Article

Between narratives of reconciliation and resistance: Re-locating social cohesion in the current South African statue debates

DOI: 10.1080/02580136.2018.1537041
Author(s): Giselle BaillieInstitute for Reconciliation and Social Justice, South Africa

Abstract

“Social cohesion” is a complex concept, characterised by a “prism of meanings”. In South Africa social cohesion has been tied to the question of nation building, with the arts, culture and heritage domains having been identified as key players in this ethical task, since the idea is that social cohesion would be promoted if citizens were sensitised to the diversity of identities. Despite these ideals, however, social cohesion among South Africans still seems far away. This is not merely due to practical capacity and economic issues, but also because of operational challenges. In this article, I argue that the ongoing statue debates on South African public university campuses (specifically a case study of events at the University of the Free State from 2008 to date) offer a critical opportunity to reflect on the relationship between social cohesion and identity. However, the moment risks being lost due to the current understanding that the statue debates represent only identity polarisation and the breakdown of social cohesion, cynicism about these very concepts, and operational confusion. The question arises of whether we could think differently regarding heritage and social cohesion. Could we view the conflicts and contradictions around these statues as spaces for ongoing re-imagination, and the pursuit of identity as a continual process of negotiation?

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