Achieving Social Change in South Africa

Friday, 11 September, 2020 - 12:09

The Covid-19 pandemic came just as we were getting used to the entry of the 4th Industrial Revolution. Societies around the globe were adjusting to the new way of life introduced by the digital age.  Now, another global shakedown arrived towards the end of 2019. We have to brace ourselves and prepare for massive social changes in South Africa.  And the civil society has to be in the forefront of mobilizing the society towards embracing and coping with these changes.
Futurists and market researchers are calling this pandemic the 'great reset' of our society and an opportunity to reimagine a different world. What is the social change that we can realistically imagine in South Africa, despite our dire economic circumstances, and increased joblessness and poverty due to Covid-19 and the mismanagement of resources?
With every industrial revolution comes shifts to social, economic, environmental and political systems, paving the way for transformative changes in the way we live and work.  While the first three industrial revolutions brought the world steam power, electricity, mass production and digitisation, it is expected that as the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, it will disrupt almost every business sector at an unprecedented rate.
The level of technological innovation now taking place has not been seen since the early 1900s, which saw the advent of powered flight, the radio, telephone and the internal combustion engine.

Social structure as a result of Industrial Revolution

  • Increase in standard of living eventually resulted from urbanization
  • Gaps between wealthy and working class still remained enormous
  • Industrial and urban development made society more diverse and less unified
  • Diversity within middle class
  • Upper middle class: bankers, industrial leaders, large-scale commerce
  • Diversified middle class: businessmen, professionals, merchants, doctors and lawyers
  • Lower middle class: independent shopkeepers and small traders
  • Working class: about 80% of population
  • Many were peasants and hired hands (especially in Eastern Europe)
  • Less unified and homogeneous compared to the middle classes
  • Highly skilled workers were at the top of working class (about 15% of pop.)
  • Semi-skilled workers: carpentry, bricklaying, successful factory workers
  • Unskilled workers and domestic servants were at the bottom.

In a time of exponential change, where the unemployment rate is projected to be at 50% by the end of the year (20% up from our current unemployment rate), where food security and social welfare are becoming an increasing concern, and the provincial government’s maladministration in Eastern Cape is collapsing, our socio-political challenges can all seem insurmountable and unrealistic. For Social change to occur in any society it has to manifest in either of the mechanisms or processes outlined below:
Social Evolution – This involves the natural inherent growth or development of a society from simpler to more complex advanced and modern forms. Change is a natural process.
Borrowing and Diffusion – This is the process through which social change occurs when societies borrow and infuses cultural elements from other societies consciously or unconsciously.
Discovery and Invention- This involves the process of deriving new perceptions of aspects or an entire cultural base of a society and creating hitherto non-existing material or non-material culture from the existing culture base i.e. a new application or combination of cultural knowledge.
Assimilation- This process involves a situation when two societies or cultural groups have contact, the weaker group is subsumed into the stronger one and thereby making the weaker group losing its cultural autonomy e.g. the loss of the African-ness of Francophone West Africa.
Acculturation- This process involves two societies having contact with their cultures converging and over time leading to cultural homogeneity. E.g. The Hausa and Fulani cultural convergence.
Cultural Loss- This involves loss of cultural knowledge of the old which are replaced with new ones as a result of cultural extinction occasioned by diffusion, assimilation etc.
Planned and Guided Change- Here, government at all levels, community development associations, organized groups etc. may initiate socio-cultural changes and equally control its pace, rate and direction e.g. government policies on population growth control such as family planning, limits on number of children per family, legalization of abortion etc.
Society is made up of constituent parts known as social institutions all performing specific functions for the stability and growth of society. Researchers suggests that all institutions of society are sources or agents of social change and these include:
The Economy- It is through the economic system that man and society fulfills its basic needs of food, shelter and clothing; it equally provides the technological means through which society adapts to its environment, it then engenders massive changes through exploitation of environmental resources in quest of meeting man’s need and development of society.
Government – The government initiates guided and planned change as it sets agenda and goal for society. It helps society attains its set goals and achieve social change through promulgation of laws, policies, developmental projects, provision of social amenities etc.
Religion – The role of religion as a tool for social change is not contestable as it brings about both positive and negative changes. For example, religious wars and extremism experienced in our world are offshoots of religious intolerance. Religious doctrines engender social change in so many ways for example it took missionaries from Europe to put a halt to killing of twins and human sacrifices in Nigeria.
Education–Education is a veritable agent of social change as it helps liberate hitherto ignorant masses from poverty, superstition, dogmatism, traditionalism etc. It opens their minds, changes their attitudes, values and beliefs and provides them better understanding of their environment and their society. Education provides the right conditions and attitudes for social change to occur.
Mass Media –The media both electronic and print is a catalyst to social change. The media is a tool for mass education, mass mobilization and it helps spread ideology of change. As the world gets smaller as a result of globalization, the media presents new cultural traits, technologies, fashion tastes, food, fads from across the world over the internet, satellite television, magazines etc. which are spread and diffused in distanced lands and even in the smallest and farthest of nations.

Youth, a key ingredient for change

We have to find the appropriate levers for change. But after identifying potential levers, we need to also ask ourselves which of these levers are most likely to yield the desired outcome for social change. For us at Activate Change Drivers, a key ingredient for change was to invest in the intellectual capital of young people, our ‘social engineers’. We have consistently sought out young people between the ages of 20 and 30 years who were already engaged in social change activities in their communities and had a passion to create meaningful impact. These were the right people. But, the right people needed to get in touch with other ‘right people’ who were also doing the right job across the country.
Not only that, but they needed tools to support them on this journey to right the wrongs in our society. We need people in the right positions and we need to sharpen the ‘toolkits’ of those with potential. We have taken our young activators in our youth network through leadership and social enterprise programmes to strengthen their skills so that they can have impact in their own communities. This has never been more important than with the social issues created by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.
Research suggests that large-scale social change doesn’t require the support of the majority. If only about 25 percent of people in a group take a stand, that is enough to create a tipping point that can relatively quickly lead to the establishment of a new norm.
A small but vocal minority can change what’s seen as socially expected, whether it’s bumping elbows instead of shaking hands or staying home instead of going out.
We don't need everyone to immediately adopt new norms. What we need is for enough of us to do so. If 25 percent of us change our behaviour and publicize making this change to friends, neighbours, and family members we can shape social norms more broadly.


William Anderson, writer and tutor

Laskowski-Jones, Linda
AKUJOBI, THEOPHILUS C., Department of Sociology; University of Port Harcourt,Nigeria
JACK, JACKSON T.C.B, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Federal University Otuoke, Nigeria
Catherine A. Sanderson, Ph.D., is the Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences (Psychology) at Amherst College.
Damon Centola at the University of Pennsylvania

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