You will be assimilated
20 September 2014 17:49 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

Social cohesion and ethics: a humanist's view

  • Sipho Hlongwane
On 27 July 2012, SIPHO HLONGWANE was invited to speak at the Beyers Naude Memorial lecture at the University of Free State on the topic “Towards Collaborative Partnerships for Social Cohesion: Building a nation with Ethics”. This is an edited version of the speech he gave.

Thank you for inviting me to address you today. The topic is not a light one and I must admit that I am limited by my relative lack of experience. 

Social cohesion really came into the public consciousness after the riots in the British mill towns in 2001. The British government asked some leading academics to study the people living in these towns, and to publish a paper that would explain why there was so much social unrest. 

The report that was produced, called State of English Cities, grounded the notion of social cohesion in the material conditions of people. It spoke about living conditions, safety, health, access to employment opportunities and equality. Following the England riots last year, as well as a host of general unrest in the Middle East that still continues today, the focus has really narrowed down on the conditions that people lived in – the obvious assumption being that this was why this unrest happened. This analysis was helped by the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in protest of the harassment and humiliation he experienced at the hand of a municipal officer and her assistants.

We are here to explore a different tangent – the idea that social cohesion will be built and sustained if we are a nation of good ethics. I do not think that I presume too much if I say that we all agree that there are shared values that we all need to strive for, together. 

However, we should not look at ethics in isolation of material conditions. We need both if we are to build a truly cohesive society. I need not mention the inequality and poverty statistics for you to realise that too many South Africans live in terrible conditions. I also do not need to talk about the rampant sexual and physical abuse, the violence we display towards each other and people from other countries, and racial tension to convince you that good ethics is something we are also very short of.

We are gathered here in memory of Beyers Naude, who was a man of the cloth but please allow me to quote from a humanist document to show you what I believe to be the kind of ethical values we should strive for. The preamble of our Constitution enjoins us to adopt it as the supreme law of the country, so as to:

  • Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
  • Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
  • Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
  • Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

In essence, the Constitution asks us to do two things: respect and look after each other. It sees a marriage between ethics and better material conditions as the way to achieve unity in all our diversity.

The Constitution is a meaningless document if we are going to fail to trust and respect each other. Human rights mean nothing if there is no respect for them, or for each other as people. This notion goes to everything that we do. There is no respect in a household that is dominated by abuse. Men, there is no respect if we continue to view women as objects for our dominance or sexual gratification. How can we build trust in an environment where corruption, both in the private sector and in government, is rife? Do we really respect the rights of our children if we fail them in something as elementary as making sure that they have learning material? Racism continues to prevent us from trusting each other. We cannot begin to think that we are a cohesive society if we treat people of a different sexual orientation like dirt. We are not a cohesive society for as long as we fail to respect the rights of even the people we do not like. Justice is also very important. Are we a just society? I’m not just talking about petty crime – how committed are we all to making right the wrongs of the past?

I want to quickly talk about the material-conditions point that I mentioned earlier. As I said, it is also a very important part of building social cohesion. To quote from the report I mentioned earlier, “Material conditions are fundamental to social cohesion, particularly employment, income, health, education and housing. Relations between and within communities suffer when people lack work and endure hardship, debt, anxiety, low self-esteem, ill-health, poor skills and bad living conditions”.

I put it to you that it is our ethical duty as a society to build up those who are disadvantaged. To put it in another way: we have an ethical obligation as a society to eradicate poverty, inequality and unemployment.

A few weeks back the department of arts and culture hosted a social cohesion summit in Soweto. The president of the country spoke, as did many other politicians. There was plenty of media coverage and the summit generated some interesting conversations on radio stations and in the papers. But has anything changed since? South Africa is a nation that is in love with talking and I suspect that this is a legacy of the Codesa process. We often believe that we can talk our way to any solution. Without making any less of the negotiations that brought us democracy, we need to get into an implementation frame of mind. What can you and I do to build this nation up?

We cannot speak of social cohesion as being the concern of lawmakers alone. If we are not going to apply these principles to our daily lives, then social cohesion will not happen. 

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote that integration in what we might call developing societies comes best when the population is relatively homogenous. This explains why the most cohesive societies in the world have historically been dominated by one culture and language group. We are trying to do something very difficult in South Africa – we are people of many languages, cultures and religions. We have a history of oppression and today we live with its terrible legacy. To achieve social cohesion in such a society is going to take an effort that has never been seen before in the world. 

The good news is that the tools we need are already available. The Constitution was written by us all and we should all own it. And we already know that in South Africa, achieving the impossible is very possible. The 1994 elections are proof of that.

I shall end off with a quote from Beyers Naude: “How do we affect reconciliation between people who hate each other? How do we handle it in a way that we can truly be reconciled, in a way that we can build together where previously we destroyed? We need to look together at what are the major causes of this conflict: poverty, unemployment, and the situation of marginalized people. What do we do to stand in solidarity with them?

We never will get a full situation of open transparency, but we should seek to bring forth the major concerns about injustice and suffering and dishonesty. This needs to come into the open or there will never be peace in the hearts of us violated.”

Thank you. DM

  • Sipho Hlongwane
sipho hlongwane BW

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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