Could sports be the Panacea to South Africa’s Social Cohesion Ills?

Could sports be the pill to South Africa’s Social Cohesion Ills?

Twenty-five years into democracy. South Africa still remains one of the most divided nations in the world. While most South Africans agree that the creation of a united, reconciled nation remains a worthy objective to pursue, the country remains afflicted by its historical divisions [1]. South African History has proven time and again that sports have a vital role to play in promoting a cohesive South Africa. Sports and Exercise Dev SA decided to investigate this question further.

In summary

We highlighted the potential role that sports can play in promoting social cohesion to introduce this concept in a broad sense as most people are new to it. We then researched the potential causes of Social division in South Africa in order to apply the concept of Sports and Social Cohesion to the South African context specifically. This then enabled us to investigate if sports could be the pill to South Africa’s Social Cohesion Ills? With that, we were able to come up with a list of key areas of social cohesion in South Africa that Sports and Social Cohesion can contribute to.

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South Africa has a history of social division and discrimination that was among the worst in the world. Our past was based on racial and ethnic divisions devised to systematically exclude the majority of South Africans from full and unhindered participation in all aspects of national life and left deep and persistent social, cultural and economic divisions and inequalities in society [2].

Since South Africa’s first democratic elections, institutionalized racial discrimination has been removed from the statutes, but the apartheid geography of our cities and towns – as well as the distributional patterns of our economy – have largely remained in place to reinforce the template created by the architects of apartheid [1]. While various programs have been put in place to try and deal with this problem. Sports and development remain relatively untapped.

In the Sports and Development practice, we have what the Journal of sports for development defined as thematic areas. One of those thematic areas is Sports and Social Cohesion. The Sport and Social Cohesion area encapsulate projects in the area of community empowerment, social inclusion/integration, and diversity management. It focuses on social impact studies and capacity building initiatives that can lead to social cohesion, skill enhancement and overall community development [3].

What role does sports play in promoting social cohesion?

It is important to state that even though Sport for Development (S4D) programs are effective in deriving development outcomes in their own right, sport alone cannot solve inequalities on its own. After all, the South African Barometer Briefing Paper 1 on National Reconciliation, Race Relations, and Social Inclusion found that most South Africans believe it is impossible to achieve a reconciled society for as long as those who were disadvantaged under apartheid remain poor within the ‘new South Africa’ [1]. So the assertion, if any exists, that sport would solve this very complex issue by itself would be a devastating mistake.

 S4D and Sports for Development and Peace (SDP) can aid development policies already in place that seek to reduce inequality such as improving education, employment, and Healthcare services. In spite of expectation, it is now evident that economic growth alone will not reduce poverty and inequality. This is because Social cohesion refers to the bonds that bring society together; it is based on material conditions such as employment, income, health, education, and housing, which facilitate good relations between and within communities [4]. It is in this regard where Sport and Social Cohesion takes the cup.

Sport and recreation positively contribute to many of the factors which build social cohesion, such as better physical and mental health, high educational attainment, reducing crime and antisocial behavior, creating better employment opportunities and earning potential and ensuring a fit and healthy workforce [4].

The above is, however, a general application of how Sport and Social Cohesion could be implemented to bring about social change. To really optimize the impact of the employment of Sport and Social Cohesion programs we have to look at the specific context to which those programs will be implemented.

Although the Sport and Development, sector may have templates, guides, and tools to use when adopting the Sports and Development approach. Rarely do we have a “one size fits all” magic wand to wave and solve societal issues?

This is very important to ensure that the programs adopted and implemented do not end up exacerbating the very same social ills we seek to challenge. It also highlights why the government should hire sports and development personnel instead of adopting a “do it yourself” tactic to adopting Sports and Development programs.

In this regard, the focus is on South Africa. We ask the very penitent question the South African government has neglected to ask themselves. Could sports be the pill to South Africa’s Social Cohesion Ills? To answer this question we need to look at the South African Social Cohesion issue in context, however, from the outside looking in as we do not, at this point work with the government.  

What is Social Cohesion in the South African Context?

The South African Department of Arts and Culture defines 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 itself among individuals and communities [2]. The department further explains that 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 [2].

It is important to adopt this definition and explanation if we really want to address the issue directly with minimum time and effort.

What is the cause of Social division in South Africa?

While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the cause of South Africa’s social cohesion ills are. In our experience, from practice and research Social exclusion is a result of unequal opportunities and existing inequalities in society. The South African Barometer Briefing Paper 1 on National Reconciliation, Race Relations, and Social Inclusion realized this to be a fact and states that Inequality remains the most frequently mentioned source of social division within South Africa [1].

