SA must rework and fix our social contract lest our democratic gains be reversed

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the incoming United Nations Under-Secretary-General and a Rector of the UN University. Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi is the incoming Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

They recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 01 February 2023.

In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract as the base for a tacit agreement between government and citizens, outlining conditions for guaranteeing equality and liberty. Quite simply, people give power to the government in exchange for the protection of their rights.

In order to be afforded certain rights and liberties, citizens have duties and responsibilities to the state.

The French revolutionaries in the 1790s took the book The Social Contract through the reign of terror that ended with the tragic emergence of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

It took the French more than 90 years to establish an orderly, stable and democratic society. And still it is not perfect, even after all these years. The process of social contracting is fraught with contradictions and setbacks.

The American journalist Matt Apuzzo wrote that in the contemporary context, “it’s a social contract we make. We’re willing to give up certain things. We give you the right to tax us. We give you the right to lock us up. We give you the right to put us on surveillance, search our homes, whatever, and, in exchange, we get a functioning society that keeps us relatively safe, and that’s the trade-off we make.”

Well, when the lights are off, the water supply is under threat, education is in a perilous state and crime is uncontrollable, then the social contract is broken.

We should fix our social contract lest our democratic gains be reversed, and we will not recover for at least another 90 years.

In South Africa, this concept is indeed fraught.

As Marwala has argued, “South Africa has not succeeded in building a viable social contract.”

Battered by years of State Capture, high unemployment and increasing inequality, the democratic project envisioned in the early nineties has not entirely been realised. A cursory glance at the unemployment and inequality figures speaks to this failure.

The 2021 riots that unfolded demonstrated just how frayed any semblance of a social contract was. The Washington Post referred to this moment as a warning to the world: this is what happens when the gross inequality that shapes a society boils over.

There is a call for a new social contract which emphasises responsible citizenship. Responsible citizenship is a prerequisite for a functioning and healthy social contract. It refers to the actions and attitudes that the citizens exhibit as members of society, such as obeying laws, paying taxes, participating in the democratic process, being informed about public issues and volunteering or giving back to the community.

In fact, there is an argument to be made for creating an entirely new social contract in the 21st century, particularly in the wake of the Covid pandemic, given the various inequalities that have been worsened.

As Minouche Shafik writes: “A new social contract is not about higher taxes, more redistribution, and a bigger welfare state. It is about fundamentally reordering and equalising how opportunity and security are distributed across society.”

But what does this mean in the South African context?

There are two factors to consider – how do we restore state legitimacy and emphasise responsible citizenship?

These goals are not mutually exclusive. The social contract can help to promote responsible citizenship by providing citizens with the resources, opportunities and protections they need to be active, informed and engaged members of their communities.

This includes access to education, healthcare and other essential services, and protection of their rights and freedoms. These concepts are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and both are necessary for state legitimacy.

For us to achieve these goals, there needs to be civic education that is incorporated into the curriculum. Research suggests that a lack of knowledge and understanding of these concepts constrains active citizenship.

The Bill of Responsibilities launched by the Department of Basic Education in 2008 is useful in this regard. It discusses the obligations related to the rights set up in the Bill of Rights in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. Incorporating this into the curriculum highlights the rights and duties of citizens, as well as the significance of active involvement in the democratic process.

Additionally, community engagement outlines the needs of communities and encourages citizens to play their part in addressing these challenges. This can be achieved alongside civil society and social movements that can raise awareness about pertinent socioeconomic issues.

As the head of education at Section 27, Faranaaz Veriava argues: “The grassroots activism and civic education programmes that characterised much of the Struggle against apartheid, and the early days of our democracy and constitution-making, [have] all but disappeared from the South African landscape.”

Furthermore, the government can implement policies and programmes that encourage active participation and support community engagement.

William Gumede asserts that “the challenge is how to empower individuals and communities to overcome hopelessness, paralysis and apathy, and to pro-actively shape their own destinies.”

While this outlines the role of citizens in creating a new social contract, there is a required responsibility for government. As Rousseau asks and answers, “What, then, is the government? An intermediary body established between the subjects and the sovereign for their mutual communication; a body charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of freedom, both civil and political.”

The state must actively address poverty and inequality by implementing progressive taxation, social welfare programmes and targeted economic development programmes. Investing in education, vocational training and job creation programmes focusing on marginalised communities speaks to this goal.

As recent history has demonstrated, the state has to address corruption. This can be done by strengthening institutions and oversight mechanisms that are meant to prevent and combat corruption.

Finally, the state should promote participatory governance and encourage citizens to participate in decision-making while holding government officials accountable.

In South Africa, there is also a need to reform and restructure the bloated public sector as well as remodel state-owned entities that are demonstrably ineffective.

South Africa finds itself at a crossroads.

Our difficult context and recent history indicate that we must rethink the social contract. There is an implied responsibility for both the state and the citizens. If we have any hope for a better tomorrow, we have to begin with that social contract.

As Marwala articulates: “These are solutions that can be posited if we are to restore the legitimacy of the state in South Africa … the survival of the country is the only guarantee of liberty, but this requires the people to guard that liberty and not relinquish their freedoms.”

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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