COHESION, the CONSTITUTION, and LIFE in post-apartheid South Africa

Don’t be too sure that the ‘dignity of life’ and respect for the Constitution has been inscribed in the minds and the hearts of the people, says VANESSA BAROLSKY, following a series of group discussions across three provinces. 
   

In the wake of the killing of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) leader Eugene Terreblanche – in the weeks after the ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was censured by the Johannesburg High Court for his use of the slogan ‘Kill the Boer’ – President Zuma sought to reassure the nation that despite concerns about social cohesion, ‘South Africans remain united in their support for the Constitution, the values it enshrines, and the democratic institutions it has established.’

While President Zuma’s attempted to reassure the country, an ambiguity of South African citizens’ engagement with constitutional values was reflected in our discussions with South African residents who participated in 24 focus groups in six townships across the three provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape and Gauteng.

Dignity and real life

What these focus groups reveal is an intense contestation over the conditions of life in post-apartheid South Africa, expressed particularly through the regime of rights and its impact on daily life in conditions of lack and deprivation. Post-apartheid South Africa has been characterised by significant amounts of death: in particular in relation to the HIV/AIDS epidemic but also in relation to violent crime. In this context the right to ‘dignity of life’ as enshrined in the Constitution appears highly problematic.

The government attempts to respond to these problems of life through the use of the concept of social cohesion, which it sees as both a means and an end to social stability, the ‘glue’ that holds society together.

The government report, Social Cohesion and Social Justice, acknowledges that ‘Social cohesion and social capital are often called upon or recognised in times of crisis and emergency.’ Exactly what is this crisis? What has been lost or is in decline in the South African context remains ambiguous, but is frequently expressed in terms of a decline of moral values as evidenced for example in the ‘moral regeneration’ initiative, and the often repeated lament about the loss or weakening of values such as ‘Ubuntu’ that ostensibly held society together in more positive ways in the past.

The author Jacob Dlamini has written in this light of a ‘nostalgia’ for the past (Dlamini, 2009), and the discourse of adults in many of the focus groups point to this ‘nostalgia’ for a time when values, hierarchies and identities were less fluid, more certain. Whatever the empirical foundation for this sense of lack or decline, what these assertions speak to is an anxiety about the changes brought about by the transition to democracy and the need to attempt to resurrect certainty in a social domain torn apart by past repression and the rapidity of contemporary changes.

Fragmentation or cohesion?

However, as Suren Pillay argues, ‘practices of community’ in the post-apartheid context, have ‘shown tendencies to increasing fragmentation rather than unification’, i.e. the ways in which people cohere are not necessarily ‘positive’ or inclusive. In fact the focus groups attest to increasingly parochial forms of cohesion, where people define themselves in defensive relation to an ‘other’, whether the other is the urban poor for affluent communities living in gated housing developments, or the ‘foreign’ other in the context of impoverished communities facing rapid in-migration.

Networks of sociability facilitate not social solidarity but crime, as perpetrators of crime living in the neighbourhood ‘know your moves’.

The realm of the ‘social’ as it emerges in the focus groups reveals a world divided by fractures and ‘too much competition’ (woman, aged 25+, Atteridgeville). In this environment conditions of life are stark, violence and death are imminent, ‘violent crime happen even at your gate, when you come out of your gate, you can see person bleeding out of robbery or a person carelessly lying in agony’ (man, aged 25+, Nyanga). Severe overcrowding in townships and informal settlement breeds suffocating forms of sociability: ‘There is a lot of gossip and there is no privacy. Everyone knows about everyone’s life. Houses here are built close to each other, so some don’t get along because of gossip ... What you do in your own yard is known by everybody (woman, aged 18–24, Soshanguve).

Networks of sociability facilitate not social solidarity but crime, as perpetrators of crime living in the neighbourhood ‘know your moves’, (man, aged 18–24, Atteridgeville; man, aged 25+, Nyanga). In this context of intense competition, ‘jealousy’ flourishes. Neighbours don’t get along because ‘they are very jealous of what others have’ (men, aged 18–24, Atteridgeville).

In such a world poverty must not be allowed to show, an appearance of ‘success’ must be maintained, ‘status’ is critical. For young men in particular, consumer goods gained either legally or illegally, are overt signs of success, providing access to ‘status’ and ‘style’. As a young man in Atteridgeville explained, ‘People here are very competitive they want to be seen [show off]. They like expensive brands’ (man, aged 18–24, Atteridgeville).

‘Before 1994, we had one common goal that bind us all which was to do away with apartheid government, after 1994 we were faced with challenges such as drugs and lack of infrastructure.’

Changing values and nostalgia for the past

In this ‘uncaring’ environment, adults look to the past with nostalgia. The post-apartheid context represents an ‘opening’ up, wracked with ambiguity. Previous networks of sociability have dissipated. The past, marked as it was by apartheid, is valorised: ‘We must have hope Nyanga can go back to its old days’ (woman, aged 25+, Nyanga). Apartheid itself generated unity in resistance: ‘Before 1994, we had one common goal that bind us all which was to do away with apartheid government, after 1994 we were faced with challenges such as drugs and lack of infrastructure’ (man, aged 25+, Nyanga).

