/ 31 January 2021

The social contract is broken

Gatvol: Citizens march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria protesting against corruption in government.
Gatvol: Citizens march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria protesting against corruption in government. (Delwyn Verasamy)

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 necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.