Is social cohesion possible?

Mabine Seabe II

In a country where scholars receive textbooks on the eve of their exams, mothers give birth in the hallways of hospitals, protestors are murdered by the state and a society which is still separated by race; can we honestly talk about social cohesion?

According to the Department of Arts and Culture, social cohesion is defined as “the extent to which a society is coherent, united and functional, providing an environment within which its citizens can flourish.” Given this definition and the introduction above, it is clear that South Africa still has a lot to do before it can achieve the status of a socially cohesive society.  One may even argue that we were more united in 1994 than we are today.

In July, the Department of Arts and Culture convened a National Social Cohesion Summit, under the theme ‘Working together to create a caring and proud society’.  The summit aimed to find ways to bring South Africans together to forge a path towards a prosperous society. The question I wish to pose is: how can we work together when we are not together?  A society which is divided (along the lines of black and white, rich and poor, those who have political power and those who do not) cannot be socially cohesive – the foundations are not in place, in the form of social justice.

It is my view that social cohesion is an outcome or goal, which can only be achieved through social justice. Basically, social justice is the process through which social cohesion can be achieved. The Department of Arts and Culture has put the cart before the horse, resulting in zero progress.

When we talk about social justice, we refer to “the extension of principles, enshrined in our Constitution, of human dignity, equity, and freedom to participate in all of the political, socio-economic and cultural spheres of society”.  In view of this definition and the results from the 2011 Census, which painted a picture of a country where the lives of the poor have improved marginally since the last census, and the lives of the rich have flourished, it clear that South Africa still has to go through the long process of social justice, before we can even begin to have a conversation about social cohesion.

Talking about social cohesion before addressing social justice is a slap in the face of the millions of South Africans whose lives are a daily battle just to survive. What has been described as one of the most unequal countries in the world needs to bridge the various gaps that have us as citizens walking different gaps, because for as long we live monumentally different lives in the same country, we will never achieve social cohesion.  There’s no justice in learners in the Eastern Cape being educated in mud structures while the president builds, what could be described as a royal villa, with money from the national treasury.

In essence, we need to think about the language we use when talking about building a better society, and the implications that the language can have in the way we conduct ourselves. Let us work for social justice before we begin talking about social cohesion.