The regime of rights is seen as having created dangerous new avenues for the contestation of generational hierarchies, particularly in terms of the right to dispense punishment: ‘Nowadays there is no discipline. Families in our times used to discipline children, but now children have rights. When we were growing up it was tough because of apartheid but at least there was order, discipline and respect’ (woman, aged 25+, Atteridgeville).

On the other hand young people feel that parents do not provide the guidance and protection they need, ‘even old people do not show us direction and we don’t learn good things from them’ (woman, aged 18–24, Langa). However, youth in the post-apartheid context appear significantly demobilised: ‘Political organisations and SANCO are mainly made up of old people, involvement of the youth is lacking, and few members of the youth are involved’. Instead it is, as one young man put it, ‘party days’ (man, aged 18–24, Shoshanguve). Young men spend ‘most of our time there at street corners, me and the guys!’ (man, aged 18–24, Shoshanguve).

In this context of change and upheaval, the state is experienced as a direct part of the problem; it appears in these narratives as utterly corrupt, antagonistic, lazy and drunk.

If rights have threatened generational relationships, they have also threatened gender hierarchies. As one focus group participant put it: ‘We also have the problem in which women are in this affirmative action which results in a lot of problems because they think that they are bosses of the whole world’ (man, aged 25+, Kwamashu).

Women are widely blamed for the loss of control over children, ‘mothers are the ones that spoil kids’ (man, aged 25+, Shoshanguve). Women are accused of abusing the rights regime to make false claims of rape. Rape is not ‘actual rape’ (man, aged 18–24, Atteridgeville; man, aged 25+, Shoshanguve). ‘Real rape is the one you read in the papers’ (man, aged 25+ Shoshanguve).

Holding the state to blame

In this context of change and upheaval, the state is experienced as a direct part of the problem; it appears in these narratives as utterly corrupt, antagonistic, lazy and drunk, ‘eish, the people working for the government there is something in them that is not good. They do not want to help ... eish there is poison [a problem] there’ (woman, aged 18–24, Shoshanguve).

In response residents are increasingly turning to ‘local’ forms of violent justice. The law and the regime of rights is seen as ‘interfering’ in these processes of discipline: ‘When gangs attack one of our friends wegroup ourselves and to discipline them, but according to South African Law we are regarded as people who are taking law into own hands’ (man, aged 25+, Nyanga). The use of violence, ranging from beating to murder in these processes of discipline is widely acknowledged: ‘Now, there are vigilante groups, they  meet night times to look around for whoever is robbing night time, if they find one, they take their guns and shoot them’ (man, aged 25+, Nyanga).

In response residents are increasingly turning to ‘local’ forms of violent justice. The law and the regime of rights is seen as ‘interfering’ in these processes of discipline.

What can we make of the social relations outlined above? How do they relate to government policy? While the picture painted by the focus groups may be a harsh one, there are mediating forms of social connection: ‘where I live we are very neighbourly; we love and help each other. We don’t say you have a BMW and I don’t, no, we just live nicely with one another’ (woman, aged 25+, Shoshanguve). Networks of solidarity help to mitigate some of the effects of poverty: ‘If one runs short of transport fare it is easy to ask the neighbour to help you’ (man, aged 18–24, KwaMashu).

However, it is mainly older women who talk about these bonds of sociability: ‘From our age group and upward when there is someone from Nyanga who passed away no matter where she or he stays we will go and support that family. This is not happening to the youth’ (woman, aged 25+, Nyanga). What then of the youth? A group of young men asked about the future of the township Atteridgeville where they live, responded with astonishment: ‘Future for Atteridgeville? There is no future here’ (men, aged 18–24, Atteridgeville).

The challenge then is to ‘make a future’ through critical engagement with the conditions of life in which people struggle daily to negotiate the ‘opening’ up, the deprivation and the freedom of life in post-apartheid South Africa.

Dr Vanessa Barolsky, chief researcher, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery programme, HSRC.

References

Dlamini, J., 2009. Native Nostalgia. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jacana Media. Pillay, S., 2008. Crime, Community and the Governance of Violence in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Politikon, 35(2), 141–158. Posel, D., Kathleen Kahn and Liz Walker. 2007. Living with death in a time of AIDS: A rural South African case study. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 35(Suppl 69), 138–146. Presidency, Republic of South Africa. 2004. Social Cohesion and Social Justice in South Africa. Pretoria: Policy Co-ordination and Advisory Services (PCAS). Presidency, Republic of South Africa. 2008. Towards a Fifteen Year Review. Pretoria: Policy Co-ordination and Advisory Services (PCAS). Zuma, J.G. President. Statement on political conduct and social cohesion, 10 April 2010. Pretoria: The Presidency. Republic of South Africa.