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South Africa: Immense and imminent possibilities

Clearly, the weakening value system — manifesting itself in many appalling ways and propelled by various intricate factors — in our society is straining our social fabric and could end up reversing gains made thus far.

It is in times like these that some readily invoke WB Yeats’s most quoted line: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Although some of developments in our great country could imply that Yeats’s mourning could hold, in our case I argue that such a characterisation is inaccurate.

To start with, let me quickly define terms relevant for this “polemic”: as a descriptive term, “social cohesion” refers to the extent to which a society is coherent, united and functional, providing an environment within which its citizens can flourish. As such, understandably, strengthening social cohesion and nation building are generally used interchangeably as though they signify same thing. Perhaps this is oversimplification. Suffice to say here that, recently, among political philosophers and political scientists, there has been renewed interest in what Montesquieu called vertu — the substantive commonality between people in a democratic state.

For example, Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, has revived this term (vertu). He argues that democratic participation requires not only a commitment to the democratic project, but also a special sense of bonding among the people. If Taylor’s perspective is sound, it follows that social cohesion and social capital, which refers to the assets accumulated through various social networks and relationships, based on trust, which enable people to work together to achieve common goals, are directly interlinked. Simply put, social capital is a resource created by participating in social networks; it is found in bonding relationships, within social units, and bridging relationships between social units according to Robert Putnam’s social capital theory. All of this taken together, a conclusion could be reached about South Africa that due to weak social networks and ineffective social capital, social cohesion is deteriorating.

Among the most profound and forever reverberating remarks that Nelson Mandela made at the advent of our democracy was a call that we “seize the time to define for ourselves what we want to make of our shared destiny”. This plea came with the realisation, as he stated, that “none of us acting alone can achieve success”. He then appealed that “we must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for national building, for the birth of a new world”.

That, in my view, remains our biggest challenge — of course attainable. The recent developments, however sporadic, in our great country force us to reflect on the call made by one of our fathers of the new South Africa. My view is that we are not very far, though we have sort of digressed lately. In a recent discussion on Classic FM on the “state of our nation”, where we specifically debated social cohesion and social capital in South Africa, I gave us as a nation 8,5 out of 10 in terms of how we were doing. Those who followed the discussion argued, with a couple of exceptions, that 8,5 was too high for a country going through what was transpiring. This started me thinking: maybe I got it all wrong!

As I further reflect on how we are doing as a country, in relation to the call referred to above, I find myself debating with myself on some of the points I argued/argue. For instance, can our ugly (political) history and our (shared) destiny really glue us together, and for how long? Is our (shared) destiny, as spelt out in our Constitution, really shared?

Description, in Bessie Head’s Question of Power, of life in Motabeng is among the cases that maintain my hope. Though there were many challenges in Motabeng, we are told that, after the showcasing of various products that community members produced for the local-industries project shop, “there were a thousand such stories to tell of life in Motabeng, of tentative efforts people of totally foreign backgrounds made to work together and understand each other’s humanity”.

The Motabeng community mirrors many functioning communities that we see, or are even part of, locally and internationally. As such, there is no reason to believe that we will not ultimately heed the call of seizing the moment to fulfil our shared destiny, acting together as a united people …

Recently, in his Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture, Allan Boesak observed (correctly in my view) that “too many of us are despairing, mourning the loss of what we thought we had, bemoaning the state of our democracy, blaming others and forgetting our own responsibility … We are a tried people, but we are not a broken people. We are a tested people, but we are not a failed people. We might be battered, and disappointed and disillusioned, but we are not defeated. We are a fighting people. We may stumble, we may fall, but we rise up again and walk!”

He appealed that “we must say this, not to the politicians, not to the world, but to ourselves: to the parents and the children, the students and the workers and the professionals, the churches and the mosques and the temples, the organisations and the movements; to ourselves, all of us, the people of South Africa, all the people of South Africa, in all our rainbow brilliance: wake up from mourning! Yesterday is behind the mist of night. Today is the gift of new arising. Tomorrow is the dawn of our awakening. The coming day belongs to us! Let us wake up from mourning and do what we know is right. Let us wake up from mourning and unite this nation. Let us wake up from mourning and take hold of our destiny. For ourselves; for our future; for our country.”

Judging from, among others, Boesak’s speech, there is no doubt that we still have a long way to go as a nation. As we celebrated a Women’s Day over the weekend, I recounted how far we are as a country in our commitment to ensuring that “never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being a skunk of the world” — that “freedom will not be fully attained unless women have truly been emancipated and empowered in all spheres of life” (Nelson Mandela, May 10 1994, at his inauguration as president of South Africa).

Though it would be hard for many of us, particularly men, to appreciate fully the struggles that women go through in their daily lives, we should be at least able to honour their worth and acknowledge the many important, however under-appreciated, roles they perform in our communities and families. And we have a moral responsibility not to exacerbate the structural barriers that our mothers, sisters, grandmothers, wives, daughters and acquaintances face.

