Rainbow Nation?
The South African community hailed as a model for racial diversity
Published: Apr 05, 2022 05:42 PM
South Africans and foreign migrants hold up banners and chant slogans during a demonstration against xenophobia in Johannesburg, on March 26, 2022. Photo: AFP

South Africans and foreign migrants hold up banners and chant slogans during a demonstration against xenophobia in Johannesburg, on March 26, 2022. Photo: AFP

The people of Welbedacht in South Africa always knew there was something special about their neighborhood.

In contrast to the towering walls and electric fences seen in more crime-ridden urban areas, residents crisscross between open and interconnected land on undulating green hills and say crime is less frequent.

Eager to identify the key to Welbedacht's harmony, researchers think they have discovered one of the answers - its long-standing ethnic diversity, a finding they hope could serve as a model for areas still scarred by apartheid segregation.

"This place can be a good example to the rest of the world; we live like a family," said Mavis Nkosi, a 60-year-old resident of Welbedacht, whose people are mainly black Africans and Indians, with a white and mixed race minority.

South Africa is the world's most unequal country as of 2022, according to the World Bank, following decades of racially segregated, white minority rule, high-level corruption and rising unemployment.

Many of Welbedacht's some 7,000 households relocated here in 2004 due to slum resettlement, and the closing of a homeless shelter in the same year that housed racially diverse individuals.

Those events saw families relocated to the city's periphery, gaining houses but often facing challenges with electricity and sanitation access.

But despite such hardships, the neighborhood has long been seen as a beacon for social cohesion, say urban researchers.

"We share battles," said Nkosi, who runs an organization helping to train people with disabilities.

This drove researchers at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) to document residents' stories through oral testimonies to understand why, in a crime-plagued, unequal country, Welbedacht's sense of community is so strong.

"The biggest lesson we take from Welbedacht is that diversity is a resource," said Linda Mbonambi, manager at the local eThekwini municipality, during a community celebration to honor the research in March.

The sounds of tambourines, drums and prayers spilled out from the neighborhood ashram, where dozens had gathered to recognize the community as a model of racial and social unity.

Building solidarity

Around the world, studies have reached varying conclusions about the links between racial diversity and social cohesion, but the Durban study is not the first to highlight it as a potentially positive factor in stemming crime.

Close ties between neighbors and opportunities to mix could be another factor - something facilitated by the lack of walls.

"Not having physical walls allows for the flow of people, resources and ideas," said Monique Marks, a sociology lecturer at DUT, and head of the university's Urban Futures Centre.

It also allows for greater natural surveillance - visibility that aids crime reduction, added Sogendren Moodley, a research associate at DUT also leading the research.

Church leader and local resident Vasi Pillay, said that during apartheid the Indian indentured laborers and Black South Africans would watch Diwali fireworks together, and help hide one another when police raided the area to enforce segregation.

"We built solidarity here," she said, seated in her church built onto a small government-supplied house as her children served cool drinks and food.

Pillay and other female leaders like Nkosi say this sense of solidarity has lasted, with mothers always keeping an eye on one another's children, sharing meals and sheltering abused women.

'Putting people at the center'

A local economy that is mainly informal - most residents say they have no title deeds to their government-allocated homes, but also no landlords - has allowed residents to take ownership of their own needs, the DUT researchers found.

Unable to sell their homes and move on, residents focus on home improvements instead, adding bathrooms, extra rooms or new levels.

Together with religious leaders, they have pooled resources to turn churches and temples into community centers, run female-led shelters for abused women and abandoned children, and provide skills training to tackle poverty and inequality.

"Yes, infrastructure is important, but this community teaches us that putting people at the center of development is essential," said Mbonambi.

Resident Tholi Jacobs said she saw a group of women heading to work in the morning, so she asked them for advice on finding a job.

Soon they had helped her find a job as a domestic worker and, in exchange, she taught them how to grow vegetables.

Following South Africa's first democratic election in 1994, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu described post-apartheid South Africa as the "Rainbow Nation" to reflect the different races and ethnicities coming together.

It is a term that has since been criticized by activists and academics who feel it has romanticized diversity without criticizing what needs to be changed.

Since the dawn of democracy, the national government has rolled out housing programs, welfare grants and more recently, COVID-19 relief grants to tackle inequality, although critics say corruption has hindered their reach.

Officials say there are other community upliftment projects being implemented across the country - from community gyms, to creches and food gardens - that do not get enough public attention.

Although Welbedacht is worth celebrating, there may be other variables to consider as to why community members report strong feelings of safety and solidarity, said Billal Haq, an urban designer at eThekwini municipality.

Size aside, residents of Welbedacht think the Rainbow Nation ideology is alive and well where they live and has spurred local government to invest in plans for parks to be built as well as future social research in the community.