Social cohesion: a national imperative and a challenge for archivists

Posted on September 7, 2014
In 2012 my colleague, Mbongiseni Buthelezi, and I travelled around the country visiting archives. As we drove lengthy distances to faraway places we talked about many of the things we had seen and heard in the places we had visited together. One of our most memorable conversations was sparked by an altogether different incident. Caught in one of a stream of endless 'stop-go's' Mbongiseni gazed out of the window at a bored looking woman half-heartedly waving a flag to alert us to the road-works ahead and asked idly, 'I wonder what archives mean to her.' It was a profound question and one we considered for many hours thereafter. We, and many of you reading this, understand the value of archives and records, but what difference can they really make to the lives of the majority of our country's citizens.

I was reminded of our conversation this month as I listened to and read reports of a number of high profile interventions aimed at promoting social cohesion.

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile presented the 12th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in a packed Cape Town City Hall on 9 August. Focusing on the theme Building Social Cohesion through Active Citizenship. Bachelet's lecture focused on building social cohesion through active citizenship, with the sub-themes of education and community participation in democracy. It was an inspiring event and a reminder that our country has much to learn from others who have walked the same path from violent and oppressive regimes to democracy.

A few days later the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISRA) launched a research report, Nation Formation and Social Cohesion: An Enquiry into the Hopes and Aspirations of South Africa at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The report concludes that the greatest challenges facing South African society is the eradication of historical and emerging inequalities and contends that the attainment of social cohesion depends critically on a sense of belonging that is related to material conditions of life and an overarching common identity that recognises diversity. It argues that nation formation is a process not an event and requires the public and the private sector, and all citizens to pursue a common vision and consciously pursue non-racialism, inclusivity and redress. At a time when there are so few 'good stories' being told about South Africa, and allegations about corrupt leadership, and compromised integrity dominate the news headlines, I felt a surge of hope listening to speakers of the calibre of former president Kgalema Mothlanthe, MISRA's executive director Joel Netshitenzhe, cultural activist Andries Oliphant, Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang and Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) DDG, Vusi Ndima, speaking on behalf of Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mtethwa. What these speakers share is a vision for a future in which all citizens feel 'at home' in South Africa and they feel that they matter because: their basic needs for a decent standard of living are met; and their rights to dignity, equality and freedom are respected, as are their diverse cultural practices, their pasts, and their histories; and where all citizens are valued by the state and each other, and see themselves as free, equal and dignified. This vision they said, could be achieved when all South Africans – government, the private sector and active citizens – work hand-in-hand to give substance to the values enshrined in the Constitution.

The DAC launched a Nation Building and Social Cohesion Community Conversations programme focusing on the theme 'Transforming Society, Uniting the Country''. This programme, follows up on the DAC's 2012 National Social Cohesion Summit and is informed by two key policy documents: Chapter 15 of the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) which deals with implementing redress, promoting economic and social inclusion, social cohesion, active citizenry and broad-based leadership, and the crafting of a social compact and: Outcome 14 of the Medium Term Strategic Framework adopted by government which identifies a number of interventions necessary to achieve the five long nation building goals identified in the NDP for South Africa. These include: fostering Constitutional values; equalising opportunities, promoting inclusion and redress; promoting social cohesion across society through increased interaction across race and class; promoting active citizenry and broad-based leadership and; forging a social compact that will lay the basis for equity, inclusion and prosperity for all. We look forward to hearing more about these after the programme rolls out to all the provinces.

All the initiatives above stem from a commitment to giving effect to the Constitution, which, as its Preamble states, is intended to: 'Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and human rights; lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person and; build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.'

Defining social cohesion

The DAC and Misra define 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. In terms of this definition, a community or society is cohesive to the extent that the inequalities, exclusions and disparities based on ethnicity, gender, class, nationality, age, disability or any other distinctions which engender divisions distrust and conflict are reduced and/or eliminated in a planned and sustained manner. This, with community members and citizens as active participants, working together for the attainment of shared goals, designed and agreed upon to improve the living conditions for all.'

In its report MISRA argues that a cohesive and unified society should be characterized by:


  • a sense of belonging;

  • a shared vision for the future;

  • a broadly shared set of public values and norms for social conduct;

  • equal opportunities for development and advancement;

  • positive valuation of diverse cultures, languages and religions;

  • respect and tolerance for political and ideological differences;

  • regular interaction, exchange and co-operation among its diverse members;

  • respect for the law;

  • a high level of awareness of the rights and obligations of citizens;

  • a proud consciousness of being South African;

  • active participation of citizens at all levels of society;

  • democratic and peaceful resolution of disputes and agreements;

  • integration of immigrants into society; and

  • transparent and accountable government.


See the MISRA Report Nation Formation and Social Cohesion for more information on this.

What does this mean for archivists and records-keepers?

Archivists and records have a unique contribution to make to building a socially cohesive society one in which, as mentioned above, all citizens feels a sense of belonging because: their basic needs for a decent standard of living are met; and their rights to dignity, equality and freedom are respected, as are their diverse cultural practices and their histories.

If archivists and records keepers are to rise to this challenge, they need to to interrogate their policies and practice and ask a number of hard questions: How do we move from being custodians of records to playing an active role in shaping society; how do we nurture and support active citizenship in order to build a society based on democratic values; how do we make accessible the information required to identify past injustices and abuses of human rights in order to advance healing, justice and reconciliation; how do we build collections that reflect the full diversity of South Africa's diverse pasts; how do we work with others to proactively documenting the voices and experiences of those who were either excluded from or marginalised in the colonial and apartheid archives and; how do we address the hard questions and try to understand how the unjust past manifests in, and shapes, the present and then begin to imagine a different future.

These are not questions that any single institution should respond to in isolation: they require collective action. South Africa has extraordinary archival resources that reside in public, non-public and private collections and in the individual and collective memory of citizens, but these are not always accessible to citizens. If the sector can find a way to work together, to build an inclusive archive and ensure that information is open and accessible then all South Africans - including the construction worker waving her flag on the side of the road

(1) Cook, T. 2000. 'Remembering the future: appraisal of records and the role of archives in constructing social memory' in, Blouin Jr, F.X. & Rosenberg, W.G. (eds). 2006. Archives, documentation and institutions of social memory. Essays from the Sawyer Seminar. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press: pp. 169-181.

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform.