Social Capital in South Africa

by on October 1, 2008 at 12:22 am

In 2000 sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone. No, I haven’t read it yet, but the title sums up his central observation: across the United States league bowling is on the decline. Putnam is concerned by this because it is representative of the general decline in group activities by Americans. And group activities like league bowling, community BBQ’s, and trivia night at the local pub are what generate social capital. The less we interact, the less social capital we have.


So I lost a few thousand dollars over the past couple weeks. Anyone with a modest investment in stocks and mutual funds did. Do I care? I don’t care. Couldn’t care less.

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I could lose every single penny to my name and I know that I’d be just fine. I would call one friend and ask to stay at his place for a couple months until I get back on my feet. Then I’d call another friend and ask her to introduce me to the right people to get some job interviews. Then there is another friend I’d call – the one with the extra car – and ask to borrow it for a few months so I could get around. And to make sure I stay fit I’d visit my friend who works at a gym and see if he could give me a free membership.

That is social capital – relationships which also happen to serve as a sort of social insurance. Those individuals are there for us with the assumption that we would also one day be there for them. It is why we network at conferences, why we hand out and collect business cards. It is also why we drop names; as a way of demonstrating our social capital.


As Clay Shirky observes in Here Comes Everybody, one of the reasons fewer Americans are participating in fewer group activities is because it is more of a pain in the ass to do so. “When an activity becomes more expensive, either in direct costs or increased hassle, people do less of it, and several effects of the last fifty years – including smaller households, delayed marriage, two-worker families, the spread of television, and suburbanization – have increased the transaction costs for coordinating group activities outside work.”

That, however, is an observation of America in the 1990’s, at the apex of suburbia, shopping plazas, and cookie-cutter housing. Ever since my generation graduated from college everything has changed. We rebelled against our parents’ glorification of trimmed green lawns and gated communities. We have moved to urban centers and we speak with embarrassment of our suburban roots. And, via the internet, we have met more people than we could possibly hang out with. For any 20-something in urban America today there is no lack of social capital, only a lack of time.


South Africa today reminds me so much of the United States in the 1990’s – dilapidated downtowns, poor public transportation, enormous malls on the outskirts of cities, and lots of gated communities. Pretty much everything my generation is trying to reverse today in the United States. Social capital in South Africa remains extremely consolidated in an exclusive (mostly White) business community.

In the United States there are many institutions with the sole purpose of distributing business class social capital in communities where there is little. Philanthropic foundations are getting especially good at this – inviting young leaders from marginalized communities to conferences where they can hobnob with leaders of the so-called privileged class. I see little evidence of anything similar in South Africa.


As I see it, there are four requirements for “success”. (A word I always have to put in quotation marks.) First is ambition. You have to want something. Second is hard work. You have to be willing to work hard for it, even if that means delegating tasks rather than doing them yourself. Third you need skill. Not talent, which comes naturally, but skill, which can be developed over the years. Lastly, you need social capital. You can be the best writer or the best rapper or the best chef in the world, but unless you know someone who can help you publish your book, produce your record, or get you into an executive kitchen, you’re not gonna make it big.

Yesterday I gave a blogging workshop to a group of around 15 young artists from the township Kwa Mashu. These kids have the ambition, are willing to work hard, and are immensely skilled. (In fact, they are fortunate enough to be immensely talented.)

What they do not have is social capital. They don’t know the directors of theater companies, they don’t know music producers, and they don’t know gallery owners. “These blogs that you’re setting up,” I told them, “they are your paths to social capital.” On their blogs they can meet the right people and they can display their portfolios to show them that they have what it takes. They can also discover other artists around the world, learn from them, teach them, and collaborate with them.


But simply starting a blog isn’t enough. In Here Comes Everybody Shirky makes the distinction between “bonding capital”, which he describes as how much money you’d be willing to loan to any one person and “bridging capital”, which is how many people you’d be willing to loan some amount of money to. Blogging can be a great way to increase your bridging capital: it opens bridges into new communities and opportunities. But to establish really meaningful relationships – the kind that can lead to new partnerships, new businesses, and new clients – it is necessary to meet offline.

That is what is so great about the South Africa-based 27dinner movement, which, in its own words, “aims to bring together informed, networked individuals with a common passion for technology, media and business in an informal but valuable real world space.” The problem with the movement, as you an see here below, is that it’s not exactly the most diverse group of informed and networked individuals.


They are increasing their social capital, but they are not distributing it. South Africa needs a lot more of both. The internet doesn’t automatically bring social capital to a township like Kwa Mashu, but it does make it possible.

[Note: This is only my second time in South Africa and I have only spent about a month total during the two visits so I don’t claim to be anything approaching an expert on South African society. These are just some rough notes based on my observations.]