In addition to that, race is often the first identifiable factor that promotes social division in the country. It is, however, one of the factors in addition to others that are perhaps equally important. The reason why race is an identifiable factor is because of the South African apartheid history. Legislated race-based discrimination was the defining feature of apartheid. Where you lived, where you worked, where you socialized, who you loved and, ultimately, where you died was largely predetermined by the colour of the skin in which you were born [1]. With that system, there was intentional and systematic segregation, unequal distribution of wealth and unequal employment opportunities all of which were predominantly in favour of white South Africans.

When all these injustices were finally brought to an end. Sport and Development proved its capability for the first time in South Africa by uniting South Africans during the 1995 rugby world cup. We wrote an article about how Nelson Mandela used the 1995 rugby world cup to unite South Africans. You can read that article and other stories of Social change in history Motivated by Sports in this previous article.

Since South Africa’s first democratic elections, institutionalized racial discrimination has been long removed from the statutes, but the apartheid geography of our cities and towns – as well as the distributional patterns of our economy – have largely remained in place to reinforce the template created by the architects of apartheid [1].

The National Summit on Social Cohesion is more specific about what the courses of South Africa’s social divisions could be. It identified the following issues as factors that make the task of uniting diverse peoples to work together to build a caring and proud society complex and challenging:

  • Uneven access to quality education and training, which deprives young people of the knowledge and skills needed for social and economic development.
  • Gender inequalities in households, the workplace, and society, which hinder the advancement of women and gender mainstreaming.
  • Slow economic growth and transformation, which result in widespread unemployment, poverty, inequality, and exclusion based on race, age, and gender.
  • Racism and xenophobia, which perpetuate divisions and conflict in communities.
  • The burden of disease, in particular, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, which exacts a heavy toll on communities and society at large.
  • High levels of crime and the abuse of the elderly, women and children, which affect communities and threaten safety and security.
  • Landlessness and homelessness among many South Africans and the persistence of apartheid spatial divisions, which perpetuate patterns of disproportionate land ownership and segregation.
  • Service delivery failures in local communities, which lead to social instability, disintegration, and conflict.
  • Perceived and actual corruption in the public and private sectors, which erode confidence and trust.

Now that we have an idea of the specific context to which we can apply the Sport and Social Cohesion methodology. We can then ask the next pertinent questions.

Could sports be the pill to South Africa’s Social Cohesion Ills?

Most of the “social divisions” identified as contributing to South Africa’s social division are issues the Sport and Social Cohesion sector is already studying and implementing methodologies to. However, on a smaller scale due to lack of governmental recognition, funding, and support.

In addition to the broader elucidation above explaining what role sports can play in promoting social cohesion. It has already been established for example, through various case studies and research [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]  that Sports can provide a safe environment, the opportunity to develop skill and demonstrate competence, opportunities to create networks, deliver specific moral and economic support, give participants autonomy and control through taking part which is something typically lacking in the lives of those who are socially excluded [4]. This is accomplished on a broader scope than Sport and Social Cohesion, mostly through Sports for Development (S4D), to which, Sport and Social Cohesion is a sector of.

Fundamentally, S4D aims to engage people from disadvantaged communities in physical activity projects that have an overarching aim of achieving various social, cultural, physical, and economic or health outcomes [1]. These facets are directly what South Africa needs to tackle head-on if they really want to solve the Social Cohesion problem.

Furthermore, the United Nations sport and development and peace forum suggests that Sport for development and peace (SDP) programs fall into three broad categories. These are

  • Social development,
  • Health development and,
  • Economic development.

Keeping in mind that one of the recognized contributors to inequality in South Africa is unequal economic development and opportunities. The Economic development category of SDP initiatives focuses on economic issues such as the building of local capacities, employment and environmental protection [1]. This makes S4D pertinent to the current demographically divided nation.

Most sports for development programs seek to achieve similar objectives. An example of such a program is Alive and Kicking which is an African Social enterprise which works to provide soccer balls for youth, jobs for adults and promote health education at the same time [1]. This is a pertinent example since it covers a wide spectrum of what constitutes inequality in South Africa.  Another good example is Right to Play. They direct resources towards HIV/AIDS prevention in places like Botswana, where the population has suffered from the pandemic [1].

Other Sports and Development organizations operate on a larger scale. Take for example the “Sport for Development in Africa (S4DA) Regional Project”.  It is a Multi-country project in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Togo; some parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and, Tanzania. The S4DA Regional Project works with National and regional ministries of education, youth, and sport. They have been doing this since 2014.  The S4DA approach establishes sports as a means for achieving development objectives in the countries they work in. You can read more about their work from their website.

