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Social Cohesion

The PII also identified Social Cohesion as a particular area requiring greater focus and attention. As such, an interdisciplinary research project on ‘Building a Cohesive Society in South Africa’ is underway. Social cohesion is perhaps one of the most fundamental policy challenges facing South Africa today. Since its independence and the end of apartheid two decades ago, and despite numerous government interventions, South Africa is yet to emerge as a socially cohesive nation. Social cohesion influences economic and social development, and nurturing a more cohesive society is an important policy goal in itself for any country. Whilst there is a widespread agreement that social cohesion influences economic and social development, and that nurturing a more cohesive society is an important policy goal in itself, there is far less consensus about what constitutes an appropriate definition of social cohesion in a South African context, or about the kinds of policies required to effectively promote a more cohesive society. 

The term “Social Cohesion” has been used loosely in academic literature and political discourse, and its meaning and its mutual dependence with economic development has not been well understood. Without definition, it becomes difficult to assess whether social cohesion has improved or worsened. Without definition and measurement, potential key determinants that are most important among a large number of factors that influence social cohesion (e.g., inequality, poverty, violence, gender conflicts, mistrust, and others) remain obscured, making it difficult to formulate policies that can be expected to materially improve social cohesion and achieve inclusive development most effectively. 

This Social Cohesion theme within the broader PII aims to provide a coherent diagnosis of the state of the nation as regards social cohesion in South Africa, and to promote innovative multidisciplinary research that provides rigorous policy advice to policy makers, planners, activists and community organisations that work to promote social cohesion. Because social cohesion is fundamentally multi-faceted, we take a multidisciplinary approach consisting of history, economics, political science, sociology, law and psychology. 

Through the establishment of an active network of researchers and practitioners whose work speaks to the issue of social cohesion in South Africa, the project aims to:

  • offer researchers and practitioners working in different fields an opportunity to connect, debate and collaborate;
  • promote and enhance the visibility of the wealth of existing work that already exists on Social Cohesion;
  • take seriously the task of translating existing evidence on effective social cohesion interventions into useful policy proposals; and
  • engage effectively with policy makers in achieving Vision 2030.



‘Building a cohesive society’– inception workshop
In March 2014, a workshop on ‘Building a Cohesive Society in South Africa’ was held at the University of Cape Town. Co-hosted by SALDRU and the GSDPP at UCT, and the Research Institute for Economics and Business Administration (RIEB) at Kobe Universities, and funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the workshop brought together academics from South Africa and abroad, with local practitioners and activists, to share ideas and research. The workshop began with a case study of Kenya and attempts to develop a social cohesion index (SCI) in this context. The focus then shifted to South Africa, in a session on the implications of post-apartheid policy making on social cohesion. Subsequent sessions heard input from academics and activists on thematic and cross-cutting issues in the South African context. This led to lively discussion on the need for – and complexities involved in – defining, measuring and promoting social cohesion.  Participants agreed in principle on the desirability of establishing a network to promote and enhance the visibility – and impact – of existing work on social cohesion in South Africa and to encourage interdisciplinary communication, debate and collaboration. A key goal would be translation of evidence on effective interventions into useful policy proposals and effective engagement with policy makers. 
Read the workshop report.
Exploring the key strands in promoting a more cohesive society
In November and December 2014, the PII hosted workshops for practitioners, researchers and academics from civil society and government to share their knowledge, experience and ideas about: 

  • Identity and social cohesion
  • Rebuilding trust in a segmented society
  • Youth, safety and social cohesion
  • Designing a socially cohesive society.

While there was lively debate on the definition, meaning, desirability and usefulness of the term ‘social cohesion’, there was consensus that any useful agenda for social cohesion would require a collaborative approach involving state, non-governmental organisations, business and the research community – a challenging, but imperative, task for South Africa’s development agenda. Participants at the four workshops identified the following gaps and opportunities for future collaboration and research:

  • Clarify and define social cohesion in way that promotes a ‘human’ identity and celebrates diversity and difference beyond national symbols
  • Explore redistribution/address economic inequality as a critical element of promoting social cohesion
  • Focus on families – and the roles of both parents – as building blocks of social cohesion
  • Explore the human capital dimensions – education and health – as pathways to inclusive development
  • Explore agency and the roles of the state, universities, communities, civil society organisations and the media in promoting a more cohesive society.

Read the consolidated workshop report.