Understanding the Dangers of Social Inequality and Exclusion

December 2023

In order to strengthen social cohesion in times of populism and polarization, we need to understand the existing rifts. Two perspectives from Germany and South Africa illustrate how deep the cracks around social injustice run.

By Henry Alt-Haaker and Mike van Graan

Soziale Ausgrenzung Berliner Mauer
IMAGO / IPON

Political polarization and populism are on the rise, threatening social cohesion and democracies worldwide. Germany is not immune to these developments. Even after more than 30 years since reunification, social cohesion remains elusive. The Berlin Wall may be down, but cracks - and not just those between Eastern and Western Germany - are still evident. In a study trip with our Robert Bosch Academy Fellow community to Berlin and Dresden, we discussed current social and political challenges, and the reasons for the rise of populist parties. We asked our fellow Mike van Graan, and Henry Alt-Haaker, Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, to share their reflections on social cohesion after this year’s forum.

Henry Alt-Haaker: We have to strengthen social cohesion in (eastern) Germany in order to achieve peace and prosperity.

Social cohesion is at risk in many parts of the world – and Germany is no exception. Inequality is increasing here, too, and populist movements exploit this. This is particularly evident in our country's eastern states. It is critical that respect is shown for the accomplishments of people with multiple experiences of transformation in their lives. Germany as a whole has to include their perspectives and show empathy for perceived and real grievances.

Germany is one of the most peaceful (15th place, Global Peace Index) and wealthiest (18th place, Global Wealth Databook) countries in the world. By international standards, social cohesion is high and inequality low. But this picture is in flux.

In Germany, the dividing lines run not just between rich and poor, migrant and non-migrant, urban and rural. They also run between those who harbor confidence and those who are disillusioned. This is particularly clear on the border between East and West. How can these designations – East and West Germany – still be relevant today? What is a 20-year-old whose mother is from Cologne and whose father is from Erfurt, and who grew up in Berlin Friedrichshain? In Dresden, we took a closer look around and I’d like to share four observations and recommendations with you.

One of our fellows summed up his impressions by quoting the Canadian author and illustrator Bruce McCall’s observation of “nostalgia for the future that never happened”.

1. We must give people the chance to participate in society and make a worthwhile contribution.

This applies first and foremost to the Eastern Germans. They have to feel respected: as a valuable and appreciated part of German society. In fact, the opposite of this has often happened when, for example, entire regions are robbed of their identity. Take, for example, hard-working miners whose contribution to the country's prosperity has been cancelled because their industry is deemed "unproductive" or not "viable on the market."

This also applies to the many people who were not born in Germany but live here now. They also long for acceptance as a productive part of society. The latter would not least show the migration sceptics what valuable neighbors they have gained. "Political and moral beauty can only be achieved when the joy of dignity is at the center of our politics," writes our current Fellow Ece Temelkuran astutely.

2. Representation is important – and not lip service!

There must come an end to the structural underrepresentation of the Eastern Germans. They constitute 20 percent of the population but make up only 2 percent of DAX board members, 1 percent of university presidents, zero percent of public broadcaster directors, and have 30 percent less wealth. These are hard facts – not perceived truths.

Beyond this, however, we must also confront the emotional and individual wounds that influence behavior. The political and social elite lack practice and finesse in this area. In particular, there is a lack of lived Eastern German experience and transformation expertise in important sectors.

3. It’s time to talk about the positive, too.

People want to play an active role, participate, and be useful in society. This means asking them how they would like to improve their situation, as well as valuing their experiences and contributions. In an ever more volatile world, the resilience of the Eastern Germans, which they have proven over the last 30 years, is a tremendous added value for a country like Germany.

If you lived in a small town in Saxony in 1989, you “lost” your country in the 30 years that followed, including all your values and social norms. In the first half of the 1990s, in some areas of Saxony, 80 percent of the locals lost their jobs. After this came the loss of the Deutsch Mark, and then the euro crisis – and then the international financial crisis and the high influx of refugees in 2015. This resulted in a substantial loss of trust in democracy as well as in established political parties and institutions. A full 54 percent say they have little or no trust in German democracy, according to a Körber Foundation survey. People show "transformation fatigue," which opens an opportunity for populism and polarizing answers in an increasingly complex world.

