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South Africa's social contract has been fraying for yea...

Defend Truth


South Africa’s social contract has been fraying for years


Born in Cape Town, Natale Labia lives in Milan, Italy, and writes on the economy and finance. Partner of private equity firm Lionhead Capital Partners. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

What is the social contract? A fundamental idea, perhaps the fundamental idea behind modern societies and economics, it is a term which is often used but is rarely considered in more depth. However, it is worth revisiting the concept and exploring what it can teach us about contemporary SA and the troubles that confront it.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The phrase is most usually attributed to the Genevan mathematician and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote the eponymous 1762 text that is still standard reading for first year politics students.

In it he outlined the basic contract – an agreement – between the state and individuals, that should exist for a state to be legitimate over the individual. For a state to be legitimate, individuals have to renounce certain freedoms to the authority of the state, in exchange for protection of the remaining rights of the individual and the maintenance of order.

Rousseau’s example of the rights to land ownership may sound particularly apposite. Land can be legitimately claimed if three conditions are present: if it is uninhabited, that the owner claims only what is needed for subsistence, and that ongoing labour and cultivation give the possession legitimately. One might therefore suggest that those who argue against land reform in South Africa should revisit their political philosophy.

However, in a modern context, there are several more essential ways to apply the concept of the social contract in South Africa.

First, there is a fundamentally economic element to it. To respect the rules and legitimacy of the state, the state should institute a framework in which all citizens have at least equal access to economic opportunity. Should that not exist, then what is the incentive for individuals to comply with the removal of economic rights as laid down by the state (being precluded from helping yourself to a TV without paying for it, for example)?

It is clear that the social contract in South Africa has been fraying for years, maybe decades. A cursory glance at South Africa’s economic statistics confirm it. Unemployment is up almost 10% in the past 10 years, but the basic numbers are even more shameful. There are more than 7 million unemployed South Africans, but also more than 3 million who are not working but also not even looking for a job as it is so clearly a futile task. One in six South Africans are therefore daily all too aware of the non-compliance of the state with its social contract.

Furthermore, South Africa is the world’s most unequal country, with a Gini coefficient of 63.0. The statistics beggar belief. According to the World Bank report of 2020, the richest 10% hold 71% of the wealth, while the poorest 60% hold just 7% of the wealth. More than half of South Africa’s population, about 55.5%, live in poverty, earning less than R1,200 per month.

Second, Rousseau writes at length about the different systems which may or may not enact the social contract successfully. He concludes that a city-state, like his native Geneva, may be the best system. Larger states like France are simply too unwieldy. Either way, his argument is clear: should the state not be able to deliver the order and protection and liberties agreed, then other regional and factional systems might be sought.

For President Ramaphosa to label the unrest of the week “ethnically motivated” has been termed foolish by political analysts, as it risks legitimising it. But in the absence of a functioning and legitimate state, it is only rational for individuals to seek a different social contract along factional or ethnic lines.

Third, there is a real social element to Rousseau’s contract; it is not a concept purely rooted in legislative theory. A state undertakes to provide basic provision of services to enable society to function. Access to education, healthcare, electricity and water are the one side of the bargain. If that doesn’t happen, one should not expect individuals to respect the property of the state and be precluded from vandalising it. There is a certain cold, clear and obvious logic and rationality to service delivery protests and “looting” which are sadly rarely mentioned by the press or government but would have been completely familiar to Rousseau.

His final point is that states are not legitimate through force, only through consent. As soon as that consent goes, states immediately lose their power, and the contract is broken. This week, in parts of the country the consent for the state to govern was forcibly, deliberately and rationally withdrawn. From that moment, once the contract is severed, history has proved (perhaps more powerfully in South Africa than almost anywhere else) that it is extremely hard to mend it. This is not to condone the violence, it is just to say that to have expected anything else would have been irrational. For those South Africans trying to work out what will happen in the coming months and years, it is worth asking if it is indeed possible to mend this shattered agreement. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.


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All Comments 4

  • A sobering read, and an issue I have been thinking about a lot. The contract between the state and its citizens is indeed broken, very broken. No one is happy with the state, only the state itself, and the governing elite, as they are the only beneficiaries, having conflated the lines between government and party. The kind of stone cold analyses our present situation demands. Food for thought indeed.

  • The Social Contract has been broken. After 27 years of total power the government has neglected the needs of the majority. The responsibility of monitoring the equitable spending of the tax and excise revenue has been conveniently overlooked despite warning signs. The NPA has failed in taking swift action despite the naked truth being testified at the Zondo hearings. Political considerations by government have overpowered population needs at every turn.
    The choice of tribal rights or democratic rights needs to be made. Allocate ownership rights to all poor people allowing them to have an asset to facilitate loans for entrepreneur development. Do away with free payments for university students and make primary education compulsory and free.
    We need a definition of transformation and the sensible way of implementation rather than using it as political rhetoric to arouse the population.
    We need people in government that can think and act sensibly. I remain ever hopeful that the new elected order will fulfill my hopes of a Social Contract!

    • Thanks Bruce. Excellent points, sadly the current government seem politically powerless to enact anything like that. The current notion of transformation purposefully vague to allow it to be a catch all to serve entrenched interests. It will be hard to come back from this but one must remain hopeful, those halcyon days of the early 2000s too long ago.

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