- Living Together, Living Apart: social cohesion in a future South Africa ed. by Christopher Ballantine, et al.
The clearest articulation of a working concept of social cohesion in this fine book of brief and pithy essays is given at the beginning of Ahmed Bawa’s contribution:
If social cohesion were the production of a society that is uniform in all respects, it would be impossible to achieve. If social cohesion were about the production of a society that buys into a dominant political discourse or culture, it would be a terrible mistake. If social cohesion were the production of a society that succeeded in the removal of social dissent, labour strikes and so on, it would produce a sterile future. For the purpose of this essay, social cohesion is taken to mean the continuous development of a society that progressively builds broad social purpose and action towards the intensification of its human rights and social justice agendas. As such, it is process rather than event, and process rather than outcome.(134)
Bawa goes on to refer to the Bertelsmann report on social cohesion:
For the social cohesion radar there are three major categories; social connections (social networks, trust in people and acceptance of diversity), connectedness (identification, trust in institutions and perception of fairness), and focus on the common good (solidarity and helpfulness, respect for social rules and civic participation).(136)
The question is where South Africa sits with respect to these indicators some 28 years into its democracy, a question not answered head on in [End Page 124] Bawa’s trenchant discussion of the country, nor quite anywhere else in the book, a book which rather chooses to focus on strands of cohesion, proposed, imagined or realised, running through South African culture and society.
The focus is highly profitable although politics is strangely absent from this book; political parties like the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance are given short shrift although the fault lines of political culture are undoubtedly crucial to the dis-unification of the country at present, a country split between rural and urban alliances, dramatically fragmented with respect to issues of trust in governance, and equally so when it comes to whose networks include whom, and who remains invisible to such well-formed group alliances. Spiralling inequality does feature as a central trope, and is understood to be a root cause of the failure of social cohesion in South Africa. As it also is in America, Brazil and other countries with soaring Gini coefficients (the measure of inequality in wages and wealth) and with inequality the ensuing politics of resentment inevitably leading to virulent/racist nationalism (America), crime (Brazil, South Africa), corruption (South Africa, Brazil and courtesy of lobbyists also in America), and xenophobia (America, South Africa).
Among themes of running interest is the extent to which cohesion is a matter of free choice, of will and decision. To what extend can one simply decide to remake one’s identity in a way that binds oneself to others in the South African context? To what extent is this a fool’s game, given structural constraints on peoples’ lives which insure their apartness? Where does freedom to refashion the self begin and end given the constraints of society, economy, history and politics, of linguistic diversity and education? This theme is given a bold answer in the opening essay of the book by writer, educator and intellectual Njabulo Ndebele who exhorts his readers and especially his black readers that:
It is time for South African ‘blacks’ no longer to put a store on ‘blackness’. To continue to do so is to insist on living in a liminal space, in which dream and effort have become disentangled, almost permanently. It is time that the South African ‘black’ began to appreciate the value of aspiring towards the universal and then to live in it, to become a part of it, to add to it the cumulative value of the experience of being free in the specificity of their historical circumstances, where dream...