Shireen Hassim, a couple of years ago, concluded (in a research project for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development) that though South Africa had made some progress, in relation to advancing matters of women empowerment, our developmental welfare model left a lot to be desired.

This conclusion is shared by the country report to be tabled to the UN on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Perhaps the progress we are making, in this area, is due to the tenacity, the resilience and the unwavering humanness of the women of South Africa (and of the world at large). I say this because it appears as though it is, if examining progress with respect to specific groups, in the area of women’s empowerment that we have made encouraging progress (say compared with matters of youth development, children and people with disabilities).

It is in cases such as these that thinkers (ranging from Karl Polanyi to Chalmers Johnson) who emphasised the role of the state were surely right. It is quite clear that the government has an important role to play if we are to truly see ourselves as a progressive nation. It is on matters of social cohesion, escalating campaigns and partnerships as an example, and on improving standards of living, particularly attacking poverty, where the government’s job is well cut out.

However, as Sir Ernest Barker explains, social contract also implies that citizens take some responsibility. Barker, drawing from John Locke, David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, elaborates that “the social contract is composed of two ideas … there is an idea of the contract of government … there is an idea of the contract of society”. He therefore argues that “besides the contract of government, and prior to the contract of government, there is also a contract of society, a social contract proper; and we must conclude that the state, in a sense of a political community, and as an organised society, is based on a social contract — or rather on myriad such contracts — between each and every member of that community or society”.

As such, initiatives such as the recent launch of the Charter of Positive Values by the Moral Regeneration Movement are among critical ingredients of our social contract. The social mobilisation campaigns taking place and planned, in partnerships, should further help us as a nation to move closer to a social contract of which we will all be proud.

As Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, explains: “The concept of a societas generic humani, a ‘society of man-kind’, the term ‘social’ begins to acquire the general meaning of a fundamental human condition. No human life, not even the life of the hermit in the nature’s wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.” If this is true, we are clearly stuck with one another: We might as well try to make it work.

My opening paragraph in my speech to the FW de Klerk Foundation’s conference was: “Often when listening to colleagues, acquaintances and so forth who have been abroad, reciting stories of what they miss/ed most about our great country, South Africa, while away, usually the list of things they mention ranges from family and the weather to local cuisine, and so on. However, strangely enough, for years now when I’m away from South Africa, the strongest longing that I’m often beset with is the overwhelming yearn of/for our beautiful landscape, the varied people of our great nation, the hard-working and selfless South Africans, and all the goodness, the human resilience, our diversity, the immense imminent possibilities and hope, various extraordinary and priceless cases of our young democracy, our shared desire for a ‘winning’ South Africa, and so on that I see in South Africans. Of course I too miss the many of those other things that others miss.”

I tried to illustrate the point I was making by looking at my place of work, where “the office has people of all different racial, ethnic and language groups. These are — by any measure — vast differences between people, and they are differences that resurface daily as we interact as colleagues. However, we (as possibly any other typical office in the country confronted with the same situation) have found a way to make it work and co-exist; day-in, day-out we all function harmoniously and often pleasurably to accomplish that which we have been tasked with. If this lived experience can be used as a ‘chromosome’ of South Africa as a whole, it may perhaps support my general preoccupation that indeed unity in diversity is an attainable ideal!”

Therefore, I beg to differ with those arguing that “things have fallen apart”. It might just be that it is because of the political developments and challenges that our economy is currently facing that we appear to be losing track; our humanness and social solidarity are being tested. It just might be that we are each increasingly expressing ourselves directly, with pride and confidence, and not because racism and other ills are taking the toll. It just might be that our respective individual or group identities have become even more robust in a democratic setting, not because there is tribalism or such ills.

The confidence that OR Tambo placed on us, as a nation, that we “will create a civilised society based on human standards”, shall be fulfilled. There are many things that are being tried and we have many things to be proud of as a country and as a young democracy — maybe it is indeed a young democracy at work!

Although debates continue on some of the issues, we aught to be pleased that we have such a large number of achievements as a nation: inventions, innovations and discoveries such as the heart transplant, the CAT scan, the speed gun, cyber-tracking satellite navigation, the tellurometer, the automatic popcorn machine, the shark pod, colindictor, fire … you name them. Maybe that is why, among other things, Markinor surveys suggest that the share of those who were confident of a happy future for all races in May 2008 was 62% (down from 75% in May 2003). Similarly, the percentage of those who had pride in being a South African declined mildly from 84% in 2003 to 78% in 2007 according to the National Tracker survey of the Government Communications and Information Systems. One would have expected worse numbers than these, given the public discourse and some disturbing incidents in our society.


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.