Being coherent on cohesion

2012-07-21 12:45

There’s been a lot of talk about social cohesion lately, but how exactly do we go about it?

The recent summit on social cohesion hosted by the arts and culture department is a welcome first step in a long overdue conversation on the subject.

The summit declaration shows glimpses of what is possible, but I am concerned that we may never get to the core of what we need to talk about and resolve.

There are at least two issues upon which future discussions on social cohesion need to be grounded.

The first is the state of “blackness” in South Africa, and where and what needs to be done to improve it.

The second is a clearer definition of the future, universal if not mythical South African – the kind of citizen every child should aspire to be.

Because of our racist past and present, the level of cohesion in black communities remains poor for various reasons.

The migrant labour system ensured that rural communities were left reeling as adulthood meant leaving family and the community to work in the cities.

Regarded as foreigners in industrial centres within their own country, generations of black men could not bring their families to live with them.

The country’s laws prevented this. Nonetheless, urban black communities sprouted and grew, but the social devastation was immense.

The spatial choices of successive apartheid governments, embodied in the Group Areas Act, also displaced many urban black people into townships which often were, and continue to be, far from places of work.

As a result of all this, rural communities had to cope without the presence of men who were in the working prime of their lives.

The conditions of poverty and social disintegration so prevalent in many black communities today is not only a clear outcome of this past, but part of the reasons many black people remain so poor, angry and disconnected from the so-called rainbow nation.

We cannot say for certain but it is possible that the children a daily newspaper showed drinking alcoholic drinks while on their way to school came from homes where there is very little time for parenting.

For many, parenting is sacrificed in order to just put some food on the table.

Waking up at 3am daily to catch a crowded, unsafe train, these parents travel long distances to work as domestic helpers and cleaners.

They play surrogate parents to privileged children while their own go unattended and fall prey to criminal and degenerate elements in our society.

For these children there is no one to see to their preparations for school, and their exhausted parents have no time to help them with their homework.

The impact of this forced neglect on their academic and personal development prospects is immense.

It is no wonder so many of them struggle to make it through school or to fulfil their potential.

We have a warped value system that has commodified moral responsibilities so we can trade them for wages or any other form of remuneration that helps people to survive.

One of the questions we must ask is whether or not it is impossible to have arrangements that would ease the social burden on
so many families.

There are several little things ordinary South Africans can do to lessen the social burden on others that could go a long way towards restoring structure to families and communities that are mostly black.

Nume-rous studies have shown that children who grow up in homes where their parents give them reasonable attention and love also have better prospects in school and in life.

Communities need involved citizens who, in the South African context, can be part of the residents association, the ward committee, the school governing body or the parent-teacher association at the local school.

Where the primary objective is survival there is very little time to play this active role in communities.

This in turn leads to the entrenchment of destructive behaviours and trends that do not help the cause of economic prosperity.

It will be hard, but this vicious cycle can be arrested.

Leadership needs to also be about defining how to reconstruct black communities in a manner that restores their cultural grounding.

Firstly, obscenely long working days, where the opportunity exists, must be cut to a minimum.

Companies and managers can do this with ease, but they often are neither conscious of it nor willing to make it happen.

Secondly, government must be bold in setting out new spatial development plans.

Thirdly, we need to change our leadership selection criteria. While it is a complicated, subjective animal, moral probity needs to once again regain its place in our politics.

We cannot continue hoping for an ethically grounded society when a corruption accused like John Block is overwhelmingly re-elected ANC provincial chairperson, and is still MEC for finance in Northern Cape.

It is also foolhardy to continue electing people whose behaviour is at odds with what citizens teach their children not to do.

Social cohesion is not a complicated concept, it is not only premised on improving material conditions and is not just about racial integration.

It is about building and maintaining structures that allow individuals, families, communities and the country to fulfil their potential, as envisaged in our Constitution.

To do that successfully we need all South Africans to be more honest about the past and the present, and their impact on the future we want to build.

» Zibi is a member of the Midrand Group, an intellectual association. Go to for more

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