How can we cope better within a fractured society?

Antje Berlin is an independent life coach at Berlin Coaching. (Picture: Supplied)
Antje Berlin is an independent life coach at Berlin Coaching. (Picture: Supplied)

Few people will argue against the notion that there are large tears in South Africa’s social fabric. These rips are caused by fear, suspicion and social withdrawal.

All these are elements which work against the building of social cohesion, says Gillian Eagle, professor in psychology at Wits University.

Scholars describe social cohesion as “the need for a shared sense of morality and common purpose, aspects of social control and social order, the threat to social solidarity of income and wealth inequalities between people, groups and places, the level of social interaction within communities or families, a sense of belonging some place”.

Eagle examined social cohesion against the background of crime, fear and continuous traumatic stress in SA in an article published in the South African Journal of Science in 2015.

She wrote that “in continuous traumatic stress contexts, the source of the danger is unpredictable and unknown. For people living in such high-threat environments it becomes difficult to discriminate between appropriate and paranoid responses to situations, contributing to suspicion, caution and mistrust in interpersonal engagements.”

People tend to keep their heads down, and demonstrate signs of social inhibition and withdrawal.

Eagle explored the traumatic impact of exposure to “fairly pervasive criminality” through fear of crime and continuous traumatic stress to see what the linkages are to the responses to crime and the role it plays in the erosion of social cohesion.

“The post-apartheid state is under pressure and ruptures are evident across the broad range of social formations including trade unions, political constituencies and civil society groupings.”

She adds that SA is struggling to escape a rather “perverse set of social patterns” in relation to crime and violence.

“The impact of high levels of exposure and associated fear, anxiety, anger, aggression, disillusionment, contributes to the breakdown in desirable aspects of social cohesion, creating a context in which further violations continue to take place largely unchecked.”

Sound familiar?

Antje Berlin, independent life coach at Berlin Coaching, says fear and anxiety are not only a South African phenomenon.

“However, in this country, more so than in other countries, there is a built-in victimhood. And that shuts people down. Out of that also comes a sense of entitlement that others owe me and need to do things for me,” she explains.

The first step out of victimhood is for the victim to claim responsibility for things that are acceptable and things that are not. Once that happens, the victim re-engages with life.

“We are still vulnerable, things are still not great, but from that sense of vulnerability which is so different from victimhood, we can start reaching out to others and connect again.”

Berlin says there is a historical fear of diversity in South Africa. This fear disconnects people from one another and it causes people to avoid talking to one another, because they think a different view is frightening.  

The thinking enhancer

However, most research shows that diversity is a “thinking enhancer”.

“We need to embrace diversity to think better together. That means we have to talk to each other and we have to listen to each other.”

Berlin says South Africans need to constantly see one another with “fresh eyes” and not to assume they know all about each other that they need to know.

“SA’s diversity is an asset to the country. We can really thrive if we embrace it as something that can propel us forward, because it makes us flexible, complimentary to, and curious about each other.”

Each individual should strive to be more conscious, to be present, to be open and to be less assuming of how things are and to be more curious about the possibilities that may present themselves.

“We need to be aware of the distractions that prevent us from being present and being open. We can create a little bit of stillness for ourselves every day, and nurture ourselves to be able to be more awake and conscious in our choices.”

Eagle refers to research done in 2001 which looked at ways people, especially those in “under-resourced communities”, mobilise against crime. The study found that 15% of the men and 30% of the women in those communities said they did nothing to prevent violence “because there is nothing we can do”.

Berlin says the change will come when all the small steps start adding up.

“I believe in peaceful evolution and not aggressive revolution.” She adds that the aggression and anger are real. The balance, she suggests, will come when some South Africans speak more while others listen more.

It is not going to be easy

Unfortunately, there are no easily implementable answers that will create the conditions for a form of social cohesion that contributes to a “less crime facilitating and interpersonally abusive society”.

Eagle says during the period of “resistance politics” in apartheid SA, social cohesion was in many instances generated out of communal opposition to state repression and systematic structural abuses. It was also fuelled by the shared vision of building a democratic and just society.

“At this point in the history of SA it is much harder to identify what kinds of anchor points might create the same kind of platform for social cohesion.”

Sociopolitical change is reliant on a citizenry that holds others accountable at every level, from the immediate neighbourhood to government.

“In addition, an active citizenry needs to both censure that which violates and promote that which creates the conditions for an ethical and humane society, in large measure by exposing and tackling links between structural and more closely personal violence,” says Eagle.

Or it may be easy

Berlin says South Africans should be more curious about one another. “We need to be more playful and to let go of limiting assumptions of each other.”

She says in spirituality they often speak of the “beginners mind” – those “fresh eyes” – where we can see one another from that place.

“We need to let go of the assumption that we cannot trust each other, that we are all just competing against each other, or that we are incapable of certain things because of where we come from.”

This article originally appeared in the 15 June edition of finweekBuy and download the magazine here. 

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