Other Sports and Development Organisations in South Africa include (but are not limited to):

  • Sporting Chance Foundation – Uses sport as the vehicle for education.
  • The Football Foundation of South Africa (FFSA) – was established with the dual aims of achieving greater social integration in the Gansbaai region and educating and empowering youth, using sports as a vehicle for change.
  • Grassroot Soccer (GRS) – a South African non-profit organization that uses the power of soccer to prevent HIV and AIDS.
  • The Sports Trust – Education through Sport by providing sporting equipment, kit, and building facilities for previously disadvantaged South Africans so that they have access and the opportunity to participate in sport, in particular focusing on disadvantaged schools.
  • United through Sport – Focussed on working with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds using the power of sport to improve education, raise health awareness and build life-skills.

Key areas of social cohesion in South Africa that sports and social cohesion can contribute to

The following are key aspects highlighted by the National Summit on Social Cohesion detailing the areas to be addressed in order to achieve social cohesion in South Africa (Not all, only those that sports can contribute to):

  • The state must continue to build capacity to drive the socio-economic agenda in the country, including absorbing young people and women into economic activity, employing professionals, investing in skills required by the economy, and investing in research and development to respond to the demands of the knowledge economy [2].
  • To continue to fight any forms of discrimination, which are threats to social cohesion and nation building.
  • To accelerate change by improving the quality of life of all people, with special attention to the needs of the youth, women, and people with disabilities [2].
  • To promote and preserve all indigenous cultures and knowledge.
  • To respect human dignity and equality, promote freedom, democracy and the rule of law, improve material well-being and economic justice, enhance sound family and community values, uphold honesty, integrity and loyalty, ensure harmony in culture, belief and conscience, show respect and concern for all people, strive for justice, fairness and peaceful co-existence, and protect the environment as contained in the Charter of Positive Values adopted by the Moral Regeneration Movement in 2008 [2].
  • To expand existing national, heritage and other honors and awards to recognize individuals, organizations and communities that contribute significantly to social cohesion and nation building [2].

Another key area that sports can assist with in terms of social cohesion in South Africans is social interaction. Especially interracial interaction which is rare in South Africa. The  South African Barometer Briefing Paper 1 on National Reconciliation, Race Relations, and Social Inclusion States that Although there is a desire among most South Africans to have more contact with people from racial groups other than their own, they are precluded from doing so by the spatial and Economic legacies of apartheid. These also serve to reinforce old prejudices [1]. The South African Barometer Briefing Paper 1 on National Reconciliation, Race Relations, and Social Inclusion further expands that In South Africa Most interracial interaction between South Africans occurs in public spaces, such as places of work and study and shopping centers. Interaction in more intimate spaces, such as private homes and social or communal gatherings, is limited [1].

History has proven, especially in South Africa, that when people interact in the sports context the relation of interaction is less superficial than it is when they interact at a place of work for example, where one might be the employer and the other an employee. Or a restaurant where one is being served and the other is serving. This was evident in the 2010 FIFA world cup and the 1996 rugby world cup. Sports events can be, and often are social or communal gatherings by their nature.  

What makes sports stand out in this regard is its nature of uniting groups of people supporting a common objective. Players of the same team work together and, likewise, fans supporting the same team. Of course afterward the players and the fans live the sports setting and return to their normal lives where one might live in a better neighborhood than the other and drive there as opposed to using public transport. But what those interactions enforce, especially if they happen often and, on a large scale, is what I might call “normal interaction”. This can be the start of future normal interactions. Sports does a great job of setting up the foundation for these interactions. You might be surprised to know that in spite of the inequalities and division that exists within the country, most respondents (an inspiring 71%) believe that it is important to strive for the creation of a united South African nation [1].

With that said, the fields of Sport Development, Sport-For-Development (and Peace), and Sport-for-social Change (which perhaps may be collectively termed as Sports and Development) are relatively new. Therefore, we do not want to send the impression that we are saying that sports are the cure-all solution to Social, Health and, Economic development. On the other hand, it is important that sport is recognized as part of the solution. As much as it is suggested that Sports and Development are dependent on other sectors of government, it is also essential to acknowledge that those sectors are also, perhaps equally dependent on adopting Sport and Development for them succeed.

Can you think of other ways that Sports and Social Change can contribute to social cohesion to where you are in the world? Do you think that your local government is supportive of the Sports and Development approach? It would seem, at least to us that governments are slow to adopt the Sports and Development approach.  Is this the case where you are in the world as well? We would really like to find out.

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Works Cited
[1] J. Hofmeyr and R. Govender, “South African Reconciliation Barometer,” Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town, 2015.
[2] Department of Arts and Culture, “South African Department of Arts and Culture,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed 19 May 2019].
[3] Journal of Sport for Development, “Sport and Social Cohesion,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed 24 May 2019].
[4] Sport and Recreation Alliance, “Game of Life – Social Cohesion,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed 24 May 2019].
[5] D. Adir and N. Schulenkorf, Global Sport-for-development: A critical Perspectives, New York: Polgrave Macmillan, 2004.
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Thando W. Dlamini, BA

Sport Development and Exercise Science Practitioner

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