In his long-awaited address to the nation on Sunday evening (3 July), President Ramaphosa delivered a somber update on the political, economic, social, and health status of the country and the corresponding response to the Corona Virus. What became a scary static in the President’s speech was that of the total number of deaths that had been recorded at the time of the address, a quarter of those fatalities that took place in the week (5 – 12 July) with the rate of infections topping 500 p/h per day. For those among us who still see the virus as negligible, consider it to be developed in lab as a bio warfare weapon or as part of a conspiracy theory linked to the rollout of 5G technology, the reality is that these dissidents cannot shy away from the cold facts of what the President noted in his speech: the rhythm of COVDID-19 is infectious whether we refute its existence, challenge its acute reach or bury our heads in the sand denying its chronic impact.
A visibly ashen looking President stood before millions of South Africans pleading to the nation that as much as the virus is born out of a viral pathogen, its spread is mainly predicated on the behavior of people. Falling short of chastising the citizenry (though watching the sign interpreter at the bottom of the TV screen, it felt like she was at times expressing Ramaphosa’s disgust and disdain towards our brattish behaviour), President Ramaphosa chose to be more mature by pleading to the nation’s sense of responsibility and respect for our fellow citizens. It is this latter theme of the President’s address that requires further exploration as it remains an intrinsic component as well as a positive disruptor in how the country navigates the COVID-19 Tsunami.
Nothing will be the Same? Or would it?
It has been over emphasized in almost every webinar I attend now days that a ’new social contract’ or ‘a new global compact’ is needed or better still ‘it cannot be business as usual’ and that there is a ‘new normal’ upon us. While recognizing that the entire fabric and spectrum of the global political, economic, social, cultural, technological and environmental architecture has been caught in a twister of note, what is unclear is whether this ‘ whole new world ‘ that is constantly referenced as a Post COVID international order will be the same wine in new bottles or something entirely different.
So far we know that the business as usual approach is no longer sustainable. In fact for some time now we have been witnessing the gradual erosion of the liberal political and economic international order. This measured collapse of the system is characterized by its own internal contradictions and inherent risks. Writing in the July/August 2020 edition of the Foreign Affairs magazine, Prof G. John Ikenberry, argues that:
The liberal world order is collapsing because its leading patrons, starting with the United State, have given up on it ….. This fractured world, the thinking goes, will offer little space for multilateralism and cooperation ….. liberal democracies would further descend into disunion and thereby lose ability to shape global rules and norms. The world that would emerge on the other side would be less friendly to such Western values as openness, the rule of law, human rights and liberal democracy.
Ikenberry’ s above thesis suggests that once again the systemic crisis of the Western liberal model can only be overturned if the US accepts the: ‘… opportunity to reverse course and opt-for a different path: a last chance effort to reclaim the two centuries old liberal international project of building an order that is open, multilateral and anchored in a coalition of leading liberal democracies’ (July/August 2020).
What becomes clear from Ikenberry’s perspective is that the Western liberal order still remains resilient. That a renewed US could once again lead the charge of reclaiming the preponderance of power of the ‘old guard’ of actors in underwriting the rules of the game and remaining as the custodians of a more open and robust liberal international order.
Ikenberry’s argument seems like deja vu. Not that long ago Francis Fukuyama penned his most famous publication ‘The End of History’ highlighting the ideological triumph of Western Liberalism over Communism. Some 30 years later are we witnessing a similar lament, only this time around it is unclear who are the winners and losers? Could it be The Precariat as described by Prof Guy Standing who have exposed the ambiguities of the liberal model as being nothing more that one big grand scheme of Capitalism ensuring its own survival? Or is the system so broken that any attempt to rectify past imbalances can only become meaningful if power is defined as a shared commodity rather than falling into the same trap that Ikenberry and Joseph Nye make by assuming that a new global social contract has to be led by the West.
If the Corona Virus has taught us anything in the past several months is that there are no quick fixes to address the endemic crisis that has been unleased. If anything it has soberly illustrated that the crisis has been manifesting for many years and that the doyens chose to ignore the warning signs. And presto here we are! Yet the subtext of most contemporary debates and mainstream media discussions seem to be suggest that this a bump in the road which will be resolved through self-correction.
