03 May 2013

By Jabu Masitha

Social cohesion is both a protection against and a casualty of violence.

Social cohesion, the social fabric that binds people in a community, is a critical building block that helps societies to achieve peace and development. Building social cohesion is a key strategy in preventing violence, which threatens to destroy this social fabric. Social cohesion is thus potentially a source of resilience against violence while also being a victim of it.

Both social cohesion and violence take on many forms and the relationship between the two is not always clear. Social cohesion can be narrowly conceived as the network of relationships that bind people in a community. More broadly, it could be defined as the glue that holds people together and links individuals to a broader social community through a sense of belonging, participation, inclusion, recognition and legitimacy.

Structural violence consists of institutions and systems that create and maintain disparities across individuals and groups and deprive them of life opportunities. This exclusion from social, political and economic systems is often the underlying causes of more direct forms of violence at both an interpersonal and collective level.

Violence damages more than individuals and physical objects. Violence damages communities' ability to maintain relationships of trust and engage in constructive collaboration. Undermining social cohesion impacts on a community's ability to engage in effective political action, economic development or fulfilling social relationships.

Violence transforms the physical and social landscape of urban communities. It inhibits social interactions through distancing individuals from others in their society and through limiting mobility within and between communities. Fear of violence prompts physical separation from surrounding areas, limits social and physical bonds between communities, and leads to the isolation and exclusion of what is viewed as high-crime neighborhoods.

Chronic or unremitting violence can ultimately undermine the capacity of communities to rebuild relationships even when violence abates. This is particularly problematic when children are regularly exposed to violence as it affects the development of their emotional and social capacity to engage in healthy relationships. Post-conflict settings are often characterised by high levels of crime and interpersonal violence that take on an air of normality and are resistant to quick fix solutions.

A space for communities to heal collectively is fundamental as community participation does lead to social cohesion. It is also important not to make promises that you cannot keep, accountability is an essential component of violence reduction, let there be more integrated and coordinated services.

Structural violence also undermines social cohesion. Societies with severe inequalities breed insecurity among individuals and groups. The costs of exclusion or marginalization are exaggerated when the divide between rich and poor is extreme. Anxiety among individuals or groups about gaining or losing status or even ensuring basic survival is likely to result in extreme and destructive responses.

Conversely, social cohesion is an important bulwark against violence. Social cohesion provides the basis for dealing with conflict constructively, for engaging creatively with competing ideas and values and pursuing shared longer term goals. The lack of such cohesion, in turn, provides fertile ground for both interpersonal and collective violence.

A positive, is that social cohesion can be actively facilitated by the state and by civil society, and one strategy for doing this is through an effective response to violence. These are, however, not quick-fix solutions. An explicit strategy for creating political will is often needed.

The Bokfontein community is an exceptional community that exemplified the benefits of social cohesion. Two different communities were forcibly removed from their previous places of residence and ended up living on the same piece of land. For some time there was intense violence between these two communities.

In 2008, meetings and workshops were convened for the community to deal with these challenges. This enabled the community to reflect more about their pain, sufferings and mourn their losses resulting from the evictions. They then started working together to build and restore their sense of humanity and dignity. During the outbreak of xenophobic attacks, Bokfontein remained peaceful despite the presence of non-nationals and the history of such tensions.

Social cohesion can also be promoted through development projects that promote inclusiveness, accountability and collaboration. Bokfontein was fortunate to also be one of the first sites chosen by the government to launch the Community Work Programme. The programme engaged the community in dialogue around their development needs, providing an inclusive process that brought together a broad cross section of the community to engage in meaningful work. This process appears to have contributed to a perception of state responsiveness and a sense of agency among members that they could play a role in developing their own community.

Bokfontein has consequently not experienced the violent service delivery protests that have characterized many of its neighbours.

Social cohesion is a critical element in understanding and curtailing the cycles of violence in South Africa. Developing strategies to rebuild this source of resilience needs to be a key element in the rebuilding of our social fabric.

Jabu Masitha is a psychologist and community manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. www.csvr.org.za

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