> Bradshaw, G. 2009. Social cohesion in a post-conflict context: case study of South Africa 12 years on. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, ISSJ 192 UNESCO.

[xxxvi"> Naidoo, 2009.

[xxxvii"> Struwig et al., 2011.

[xxxviii"> Bradshaw, 2009.

[xxxix"> Mashao, M. 2012. Social cohesion is more than just summit talks. History matters. Times Live.
[xl"> Ibid

[xli"> Koelble, T and LiPuma, E. 2009. Why are we still waiting?The politics of service delivery in South Africa.

[xlii"> Multi-Level Government Initiative. 2012. Service Delivery Protest Barometer.

[xliii"> Multi-Level Government Initiative. 2012. Service delivery protests barometer 1: Frequency and fluctuation by year and season.
[xliv"> Ibid.

[xlv"> Multi-Level Government Initiative. 2012. Service delivery protests barometer 3: Percentage of protests that are violent in nature.

[xlvi"> Bradshaw, 2009.

[xlvii"> Lombard, J.P. 2004. The state of reconciliation: report of the third round of SA reconciliation barometer survey. Pretoria: Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

[xlviii"> Naidoo, 2009.

[xlix"> Bradshaw, 2009.

[l"> Naidoo, 2009.

[li"> Lombard, 2004.

[lii"> Dickow, H. & Møller, V. 2002. South Africa’s `Rainbow People', National Pride and Optimism: A Trend Study. Institute of Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University.

[liii"> Stinson, A.T. 2009. National Identity and Nation-Building in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Arts in Political and International Studies, Rhodes University, December 2009.

[liv"> National Planning Commission. 2011. Our future – make it work. National Development Plan 2030.