What social cohesion?

2012-07-10 00:00

WHAT should we make of the recently concluded social cohesion summit in Soweto? Dialogue for its own sake will not help us understand the truth about our current conditions and therefore the solutions we need.

Although the summit succeeded in bringing together a diverse group of people representing various sectors of society, the most disgruntled people on both sides of a largely racial divide were not really represented.

The black people that live in abject poverty remained on the periphery. Social movements that take up their issues were either ignored or they themselves boycotted the meeting. Apartheid apologists who are intent on protecting ill-gotten privileges and who hold extreme views were also not represented, although some would say the Freedom Front did.

A dialogue that excludes these is denied an opportunity to understand those most affected by the current approach to transformation and those to be most affected by a change in direction is not genuine.

Although the dialogue covered a wide range of issues, the thorny questions of historical injustice, reparations and land restitution divided the meeting between those in favour of radical transformation and those anxious to keep the rainbow way of doing things, where the hope of transformation is placed on a change of heart from those who have. In the spirit of compromise, focus on these issues was watered down in the end.

Judging by the tone of discussions and the resolutions that came out, the summit generally repeated the declarations and commitments that we have had before, and most of which have not been implemented.

This is what happens when a government that has a mandate to drive what is called a national democratic revolution, postpones the pain of change by tip-toeing on thorny issues. It thinks it can seek consensus with injustice.

In one sense, this is a fear to act, an inability to contemplate living with the consequences of its action. If land is going to be redistributed, if street names are going to be changed, if the economy is going to be nationalised, why does Government not do it once and for all, rather than keeping everyone in suspense?

The idea of a South Africa that belongs to all cannot be realised as long as apartheid patterns of spatial, social and economic development persist. As long as millions live in abject poverty, work in semi-slavery conditions on commercial farms, and face perpetual hopelessness, they will not feel that they belong. As a result, they will not act like citizens we envisage in the Vision 2030.

The declaration blames insufficient economic growth, as if socio-economic inequalities that we refer to above are merely an outcome of limited opportunities, rather than structural distortions that still give better life chances to white youth long after freedom.

It makes the assumption that the economic system is so de­racialised and egalitarian that high growth will be distributed equit­ably, such that black youth (who are the worst-off cohort of our population) get a fair share.

As the Oxford University economists recently warned at the Soros Network meeting, the markets do not correct structural distortions; political action does.

On the land issue the analysis is different in that it recognises the effects of skewed colonial and apartheid land ownership and use patterns that the new government’s willing-buyer-willing-seller land reform principle has perpetuated. Independent scientific analyses suggest a need for significant political action to transform this, and this includes radical land reform measures. Even the governing party has realised this by deciding to shift the guiding principle in land reform to equity and justice.

Whether this will be seriously implemented is an open question.

The dialogue also noted the fact that unequal access to basic services, including education and health, continue to prevent social cohesion.

Corruption, both perceived and real, continues to divide the country along class and racial lines. Post-apartheid South Africa has failed to provide these services in a manner that ensures correction of a legacy of neglect for the majority of citizens.

The focus on gender violence, ethnic hatred or xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice repeated the points that we have been talking about for the past 18 years, including the embedded culture of violence, the changing nature of the family, patriarchal tendencies, and collapse of community structures.

The solutions recommended generally relate to promoting the values of humaneness, respect, non-racism, non-sexism and peaceful co-existence by ensuring that all government policies are underpinned by this. Society is to be mobilised to actively pursue the country’s 2030 vision. The state is to do better in improving the lives of people.

None of these solutions address the truth: that there is an unfinished job of courting historical and structural distortions, and that doing so will require radical political action now.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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