To forge a resilient social compact for Covid-19 in South Africa

Friday, 25 September, 2020 - 10:11

The social contract concept directs us to reflect upon our agreements for living together. With roots in antiquity, it is often dismissed as too steeply rooted in classical liberal thought, connected with antiquated, authority-driven notions of state and nation creation. As such it would be viewed as unhelpful for addressing the complexity and diversity of contemporary contexts of crisis and change where transition is increasingly mobilized from below. Despite ‘liberal peacebuilding’ taking a beating over the last decade, this Special Issue shares in-depth research that defies simplistic associations of the social contract with liberalism and makes the case for its importance in discussions on fragility, conflict and peace. As we witness deeply divisive and polarizing politics affecting states and societies globally, the framework introduced here arguably has wider utility.
Ramaphosa's call for a new social compact will fall on deaf ears unless there are some fundamental changes to the way in which the pandemic is being managed. Policy discussions over the last few years have usefully attempted to frame the social contract concept. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) emphasize the importance of societal expectations matching state capacity to deliver services, with the OECD also highlighting elite will to deliver. The OECD underscores political processes through which the bargain is ‘struck, reinforced and institutionalized’, and the complex role that legitimacy plays in shaping expectations and facilitating political processes (OECD 2008, 17).
The UNDP draws attention to parallel and overlapping social contracts ‘multiple formal and informal structures that mediate and shape the relationships between people and the state’ (UNDP 2016, 3, 10). These framings offer insight into needed directions for reframing the concept for contemporary contexts, yet they have not been sufficiently grounded in case study scholarship.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for “a new social compact among all role players business, labour, community and government to restructure the economy and achieve inclusive growth”.
In South Africa, ‘social compact’ has often been used narrowly to describe pacts between stakeholders on specific sectoral issues. A resilient social compact, as we use the concept, requires a dynamic agreement between the state and society on how to live together, and how to address issues of power and resources.

For such an agreement to contribute to peace and societal well-being, it must be reflected in the mechanisms, policies and responses that uphold the agreement. This needs to be done in a way that’s flexible and responsive, especially in times of crisis.
A resilient national social contract is a dynamic agreement between state and society, including different groups in society, on how to live together, how power is exercised and how resources are distributed. It allows for the peaceful mediation of conflicting interests and different expectations and understandings of rights and responsibilities (including with nested and/or overlapping social contracts that may transcend the state) over time, and in response to contextual factors (including shocks, stressors and threats), through varied mechanisms, institutions and processes.
This approach recasts the concept of social compact (or social contract) as a tool for addressing issues of conflict, crisis and transition. Research across nine countries, including in South Africa, found that social cohesion is a key driver. Social cohesion builds on the concept of social solidarity, which lies in areas of trust and respect, belonging and identity, and participation.  Its achievement also rests on progress by other drivers. These are inclusive political settlements addressing core issues dividing people, and institutions delivering fairly and effectively.
To move in the direction of a resilient social compact, Ramaphosa’s call will fall on deaf ears unless there are some fundamental changes to the way in which the pandemic is being managed.

Solidarity and cohesion

The first is that there needs to be a critical focus on how vulnerable groups are affected differently. South Africa’s stark socio-economic inequalities within and across racial groups are core issues that continue to divide people. This is true economically as well as spatially, psychologically, socially and politically.
Lockdown restrictions, therefore, affect people differently. In townships apartheid-era residential areas that are predominantly black loss of work means loss of livelihoods with grave challenges accessing food, health and education. Suburbanites who are mostly white on the other hand, have tended to be more preoccupied by loss of freedoms related to jogging, dog-walking, and accessing liquor and cigarettes. These differences demand, secondly, that greater attention be given to how policies are being implemented.
Addressing these issues could ensure that social cohesion and social solidarity are nurtured through this crisis.  People need to feel included and that they belong – and that policies and practices deliver on expectations and agreements. When this fails, and human rights are violated in the process, these bonds and relationships suffer. Trust in the state, its institutions and associated legitimacy needed for their functioning, falters.
Human rights abuses by the security forces in the wake of the lockdown have included shootings, baton and gun beatings, teargassing, humiliation, abusive language, water bombing, invasion of private backyards, and even death. This has occurred especially in townships.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently identified South Africa as among 15 countries where human rights violations associated with COVID-19 restrictions were most troubling.


What’s missing

In the current COVID-19 context we are seeing fissures that dangerously undermine the bonds and relationships between the state and citizens. These are common in fragile and transitional contexts.
Many security forces members are following on the path Ramaphosa set with his peaceful messaging to guide them in defending citizens against the pandemic.  But, some are abusing their power. These abuses echo the experiences of black South Africans under apartheid when obedience was secured with authoritarian rule and aggression.
In addition, developing a national COVID-19 response has brought glaring inequalities to the fore – and the country’s persistent racial geographies. These too challenge the goal of achieving a resilient social compact.  Resentment among some township residents has grown, and various forms of civil disobedience have resulted.


Way forward

If the lockdown is enforced through coercion rather than consent, and the dignity of citizens is not respected, a resilient social compact won’t ever be viewed as anything more than rhetoric. COVID-19 presents profound challenges for citizens and the state. Building trust and cooperation, between state and society, and between social and stakeholder groups in society, is paramount.
First, there needs to be vigilant government commitment against coercion. Swift action must be taken against abuses by the security sector. And there needs to be effective communication with those affected by the abuse. This should accompany strong assurances of accountability and justice, and up-scaled training of the military and the police in crisis response functions.
Second, two-way communication channels that offer the means to build trust and legitimacy of government actions need to be established. These should focus on fostering innovative ways for citizens to access information and participate in crisis response strategies. This can occur through surveys, via radio and mobile applications, or radio call-in shows.
Township and suburban residents must take part in the security and other crisis response measures. Widely accessible and consistent messaging is needed, such as the township education undertaken by the C-19 People’s Coalition. The alliance brings together social movements, trade unions, and community organisations working to provide an effective, just and equitable response to the pandemic.  Its members distribute leaflets in Gauteng townships in local languages, as they demonstrate social distancing and the wearing of masks while they mobilise and strengthen networks of food production, distribution and consumption. These may well have benefits beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
Finally, social solidarity is forged when each segment of society works together for the greater social good. Such efforts are widespread in South Africa and around the world. These stories need to be shared with a view to strengthening longer-term transformation efforts in the country.
Erin McCandless - Associate Professor, School of governance, University of the Witwatersrand ; 
Darlene Ajeet Miller - Senior Lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand

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