Social cohesion and collective violence in South Africa

  • 21 Feb 2019 | by Guy Lamb | Safety and Violence Initiative

Social cohesion and collective violence in South Africa – Blog

Social cohesion has frequently been used in government policy documents in South Africa since the late-1990s. Both the 1998 and 2016 versions of the White Paper on Safety and Security identified the promotion and strengthening of social cohesion as a key crime and violence prevention strategy. The National Development Plan (2012) linked inadequate safety in communities to “a lack of social cohesion”, and the Integrated Social Crime Prevention Strategy (2011) prioritised the strengthening and building of social cohesion in terms of families and society in general. In 2016, the Integrated Urban Development Framework envisaged that the “coordinated investments in people, the economy and places…” would “encourage inclusive growth, social cohesion and good governance…”. However, social cohesion has been used in a nebulous and credulous manner in all of these policy documents.

In 2012, the Department of Arts and Culture published a National Strategy on Social Cohesion and Nation-Building that defined social cohesion “as the degree of social integration and inclusion in communities and society at large, and the extent to which mutual solidarity finds expression among individuals and communities”. The strategy further envisaged that social cohesion could be strengthened through the building of social capital and volunteerism but offered no comprehensive practical recommendations on how to effectively build social cohesion.

Other government departments appear to have however pursued more tangible approaches to supporting social cohesion. For example, the Department of Human Settlements, which facilitated the building of more than 2.8 million government-funded houses between 1994 and 2014, and upgraded numerous townships, envisaged that the provision of better housing for poor households would be a means to achieve “social inclusion” as well as “socially and economically integrated communities”. Government has also implemented various public works programmes throughout the country, which have provided temporary work to those who are unemployed to participate in community development projects which have the potential to contribute to social cohesion. For instance, between 2014 and 2017, government provided 3.5 million income generating opportunities for a range of activities related to social cohesion. For instance, unemployed persons were provided with stipends to work on community projects in their neighbourhoods relating to early childhood development, crime prevention, greening of public open spaces, home-based caring and access to library services.

However, to date only a handful of South African studies have sought to seriously analyse the relationship between social cohesion and violence. The Human Sciences Research Council has developed a framework for a Social Cohesion Barometer, which has suggested that personal wellbeing, which includes perceptions of personal safety and crime victimisation, is a key indicator of social cohesion. However, there have been very few detailed analyses of the direct and indirect linkages between social cohesion and violence.

“However, social cohesion has been used in a nebulous and credulous manner in all of these policy documents”

In the South African literature on collective violence, particularly those publications relating to vigilantism, violent community protests, and xenophobic violence, research findings have broadly implied that shared community grievances and prejudices about wellbeing, inadequate government services, and the erosion of social control may have contributed to social cohesion with the creation of specific activist groups and social movements. However, such community groups and movements had often engaged in violent acts in an effort to prevent crime, exert social control and air their dissatisfaction about insufficient government services.

Studies on vigilantism in South Africa have emphasised that in many disadvantaged, crime-ridden areas perceptions amongst residents that social control and community values have been undermined, combined with inadequate provision of state policing and an effective criminal justice system, has contributed to the emergence of vigilante groups. Such vigilante groups have been responsible for assault, murder and public lynching. A common justification for the use of violence by vigilante groups has been that alleged offenders need to be physically punished as a means to deter future offending and encourage adherence to certain social norms.

With respect to the published research on protest violence in South Africa, scholars have argued that such violence has often taken place in the context of inadequate delivery of basic services by government combined with perceptions of the unfair distribution of resources at the local level (such as employment opportunities and housing), as well as tensions between political groupings. Such conditions have often led to the mobilisation of various sectors within the affected communities towards collective agitation for improved government services and resource allocation. However, as noted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation titled ‘The Smoke that Calls (2011), such protest actions have typically entailed the disproportionate participation by unemployed and impoverished young men as the protests have reportedly provided them “with an opportunity to exert their masculinity through violence and to experience themselves as representing the community and fighting on its behalf”.

The literature on xenophobic violence in South Africa bears similarities to the vigilantism and violent protest scholarship. That is, episodes of widespread xenophobic violence against migrants (mainly from other African countries) in 2008 and 2015 in economically marginalised communities has been linked to a collective resentment by South African residents towards foreign nationals. Such antipathy has been informed by perceptions that foreign nationals are ‘outsiders’ and are responsible for crime, ‘taking jobs away’ from South Africans, and fraudulently accessing government resources (such as housing).

Furthermore, young men were reportedly at the forefront of this xenophobic violence, particularly the looting of foreign-owned businesses. However, in the face of mob violence targeting migrants in 2008, research also indicated that South African residents in some of the affected areas banded together to repel the perpetrators and protect foreign nationals from xenophobic violence. This research therefore suggests that the geographical concentration of xenophobic attitudes in economically disadvantaged areas may result in the emergence of socially cohesive activities that violently target migrants. Conversely, in some cases, such violence may stimulate the temporary emergence of social groups that seek to protect migrants.