The Symbiotic Dilemma: Social Cohesion and Inequality

Ayhan Cetin

Ayhan Cetin

Published Jun 13, 2024


Ayhan Cetin

As per the 2023, South Africa's Gini index, which determines a nation's level of income inequality by measuring the income distribution or wealth distribution across its population, is at 0.63. The index measures inequality on a scale from 0 to 1, with higher values indicating higher inequality. This ranks us among the most unequal countries in the world along with Namibia, Colombia, and Eswatini, according to the World Bank.

In South Africa 10% of the population controlling 90% of the wealth (SAHRC). This inequality generates many social ills, including a youth unemployment rate of 59.7% for those aged 15-24 (StatSA). Additionally, over 15,000 children suffer from severe malnutrition annually, with more than 1000 dying from hunger despite 10 million tonnes of food waste each year (DGMT). Around 18.2 million people live in extreme poverty (Statista), further exacerbating social ills such as high crime rates and gender-based violence.

More than a statistic, this high level of inequality is the reality of contrast and disparities in this very South Africa where millions live. Despite the end of apartheid and the advent of democracy, the promise of democratic socio-economic benefits has, by and large, been unfulfilled for many South Africans.

The lack of progress towards achieving economic equality has had a very serious impact on social cohesion. As recent researches indicate, the direct relation between widening economic inequalities and a decline in interpersonal trust across different groups of society is undeniable. Also, such erosion of trust in others is actually the direct consequence of economic disparities and unequal opportunities. This highlights the intricate link between economic inequality and social fragmentation. The transition from apartheid to democracy, once celebrated as a beacon of hope, has failed to bridge the gap between rich and poor or among different racial groups

Role of Government and Policy

Addressing vertical inequality—the economic gap between the rich and poor—requires strong government policy and political will. Progressive taxation, equitable access to quality education, health care reforms, job creation, skills development, affordable housing and social safety nets are critical. In fact, the implementation of such measures results in a fair and equitable distribution of opportunities and prosperity, allowing each individual, particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder, to independently establish themselves.

However, only government efforts are not enough. Policies and legislation can only set the framework through which to decrease inequality. The horizontal inequality - the differences between different social groups - requires the active involvement of every South African. It needs that conscious efforts are made and hard work is put in to bring about meaningful inter-group interaction.

The powerful role of individual Actions

Every one of us can and should therefore make our contribution to creating a more cohesive nation. Small, everyday acts can have big impacts. Each time we consciously interact with people who are different from us, we build trust across barriers. Schools, workplaces, and community organisations should and can become places of exchange in which South Africans from different backgrounds come together, cultivating mutual understanding and respect.

Interactions that challenge stereotypes, and consequently reduce prejudice and discrimination and foster a sense of belonging are truly needed. When people from different racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds come together for honest and meaningful engagements, this results in the formation of a community that is both inclusive and cohesive. This bottom-up form of social cohesion is ultimately critical in complementing the broader policy efforts to reduce inequality.

The Interconnected Journey

It is clear that the fight against inequality and fostering of social cohesion are two sides of the same coin. High levels of inequality reduce inclusiveness and compromise the social fabric that keeps our communities together. A big gap between the poor and rich creates barriers that prevent people from different economic backgrounds from interacting and understanding each other. In this lack of inclusivity, there grows social fragmentation where people feel isolated and distrusting of others who are different from them.

Socially, a stable and cohesive society is more likely to support economic policies toward the elimination of such disparities. When people feel connected and part of a unified community, they are more motivated to continue the struggle for social justice and equity, and to support appropriate policies. Social cohesion engenders shared responsibility and a sense of connectedness, but it also mobilises everybody toward a common good.

For instance, research shows that a person who perceives himself as living in a more unequal society is less likely to get involved in inter-racial socialisation (SALDRU). This perception, irrespective of the actual statistical measures of the concept, severely impacts social cohesion. When people believe that the economic divide is growing, they become more reluctant to interact with those outside their immediate social circles, reinforcing social divisions. Therefore, fact and perception of inequality have to be improved for the existence of a cohesive society. Paying attention to real inequalities in income, resources, coupled with the change in perception, will help in building trust, which is instrumental in fostering positive social interactions.

Moreover, a cohesive society can drive policy changes. When communities are united based on trust and solidarity, they can advocate equitable policies and make leaders more accountable. This collective action by cohesive communities ensures that government efforts to reduce inequality are effective and sustained. Unified communities are powerful forces for change; they can effectively mobilise resources, influence political agendas, and ensure the efficient implementation of legislation. Therefore, social cohesion serves as both an objective and a method to achieve greater equality.

A Flicker of Hope: The Potential of Coalition Government

We are living in a very unique time in South African history. This is the first time that we will see a coalition government formed, which is made up of members of different political parties working together for the good of all South Africans, regardless of their political affiliation. This is not just a test of political collaboration but an “unprecedented opportunity” to practice social cohesion on the national stage.

This coalition government is, by all standards, a grand experiment in unity and cooperation—an example of how different entities can come together for a common purpose, put aside their differences for the greater good. This is a coalition that is more than just a natural political convenient arrangement; rather, it is a "sign of hope and possibility". It reflects that, despite ideological differences, there is a shared commitment between parties to improve the lives of all South Africans by fighting all kinds of inequalities.

The success of these coalitions can set a powerful example for the entire country. If our political leaders can demonstrate that they can work together cohesively, despite their differences, it can more likely inspire South Africans to do the same in their communities. This practice of political and social cohesion is crucial for addressing the inequalities that divide us.

By navigating the complexities of coalition governance, our leaders can model the very essence of social cohesion: “mutual respect, compromise, and collective action”. They have the opportunity to show that our nation's strength lies in its diversity and that unity is not the absence of differences, but the harmonious integration of those differences. It is only such an approach that can usher in a new era of cooperation—a time when one person's victory is everybody's victory and where the struggle against inequality belongs to everybody.

To move forward, we need to recognise that social cohesion and inequality are inextricably connected. Government policies and strong political will are essential to address vertical inequality, but individual actions are equally important in tackling horizontal disparities.

We must all strive to build bridges across our diverse communities, fostering trust and understanding. Not only does that make a better and more cohesive society, but it is also the environment that is most conducive to fighting inequality. Together, we can ensure that every South African, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to thrive.

As we embrace this dual approach, we should remember that social cohesion is not only about outcomes but very much a process. It needs constant effort, empathy, sincerity, and honest engagement from all of us. Only in such a way can we create a united and equitable South Africa where the promise of democracy is realised for all.

The post-election coalition government is a unique and historic opportunity for South Africa. It is a practical experiment in social cohesion, offering a blueprint for how diverse groups can work together for the common good. As we navigate this new terrain, let the principles of unity, inclusivity, and collective responsibility be reflected. By doing so, we can not only tackle the inequalities that divide us but also build a stronger, more cohesive society for all South Africa. As Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.’ This ethos should guide our efforts to create a fair and cohesive society.”

Cetin is the executive director and trustee of Turquoise Harmony Institute, a South African-based NGO which tries to promote peace, harmony, tolerance and social cohesion through events and platforms by bringing people from different walks of life together.

He is also one of the national social cohesion advocates appointed by the minister of Sport, Arts and Culture.

Before he became the executive director of THI, he served as a teacher and a principal at many schools.

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