4. Listen, don't preach!

"The person who speaks, sows; and the person who hears, reaps," goes a saying. This is especially true for societal discussions. And listening means being open to other perspectives and ways of thinking. When you listen, you question your own assumptions. Only if we manage to do this can we overcome societal polarization and fulfil people's local needs – together with them!

However, this will take time. Trust and self-esteem are lost much faster than they are rebuilt. And the changes in behavior that I recommend will only be credible if they are not seen purely as a means of preventing populist parties from winning elections in Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg in 2024.

Henry Alt-Haaker rund grau 30p


Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and heads the Strategic Partnerships and Robert Bosch Academy department.

Mike van Graan: In very different contexts, structural inequalities lie at the heart of social division and conflict.

The Robert Bosch Academy Fellows study tour to Eastern Germany in October was instructive for two reasons. First, we heard how – more than three decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall – people in the former East Germany continue to feel marginalized. Secondly, no matter their political affiliation, all politicians seemed to be united in their support for Israel as it relentlessly bombed Gaza in response to the attack by Hamas on 7 October. 

Eastern Germans are resentful about many things, among them the difference in income between themselves and their counterparts in the west. But also, about the absence of Eastern Germans in positions of corporate power, about few major companies being located in Eastern Germany, and about Eastern Germans having to retrain to be considered as equals to their Western German colleagues.

In essence, after years of division, and now living together in a united country, eastern Germans perceive themselves as victims of injustice, discriminated against, thought of as lesser by the hegemonic, more culturally and economically powerful Western Germany.

If they were to apply this to the Israel-Palestine conflict and should they have less “historical responsibility” or national guilt about the Holocaust, Eastern Germans may be less inclined to side automatically with Israel – the dominant force in the conflict – and instead relate to the resentment, anger, and rebellion of Palestinians. After all, they too aspire to be treated equally – to their Jewish counterparts who live in the same country but who enjoy infinitely more rights and freedoms than they do.

At the root of much social conflict is injustice, both real and perceived. As a South African who has lived through apartheid and whose country earned the moniker of “rainbow nation” as it seemingly overcame its structurally divided past premised on “race”, I was struck by the bitterness and disgruntlement expressed by Eastern Germans. And this in a country they shared with people who looked like them, spoke the same language as they did, and generally shared a similar belief and value system.

If this is how white eastern Germans felt, how do citizens of Turkish descent in Germany feel? Or new immigrants to Germany?

While South Africa’s constitution asserts the same rights for all its citizens, our apartheid history means that citizens do not start at the same level. If there is a rainbow nation it comprises a small minority of the population where some black people have been assimilated into the educational, corporate, and social structures formerly dominated by white people, while the overwhelming majority of black people remain marginalized, excluded from the constitutional promises through poor education, unemployment, deepening poverty, and limited social mobility.

During the Fellows’ tour, the Rugby World Cup was being played in France. South Africa was the reigning champion, having won the trophy in Japan four years ago, and despite numerous odds they achieved it again in France! The team represents the demographics of the country with a much-loved black captain, and the celebrations in the country after the victory displayed how much it served to unite South Africans across all the major social divides. 

However, while such sports victories may give an impression of national unity and social cohesion – in much the same way as a German soccer victory in a major competition would unite Eastern and Western Germans – at the root of social divisions and ongoing social conflict are deep injustices and inequalities. Those united at stadiums or at victory parades return from the temporary euphoria of victory to the reality of their social conditions, marked by structural discrimination and exclusion.

It is often those who feel discriminated against, those who believe themselves to be victims of social injustices, who turn less on thosewho inhabit power and who may be responsible for their positions, than on those who are even more vulnerable than they are, for example, migrants and refugees. This is as true in Germany with its rising xenophobia as it is in South Africa with its intense Afrophobia - the hatred and/or victimization of people from Africa migrating to South Africa. 

Social cohesion – whether it be at a national or global level – needs to be pursued by dealing with the fundamental structural inequalities that are at the root of resentment, anger, and rebellion, rather than through symbolism and superficial strategies to create a perception of unity.

Mike van Graan rund grau


Mike van Graan is a cultural activist and one of South Africa’s foremost contemporary playwrights. He is a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

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