Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

The social contract is broken

There’s an interesting thought experiment in political philosophy, which suggests that people living in the “state of nature”, with no government or organised security, would ultimately create a government to keep them safe and to arbitrate justice.

The contract involves a community establishing a government by means of each citizen agreeing to give up a small percentage of what they own in order to fund a centralised police force, a justice system, and to procure public goods such as roads, dams and works of engineering.

The “social contract” is a tacit agreement underpinning liberal democracy, whereby people pay taxes and the government provides protection and basic services. The cornerstones in the social contract are the police force and justice system, with safety and security being the reasons why the “contract” originally took place.

In South Africa, the people have kept their side of the contract and continue to pay taxes, but the government has failed to keep its side of the contract. It doesn’t properly utilise its resources to keep the public safe and to arbitrate between citizens who have disputes. 

Most taxpayers use private security firms to do the job of the police; they pay for medical aid and their own health; and the magistrates’ courts are clogged up and inaccessible. In addition, the government does not maintain public goods such as roads and other infrastructure, notably electricity and water, and when maintenance occurs it is at a snail’s pace.

Citizens do not feel secure, they have hindered access to the law, and infrastructure isn’t maintained, which means that the government has broken the social contract with the people. In fact, the government seems completely unaware that a social contract even exists.

Citizens need very little from a government apart from safety and security. In some countries, for example, parts of Western America, the roads and infrastructure were largely built by private individuals and companies, and countries have thrived with minimalistic governments. It is important to remember that governments rely on citizens for their survival, whereas citizens can do almost anything by themselves if they need to.  

South Africa’s government is ignoring its citizens and acting more like a dictatorship than a liberal democracy. It spends tax money on itself, on tenders and contracts employing a grossly overpopulated public sector, on white elephant state enterprises, and on basically everything else except the safety and security of its citizens.

The social contract does not have a start date or an end date – it is an ongoing contract between the people and the government. The government therefore needs to reflect on this question: Do the citizens of South Africa want all the politicians and public servants, all the committee meetings, debates and lavish spending, or would they prefer to have the basics – safety, security, and good infrastructure to enable them to go about their business and earn a living?

If the answer is the latter, then there is only one solution, and the government needs to cut itself down to size to enable it to focus on and fulfil the basic tenets in the social contract. It can only achieve this by shearing off its excess weight, which is pulling it in so many directions at once that it has become frozen and impotent.

Downscaling will involve great courage and pain, but if history is a compass, it will be far less painful than if the citizens are forced at some stage, through desperation, to take the matter into their own hands.  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Geoff Embling
Geoff Embling has a master's degree in political science and writes in his personal capacity.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

Kenya’s beach boys fall into sex tourism, trafficking

In the face of their families’ poverty, young men, persuaded by the prospect of wealth or education, travel to Europe with their older female sponsors only to be trafficked for sex

High court reinstates Umgeni Water board

The high court has ruled that the dissolution of the water entity’s board by Minister Lindiwe Sisulu was unfair and unprocedural

Mkhize throws the book at the Special Investigating Unit

It’s a long shot at political redemption for the former health minister and, more pressingly, a bid to avert criminal charges

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…