We examine recent trends in social cohesion and inequality, and the relationship between the two in South Africa using date from the South African Reconciliation Barometer Surveys. Given that the country’s history of long-term racial and socioeconomic segregation, we use the extent of inter-racial interactions as our main approximation of social cohesion. We show that although there is some improvement in the extent of inter-racial interactions over time, even today less than a third of South Africans often or always talk or socialize with someone from a different racial group. We use a multidimensional Living Standards Measure to assess the level of well-being and the level of inequality. Our inequality analysis of this measure indicates that since 2008 both vertical and horizontal (between races) inequality declined significantly. These trends can be attributed to progress made in the provision of basic services (i.e. water, electricity) and ownership of household assets in South Africa. In contrast, when we focus on subjective or perceived inequality, it is clear that large proportions of South Africans (about 70 percent) perceive that the extent of inequality (the gap between the poor and the rich) has not changed much or has even worsened over time.
The key finding of our quantitative work is a significant relationship between individuals’ perception of inequality and their level of inter-racial interactions. Individuals who perceived that the gap between the rich and the poor is getting worse are less likely to participate in inter-racial socializations, while those who perceived that the gap is getting better are more likely to participate in inter-racial socializations. This finding remains strong and significant even after controlling for the influence of LSM, race, education, trust and other factors. Indeed, a number of these factors are also correlated with higher inter-racial interactions. Individuals who have higher education levels, a higher LSM and a better relative economic position are more likely to be involved in inter-racial socialization. In both the descriptive and multivariate analysis Africans and Whites are shown to have lower levels of inter-racial interactions than Coloureds at all LSM levels.
The provincial-level multivariate analysis is able to examine the relationship between a full social cohesion index and inequality in LSMs. These results suggest that vertical inequality in living standards is correlated with the level of social cohesion. Higher inequality may adversely affect social cohesion as it reduces inclusiveness.
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