BY PAISON TAZVIVINGA Social cohesion is the level of inclusion and social integration in communities. It also covers the extent to which mutual commonality finds expression among community members. This means that a community’s level of social cohesiveness can be improved by putting in place a sustained plan to eliminate inequalities and exclusions based on political party affiliations, gender, class and age, among others. In other words, community members will be active participants in the design of shared goals which they can passionately work towards and take responsibility to ensure their fulfilment.
The importance of social cohesion in a developmental state cannot be overemphasised. A developmental state requires a social compact to unify community members around a shared vision. The Zimbabwean government has in the past made efforts toward building a socially cohesive society. Examples are the creation of a ministry in 2009 in the President’s Office, which was headed by the late John Nkomo and was responsible for national healing, reconciliation and integration. However, the lived reality in societies points to the widening gap between policy aspirations and the actual state of social cohesiveness in societies and the nation at large. Exacerbating violence between different political groups, the Nyatsime 16 case is one such unfortunate incident, which indicates continued social disparity based on the political divide; diminishing pride in being identified with one’s nation and less interest in embracing the nation’s economic policies are a testimony of a fractured social system.
Besides the cleavages originating from national politics, there are other economic factors lubricating social dissolution thus rendering the government’s efforts towards a socially cohesive society, futile. These include high levels of poverty, the World Bank estimates Zimbabwe’s international poverty rate (PPP $1.90/person/day) at 22% in 2011, 41% in 2021 and 409% in 2022; diminished standards of living, service delivery failures, especially at local government level and increased distrust in leadership and state institutions. These unfortunate experiences continue to put enormous strain on the faint thread that is still holding society together. The perpetuating exclusion, on political grounds, of some state programmes such as agricultural inputs especially in villages, feeds to the systematic alienation of most of the community members thus creating friction in societies which distracts well-meaning programmes meant to develop communities.
Therefore, it is important to understand the principle of social cohesion and strive towards attaining such in communities. The development of the social cohesion concept can be traced way back to the end of the Cold War when it first appeared in international policies. The aim was to build a consensus-based post-political system to address the fragmenting effects of the Cold War and globalisation. It is then that international organisations like OECD and the World Bank realised the importance of social cohesion in nation-building (Ritsen et. al.; 2000). To this day, the positive contribution of social-cultural factors to economic development and growth cannot be overemphasised. It is a prerequisite for sustainable inclusive economic growth and nation-building.
However, social cohesion faces some criticism. Voices that have criticised the notion of social cohesion have based their argument on the fact that an over-emphasis on consensus in political and economic policy as well as social values and norms undermines democratic pluralism. Although there may be some basis for the argument in this conception, it must be understood that the two can coexist. Democratic pluralism must allow for contestation around ideas and values with authorities ensuring that there are independent institutions in place to mediate that contention.
Social cohesion, on the other hand, must provide the unity that regulates community members to drive towards a common goal and eager to resolve their contention in a peaceful manner without letting their divergent views drag the whole community backwards or discourage any development-oriented actions of others.
It is unfortunate that Zimbabwe has found herself in the exact opposite of the balance between social cohesion and democratic pluralism. This shows the urgency with which we need to transform our society and avoid the potential explosion between different groups. Such an explosion was witnessed recently — the Nyatsime 16 incident between community members grouped on political affiliations. Besides the political groupings which of late have defined the resourcefulness of members, with some of those politically aligned to the ruling party benefiting more than their counterparts, there are other threats that potentially impede social cohesion in our country. These include:
Class division: increasing poverty and inequality is creating an explosive situation;
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Exclusion: marginalisation is being exacerbated especially on political grounds hence increasing vulnerability;
Unemployment: persistent high levels of unemployment especially among the vast army of youths graduating from tertiary institutions are creating tensions within communities;
Unequal experiences of law: the politically connected are experiencing law differently from the vulnerable and marginalised members of communities;
Social fragmentation: competition of resources especially with the Chinese migrants is creating an explosive situation, especially in informal mining areas; and
Gender: the marginalisation of women seems to continue unabated.
All these factors indicate the depth and seriousness of social dissolution in the Zimbabwean context. They do bring about the realisation that social cohesion is a political construct which aligns with it, the principle of patriotism. And, as it is noted that there is no nation which has managed to register meaningful and sustainable economic growth without a sense of patriotism from its citizens, likewise, it is difficult for a nation to make meaningful economic progress without social cohesion at the national level.
Furthermore, it must be noted that social cohesion goes beyond transforming people’s lives. Resource provision and economic improvement are just but part of the wholesome package towards a socially cohesive community. People need to be bound together by affective relations that bind their actions and being towards the common good. So, in as much as people want their needs met which can be through economic empowerment, there is that burning desire to be part of the group that upholds and stands for the common good in society. This speaks to people’s emotions and identity — who they are.
The social dissolution in Zimbabwe can then be defined along the lines of a lack of the common good. The challenges in economic trajectory and other social challenges can be soldiered, whilst taking steps to address them, if we are emotionally attached to the nationally agreed common good. In our context, the common good will be an environment that is inclusive, with equal experiences of the law and devoid of classes that are the formation of one’s political inclination. Such an environment should then be supported by independent institutions that can mediate contention around democratic pluralism. Maybe then, we can witness social cohesion which is a pre-requisite in building the Zimbabwe we are all eager for. Otherwise, sustainable economic growth and meaningful transformation will continue to be elusive as they have been for the better part of the past two decades.
- Tazvivinga is a development economist.
- These weekly articles re coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zim). Email- firstname.lastname@example.org and mobile No. +263 772 382 852