Opinionista Shelagh Gastrow 8 September 2019

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – social cohesion can be a powerful force for good

How do we as a nation come together to ensure our grandchildren will have a place to call home that is inclusive for all? In the 1980s, we felt a level of social cohesion in the fight against apartheid, even when we did not always agree on how to get there.

In an article in New Frame on 6 August 2019, Steven Friedman stated “and yet we need ‘cohesion’ about as much we do a military coup – and for much the same reasons. It is a deeply undemocratic idea that gives a licence to the powerful to dominate others.”   

His article outlines his views that ultimately the concept of social cohesion leads to a minority dominating a majority by forcing common values on society. There are many academic debates about social cohesion and what it means, often based on a view that is related to top-down power relations. However, it can be viewed differently, as a broad-based movement creating togetherness based on common grassroots values. 

In October 2019, the Independent Philanthropy Association South Africa (Ipasa) will be holding a symposium in Stellenbosch focusing on the role South African philanthropy can play in enhancing social cohesion in South Africa. In this case, there is a general view that the development of greater social cohesion within South Africa would enable the country to forge a way through its current crisis, whether it is xenophobia, gender-based violence, racism, corruption, lack of services, poor schooling, and a general transformation and shift in society.    

In essence, South Africa is geared to change, yet we find it extremely difficult (if not impossible) in our fractious society to come together to achieve this change. We had hoped that our ruling party would provide leadership in this respect, and it was hoped that our constitution would provide a values-based framework, but we are instead seeing attacks on the founding document itself, calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty, threats to the judiciary (particularly women judges), alarming levels of populist jargon encouraging violence against each other (or anyone who doesn’t agree with you) and a total abandonment of the concept of non-racialism. 

How do we then as a nation come together to ensure that our grandchildren will have a place to call home that accommodates diversity and is inclusive for all? Differing ideas and political contestation do not necessarily conflict with the concept of social cohesion if we can find a way to talk to each other within a framework of underlying values such as respect, inclusion, solidarity and equality.

For those of us who were politically involved in the 1980s, we felt a level of social cohesion in the fight against apartheid, even when we did not necessarily always agree on ways of getting there. In recent days, women and girls from across age, race, class, religion, ethnicity and geographic area have shown significant levels of social cohesion through a spontaneous coming together against gender-based violence. 

Social cohesion need not be a top-down concept, but can also emerge from the base of ordinary people who are tired of conflict and violence, tired of corruption and lack of care.   

As an example, in 2003 in Liberia, an organisation called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace mobilised non-violent protests (including a sex strike) which eventually led to the end of the country’s 14-year civil war. One of its leaders, Leymah Gbowee, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. During that time some of the most horrific violent acts occurred in the country, with approximately 250,000 killed. Social constructs included ethnic, religious and class divisions, yet the women cohered around the key values of non-violence and peace.   

The women’s movement forced a meeting with the Liberian President, Charles Taylor, during which he committed to peace talks and Liberian women themselves, during the peace process, prevented any breakdown of talks. The enormous pressure from women assisted in bringing to power Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s first woman president.  

Where are the opportunities then for us to come together and find some consensus – or are we doomed to fail? Can over-thinking paralyse us as we seek evidence of conspiracies, power grabs and agendas of domination, or can we find concrete ways to connect, talk and find common ground? For those who are bound forever in a racial paradigm, what is the end-game? Are we forever bound by our ways of thinking, too scared or too embarrassed to reach across the divides to be seen to be talking to the “enemy”? 

This kind of risk is what avoided what could have been a bloodbath in the early 1990s and perhaps it is time to be considering this again. We are all South Africans and naming one group or an individual the “enemy”, a “cabal” or an “agent” implies we are in a virtual state of civil war. If that is true, then, even more, we need to find ways of engaging and identifying those common values and pathways that will get us through the current near-chaos in which we are living. There is surely no dignity or future in violence.

And philanthropy? Very often we need the resources to leverage those spaces where we can come together to find each other and repair relationships, whether through joint civic action; quiet meeting spaces; open debates; opportunities for dialogue; written thoughts and articles; bringing people together across the divide at all ages and sectors. In many ways, this is what Idasa achieved in the 1980s to break the political logjam of the time, bringing together youth, students, women, the military, poets, writers and artists, legal specialists, religious leaders, educationalists, journalists and political formations, among others. 

The National Peace Accord was another entity that involved thousands of people throughout the country and created a pathway to negotiation and systems to contain violence in the run-up to the 1994 election. 

At the same time, we have to ensure that our institutions remain legitimate and that social justice endures, particularly in the areas of access to justice, education, health, land, housing and work opportunities. We need to deal with the issue of structural inequality as a key festering element of our society. We need support for a wide range of research projects focusing on our developmental trajectory that can provide real information and data to decision-makers and an independent media that can relay that information and fact check, cutting out the fake news and the hysterical tweets that mean nothing. We need to strengthen our civil society to serve as an advocate and watchdog while fostering our constitutional values, rights and responsibilities.

While accepting that there is a growing debate around power relations in philanthropy and a need for increased transparency and accountability, a role for philanthropy is massive. This is the one financial resource that is not tied to populism (votes) nor to profit (shareholders), but can play a useful, supportive role in leveraging change for the common good. DM

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