A Long Walk to Social Cohesion

Building an inclusive South Africa requires improved migration management and more political will, writes VINCENT WILLIAMS.

Seventeen years ago, South Africa emerged from more than four decades of legal apartheid. One of the many consequences of this political dispensation was the creation of a society obsessed with issues of race and difference. An Idasa survey conducted in 1998 found that, while most South Africans acknowledged the need to overcome the legacies of apartheid by working to construct a common national identity (often finding expression in the concept of the ‘new South Africa’), suspicion towards other groups remained relatively high, primarily based on racial difference.

The incident at the University of the Free State, the recent spat between minister Trevor Manuel and government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi following the latter’s comments about an ‘oversupply of coloureds in the Western Cape’, the outrage over columnist Kuli Roberts’ characterisation of coloured women, and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) racial undertones of both the ANC and DA campaigns in the run-up to May 2011 local government elections, suggest that despite efforts to forge a society in which race is not the foremost determinant of social relations, the race relations question in South Africa is far from being resolved.

‘United in our diversity’ is the often-used slogan to paint the veneer of a society that has come to terms with its racial past and increasingly acknowledges and respects difference, without this becoming the basis for tension and conflict. Below the surface, however, racial divisions remain as real as ever, and as we have seen, it only takes a spark to ignite a racial furore – whether the utterings of Julius Malema or the murder of Eugene Terreblanche.

In 2006, government’s Policy Co-Ordination and Advisory Services unit (PCAS) published a report titled A Nation in the Making: A Discussion Document on Macro-Social Trends in South Africa, often referred to as the Macro-Social Report (MSR). It reflects on key social indicators and trends in South Africa, noting that ‘the release of the MSR for public discussion provides an opportunity for interaction across society on the many critical issues it raises. This will afford South Africans the opportunity to reflect on such critical matters as identity, networks of social solidarity and social mobility – the better to determine the role that each one of us can play in building a society that cares’.

While released five years ago, the key conclusions of the MSR remain relevant today: namely, that we have a long way to go to achieve the desired evels of integration and social cohesion and that monumental efforts are required to undo the legacies of the past, including the need for active campaigning and consistent interventions and programmes on the part of government and civil society. Of course, increasing economic and social inequality, which correspond closely with racial inequality, compounds an already complex set of issues, making it imperative to address issues such as race, and also to make substantial improvements in economic and social transformation and service delivery.

Amidst all of this, the question of migration and the place of migrants in South African society emerges as a controversial issue, often exacerbating dormant tensions and frustrations that exist, particularly in poorer communities where lack of access to basic social and welfare services are most acutely felt.

The South African nation-building project is about developing allegiance to a set of common values, as prescribed by the Constitution. These values include, amongst others, equality, human dignity and respect, and are the pillars of this democratic society. However, an unintended consequence of nation-building is that migrants are often seen as a threat to national identity and social cohesion. The outcome is the creation of a divide between those who ‘belong’ and those who ‘do not belong’, with country of origin or nationality as the distinguishing characteristic between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.

This leads to the creation of different, and often unequal classes of membership in society and, in the longer term, creates tension and conflict that can have a significant impact on stability at local community level (as we saw during the attacks on foreign migrants in 2008). Ultimately, this can undermine social cohesion and the ideals of, and ability to achieve the values enshrined in, the Constitution.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in 2006, former secretary general Kofi Anan observed that ‘ultimately, migration is not about wealth and poverty, but about the sort of societies we wish to live in’. He argued, in essence, that the manner in which we treat migrants tells us more about our own attitudes, beliefs and behaviours than it does about migrants themselves. In other words, our treatment of migrants reflects the values – or absence of values – that should underpin a democratic and cohesive society.

In 2001, former president Thabo Mbeki warned that ‘we must continue to be vigilant against any evidence of xenophobia against the African immigrants. It is fundamentally wrong and unacceptable that we should treat people who come to us as friends as though they are our enemies.’

Clearly, we have not heeded these words, and precisely because we have neglected to develop the necessary mechanisms, policies and legal frameworks, we risk increasing social fragmentation. In the long term, this may have serious consequences for our ability to maintain and nourish the democracy that many have fought so hard to achieve.

This applies to the manner in which we manage the entry and stay of migrants in our country, but perhaps even more importantly, how we manage relationships between our citizens. Inevitably some tension arises when people compete for the same resources, and instinctively, some form of group identity – whether based on language, religion, nationality or otherwise – will be used to legimise access for some and the exclusion of others.

The challenge before us is how to manage these tensions and competition and prevent threats to our ability to function as a society and a community. Achieving this of course requires technocratic and bureaucratic regulations and solutions, but fundamentally, this is a task that requires political and social decision-making and strategic interventions to determine and shape the outcomes we desire.

Vincent Williams is manager of the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) at Idasa.

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