- Across 34 African countries, generalised trust is extremely low: Just 14% of respondents believe that “most people can be trusted.”
- At the same time, Africans value diversity and are quite tolerant of some types of people who are different from them. More than two-thirds (68%) believe that diverse communities are stronger than homogeneous ones.
- Majorities would like having people from other ethnicities, religions, political parties, and countries as neighbours – an expression of tolerance that has increased significantly in recent years.
- Africans have a strong sense of national unity. Nearly two-thirds (65%) say there is more that unites everyone in their country as one people than divides them. And on average across 32 countries, only 14% are more strongly attached to their ethnic than their national identity.
- Discrimination is, however, a widespread problem. Economic status, rather than ethnicity or religion, is the most common basis of discrimination. Reported levels of unfair treatment are generally higher at the hands of government than at the hands of fellow citizens.
- Poorer citizens report facing discrimination at much higher rates than their wealthier counterparts – sometimes twice as high. This is true not only of discrimination based on economic status, but also when it is based on ethnicity or religion.
- Measured across six categories, Cameroon, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, and South Africa report the most widespread problems with discrimination, while Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania stand out as countries where discrimination is much less prevalent.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability of societies to work collectively to respond to challenges has taken centre stage. In fact, early public support for and adherence to public health measures has been cited as one factor explaining Africa’s far lower per-capita infection and death rates compared to other global regions (BBC, 2020).
Analysts study social bonds and social divisions precisely because they believe that societies that are more cohesive, i.e. that have stronger, more positive relationships across social groups, and between social groups and the government, will be more capable of solving
shared problems and promoting greater well-being and development.
How strong or weak are social bonds in Africa? The continent has often been portrayed as conflict-ridden and characterised by divisions, especially divisions based on ethnicity. What is the reality? Do citizens of African countries share a sense of common identity and national purpose that can bring them together to serve collective goals, as some of the recent experiences fighting the coronavirus
pandemic would suggest? Or are they, as the stereotypes suggest, riven by cleavages and distrust that thwart the pursuit of the public good?
Extensive research, built around concepts such as social capital, social cohesion, and pluralism, has explored how people identify themselves, where social rifts are deepest, and how relationships develop horizontally across identity groups and vertically between these groups and the state (see for example Chan, To, & Chan, 2006; Jenson, 2019; Lockwood, 1999).
Both identities and relationships are complex and multi-dimensional. While it is often taken for granted, for example, that ethnicity is the most salient identity – and source of division – in many African countries, even a first look beyond ethnicity suggests that gender, religion, race, wealth, education, nationality, and partisanship are all potentially critical sources of identity and cleavage, at least in some countries and at some times. And understanding the presence or absence of overarching national or pan-African identities that may counter- balance or even override sub-national identities and differences is essential as well.
Relationships may also be multi-layered. Analysts of social capital and social cohesion often focus on “trust” among and between individuals, identity groups, and the state. But “trust” may be a fairly high bar in many societies (see for example Nunn & Wantchekon, 2011), and other aspects of relationships – tolerance, acceptance, or mutual respect on the one hand,