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Unisa online - Social cohesion: the art of the impossible?

Unisa Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Prof Narend Baijnath shares his insights on social cohesion

If politics, as we have been taught, is the art of the possible, then, social cohesion, antithetically, appears to be the art of the impossible.

Much as efforts at post-apartheid reconciliation have borne fruit in social and political stability and relative harmony; racial, ideological and socioeconomic fault lines remain omnipotent tensions of seismic magnitude, capable of erupting with devastating consequences.

The quest for social cohesion squares up against a cornucopia of divisive forces. Both the National Planning Commission report, and the more recently published Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) strategy document reiterate the material realities of poverty, unemployment, and lack of opportunity amongst others, underscored by racial and gender differences, as the major and most enduring remnants of our inherited legacy. They continue to pose the most intractable challenges almost twenty years post-democracy.

Culturally, gazes are turned in many different directions, ranging from the ethnic chauvinist and tribalist on the one extreme to the smug classical purist and western jingoist on the other, with several sub-species in-between. A common culture therefore won’t cut the mustard as a binding agent – and will remain so mired for the foreseeable future.

After generations of segregated living, while many have now managed to escape the ethnic ghettos, or climbed the property ladder into suburbia, we are far away from the relaxed social and cultural interaction that is to be expected from the cosmopolitan society we so clearly can and should be living.  Racial stereotypes still dominate how the “other” is perceived and relationships framed – normally from a distance, and with a wary suspicion, born of generations of mistrust. The mental ghetto is far more tenacious a captor.

Linguistically, with forty spoken languages, establishing a language as the lingua franca, and one which becomes the vehicle of common culture is equally elusive. While the major languages have the label ‘official,’ the status of each varies immensely. English dominates communication at the official level. Efforts at promoting and establishing the other indigenous languages have been feeble. In most suburban schools, English and Afrikaans still dominate as the available options, with a greater chance of another European language as a choice, rather than an indigenous one.

Ideological fractures are the defining characteristic of organised politics, with forces diametrically opposed, even within organisations, tearing at the weakened fabric from different ends. Within this melee, the prism of race casts its baleful glare on the body politic.

While the picture is foreboding, all is not doom and gloom for the future. The DAC strategy details a compelling vision ‘of placing the norms and values of citizenship at the heart of national identity’. The main premise behind nation building is that in spite of ‘diverse origins, histories, languages, cultures and religions,’ a society can still be brought together, bound by their shared symbols, common values, collective focus on eradicating inequities, and taking pride in a shared national identity. Coupled with this is the recognition that even while ours is a diverse society, our commonality flows from our citizenship.

Few concepts in our cultural milieu have the stirring force of ubuntu. Rooted in a deeply African humanist philosophy, and resonant with most local cultures and religious traditions, it provides us with the wellspring from which to inspire and sustain our efforts at nation building.

Imbued with such a spirit, the hard prisms of race and privilege can mutate into the soft gaze of one caring human contemplating another. Physical distance can dissolve as easily, for it is expected that the travails of another cannot be disregarded, and that common subscription to humanity, in the spirit of ubuntu, urges a sensitive, caring response. From the wellspring comes the impulsion to alleviate the burdens of the other, as a human duty. The quest for national unity would have found its guiding precept.

Overcoming our fractious legacy will of course not be achieved without huge effort. Since early attempts at conceptualising non-racialism, social cohesion and nation building, efforts have spluttered rather than zipped along. Discussion papers, strategies and policy documents have abounded. But implementation has all too often faltered, or been swept aside by new and zealous arrivistes wanting to make their own mark.

It is clear that given the scale of the challenge, no single social actor can have a monopoly on the effort. Social, cultural and intellectual capital, available at many sites, with the insights, understanding and accumulated wisdom they bring, must be coupled with financial and human capital to leverage the desired change.

After all is said and done, the main outcome to achieve is a decisive shift away from using race and ethnicity as the mainstays of national identity. Otherwise we remain forever captive to the racial legacy bequeathed to us, and thereby demonstrate a singular failure to envision and shape a future that has been defined by creative and progressive minds.

Prof Narend Baijnath

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