South Africa must guard against the erosion of its social contract


The idea of government is rooted in a learnt human preference for social order and organisation, and the benefits thereof, as opposed to chaos. According to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writing in the mid-17th century, the nature of the life of humans is “nasty, brutish and short”.

Hobbes argued that, when no higher authority exists to impose social order, people are in constant danger of violence from each other. Consequently, the argument goes, people relinquish their inherent freedoms to a government in exchange for security. Government, in turn, lays down laws and policies that seek to achieve this security.

Governments therefore find their genesis in what is an implied social contract. In terms of this unwritten social contract, citizens tacitly agree to surrender their absolute freedoms and subject themselves to law and order in exchange for the social security and prosperity that should naturally flow as a result of living in an organised and governed society.

In 1994, South Africa entered into one such social contract —arguably, for the first time. Both the colonial and apartheid eras must be disregarded because the governments were illegitimate and arbitrarily deprived most people of their freedoms.

The tenets of this 1994 social contract can be seen in the preamble of the South African Constitution of 1996, which, in part, reads “we therefore, through our freely elected representative [government], adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to establish a society based on … social justice and human rights”, and to “improve the quality of all citizens and free the potential of each person”.

South African society entered into this social contract and assented to the Constitution as the foundation for the political legitimacy of governmental authority in exchange for a promised improved quality of life of all citizens and for human rights.

Many rights are contained in the Bill of Rights and include the right to equality, the contentious right to property, the right to housing, the right to education, and the right to healthcare, food, water and social security.

The great plethora of the country’s challenges and the government’s shortcomings rest on this core,these human rights. The most persistent of these challenges is the triple helix of inequality, poverty and unemployment. They put to serious question the political legitimacy of government, for which people’s freedom was given in exchange for social security and an improved quality of life.

Despite these many challenges, for two decades many South Africans have held on to this social contract, this constitutional promise in the hope of an improved quality of life. What has held back the “nasty and brutish” human nature of self-preservation and self-help, then, is the promise of a better life that ought to come with living in an organised society based on fundamental human rights, which is imbedded in this social contract.

But as South Africa continues to battle its many challenges, the fibres of this social contract are slowly becoming frayed.

One example is the unprecedented increase in incidences of “unlawful” land occupations. Land dispossession during the colonial period followed by the inhumane spatial design of the apartheid regime and deprivation of property rights created a human settlement problem characterised by indignity and racial inequality. The sins of these former eras are also the root cause of the grave racial socioeconomic inequality that persists in our country.

This historical reality, coupled with the government’s inability to deliver adequately and progressively on the constitutional promises, has resulted in various forms of self-help,which have often disregarded the rule of law and provisions in the Constitution and, by extension, the social contract.

More and more South Africans are resorting to lawless self-help, because the promises of prosperity and an improved life for all seem to be wearing thin.

Another example is in the rampant unrest in the education sector; the student protests of recent years are evidence of the erosion of the social contract. The #FeesMustFall movement clearly showed that those who are not able to afford the realisation of their right to education, as a result of the conditions of a society that continues to become more and more unequal, would inevitably take it upon themselves to demand the realisation of their constitutionally promised rights — even if it meant disregarding law and order and, again, by extension, the social contract.

These two examples are arguably “rational” responses if one is to accept the premise that citizens have entered into this social contract to observe law and order, and to surrender their freedoms to a government, in return for promises such as property and education, which are among the key ingredients for a prosperous life.

When these promises are not being realised, the very essence of the social contract starts to erode. It creates a trust deficit between the government and its people. The trust deficit then leads to the people rescinding the social contract and reverting to the base state of human nature, which Hobbes called nasty and brutish—and which often manifests in mass violent protests and a state of lawlessness.

United Nations secretary general António Guterres made a point about this “trust deficit” at the 73rd session of the UN general assembly by asserting that “our world is suffering from a bad case of trust deficit disorder”.

He said: “People are feeling troubled and insecure. Trust is at a breaking point. Trust in national institutions.” He added: “Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarisation is on the rise and populism is on the march.”

In South Africa, people are not only confronted with the loss of hope and fading trust in the government but also racial tensions, which are exacerbated by growing inequality. The only thing that has kept what can be dramatically termed the “two worlds” of Alexandra and Sandton from falling into a state of civil conflict are the promises in the social contract — the negotiated settlement of 1994. As the inequality grows and these promises are not delivered, the social contract disintegrates.

According to a report by the World Bank, South Africa is the most unequal country out of 149 countries surveyed. The bank analysed these countries using the Gini coefficient, the measure of income inequality in a country. The report makes the point that the “chronically poor group is almost exclusively made up of black and coloured South Africans”. These two groups cumulatively make up the majority of the country’s population.

South Africa needs to guard against the erosion of its social contract. It needs to undertake, seriously, the task of delivering on the constitutional promises and bridging the inequality gap,lest the majority of its population rescinds the social contract and goes down the “nasty and brutish” path of chaos and civil conflict.

Thanduxolo Nkala is an advocate of the high court, a master’s degree candidate at Nelson Mandela University, a trained mediator and a social justice activist

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