Guest Column

Social cohesion is a political issue

2018-10-07 08:59

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Lukhona Mnguni

A lot of conversation around social cohesion tends to focus on how citizens can join hands and improve their interpersonal relationships. 

This proposition defers the duty for a more cohesive society to citizens who really have limited powers in bringing about true social transformation. Calls for social cohesion are a product of a society that seems at pains with bringing about the existence of citizenship and common solidarity towards one another, partly as an exercise of patriotism. 

A society without social cohesion or even some indicators of its existence is a dysfunctional society because sectarian interests prevail far above the citizens’ collective interest.
The citizens do have a collective interest; it is encapsulated in the Constitution – our social contract. 

The people elect legislators to Parliament, provincial legislatures and municipal councils. These elected representatives are expected to exercise duly vested power and authority to act for the betterment of all citizens and the country as a whole. 

This representative democracy then sees the legislators, among themselves, elect a government that functions across the three spheres. The South African Constitution proposes complex and robust systems of governance. 

At times these have been undermined due to malfeasance by some of the elected public representatives. In this instance, the state gets compromised in fulfilling its obligations to society – mediating the appetites and interests of members of society to foster greater social cohesion and inclusion in society.

Viewed this way, we can argue that the principal agent for social cohesion is government. You cannot separate governance from social cohesion. It is not a matter of individuals liking each other. We must hold the state accountable for failing to bring about social cohesion. 

The state in minimalistic terms is formed of three arms; Parliament, the judiciary and the executive. The media is termed the fourth estate while civil society remains an intricate part of the make-up of the state. 

Government, given its ability to collect revenue, propose laws and policies, disburse resources and enforce said measures is in a pristine position to drive social engineering. Not the citizens. 

The responsibility that citizens have is to elect into positions of power visionary, decisive, accountable and responsive leaders. Once the said leaders have been elected, they have a duty to fulfill the social contract worded into the Constitution with the need to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. 

This is the core purpose of our Constitution, to bring together society by implementing redress through achieving social justice and respect for fundamental human rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states quite clearly that dignity is an inalienable right that should be enjoyed by all human beings.
Ensuring this realisation of people’s dignity is only possible if there is a mediating force put in place to ensure that people’s appetites and subjective interests are mediated. 

The government exists to do this, ensuring that no one is left behind in society and that there is no undue concentration of resources within a particular class in society at the expense of the broader society. The rules and regulations put in place by government are intended to foster social cohesion. 

Social cohesion is defined by some as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper” (Stanley, 2003). Before arriving at the stage of “willingness of members of a society” there has to be an effort to reset some of the asymmetric power relations in society that were inherited through the deformities produced by colonialism and apartheid. 

These asymmetric relations run squarely along socioeconomic lines and are largely, in South Africa, along racial lines. We have become the most unequal society in the world, with high rates of unemployment that have driven up poverty levels in the country over the last five years.
Citizens cannot on their own reset these socioeconomic pressures that are heightening tensions among citizens as a minority holds the greatest wealth while the majority remains destitute. 

There is no ability to foster a willingness among members of the South African society for them to cooperate because the citizens of this country are in structural conflict. 

There is a need for those who have to give up some of their wealth in a sensible manner that will transfer wealth and resources to those who do not have. It is government who should be a catalyst to the realisation of this noble aspiration. Until we deal with the high levels of inequality, it will be impossible to achieve social cohesion in South Africa. 

Such can only be achieved through the state putting up various laws and policies to restructure the current wealth ownership patterns and creating opportunities for upward social mobility across society.

One person on Facebook stated, “As the dishonest politicians continue to abuse power, looting state resources non-stop, the people suffering increases... more than 15 babies die at a GP hospital, more than 300 people injured as a result of train accident (sic) and millions continue to die in silence from preventable diseases and crime... hundreds of thousands of young graduates sit at home unemployed with no hope... the state is no longer fulfilling its role... the political elite and their friends are enjoying life in their Tsunami....”
The above quote sums up how the state remains a central role-player in fixing the issues that act as fissures that prevent our society from achieving social cohesion. 

How can people who are in conflict, trying to reset the asymmetric power relations inherited from colonialism and apartheid and recently from a corrupt democratic government, be expected to achieve social cohesion?

- Lukhona Mnguni is a PhD intern researcher in the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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