It is this notion of ‘we will overcome’ this blight on our humanity through ‘something different’ which peaks my interest in terms of what will this change entail and, of course, how will the bigger existential question that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to confront will become a catalytic enabler for a redefined social contract with those in public office but also a (re)calibration of the national social cohesion project. Nowhere is this more stark than in the very liberal democracies that are supposed to be the vanguard of the global liberal order and yet in their domestic societies are confronted by an intrinsic breakdown of the very values, openness, human rights, and the rule of law that they are supposed to protect at the global level.
This is clearly where the need for a new global compact to be written has to be defined on the basis of finding traction from a bottom up approach. More importantly it cannot be imposed by one set of countries who believe that such norms, principles and values are their purview when in fact such rights are universal and innately defined as part of humanity’s natural rights.
A Broken Social Contract
Listening to President Ramaphosa address this past Sunday brought the above context into play. As the President was solemnly reminding the nation that the dreaded COVID-19 storm that the epidemiologists and other medical experts had predicted has finally arrived, it was very easy to imagine how many South Africans could have simply reacted with apathy and scorn towards what the President was saying based on the government not honouring their part of the social contract. It is, of course, all of our responsibility to ensure that we do not infringe on the rights of the other; that our behavior and role in society does not cause harm to the lives of others; and that through the exercising of our rights we do not limit the rights of others in enjoying similar access to amenities and basic resources.
Yet, in thinking about where we are in South Africa, and where so many are affected by the triple oppression of poverty, inequality, and unemployment, how many South Africans watching the President on Sunday evening would have thought to themselves:
That they were sold an empty ‘dream’.
That the promise of a million jobs, homes and peace (which was the ANC’s slogan in the 1994 democratic elections) has come to naught.
That the negotiated settlement was an elite compact rather than a social contract.
That they have been deprived of being able to exercise and enjoy their basic fundamental rights in spite of the Constitution. And
That the very custodians of our democracy are the actual trojan horses who cause their suffering.
It was sobering to listen to the President lambast those for reckless behavior. But what happens when it is those in public office who have undermined and broke the social contract through not only violating lockdown regulations but are doing so by infringing on the rights of the public and putting the lives of the very people that they are suppose to protect at risk. Or steal in the name of COVID-19? To take it further and quote Jacques Rosseau’s famous statement: ‘Man is born free yet everywhere in Chains’. The latter captures what has become the crisis of whether giving up rights to a higher authority for order, stability and equitable distribution of resources guarantees the corresponding duties of government or those in positions of power to protect the interests of who they serve.
Clearly the social contract was broken long before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was used as a buffer to provide greater accountability to some in society than others. It allowed for a minority to enjoy greater benefits and rights at the expense of the poor and the indigent. It justified exploitation in the name of democracy and overlooked the very foundations and tenets that characterised our democratic dispensation, i.e. The Freedom Charter. For all of the noble intents and purposes our democratic social contract was not exceptional as it is often described. It fell victim to the very scourge that had gripped many democratic transitions of the Post 1990s and the imperfections that have come to underline the dynamics of a the liberal democratic framework. But in all of this there is an opportunity for redemption and to construct a new social contract.
The New Social Contract
Before a new social contract can be developed, the point of departure is to acknowledge what the Italian political philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, eminently described as the diagnosis of the interwar years: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. It is this recognition that warrants that the thinking and construction of a new social contract must return to the notion of humanity as the centric tenet. Putting humanity back in a new calibration of the social contract must also reflect a process of a new ideational and evolutionary thinking about the way society is defined; not as a social construct that must be led but rather as a collective energy and union of humankind that demonstrates a mutual harmony of leadership. While South Africa and the world may not be ready for citizens to lead themselves, the pretext towards this higher state of evolution in democratic governance can only be achieved through small little steps towards ‘the giant leap’ that brings about the real and effective manifestation and meaning behind universal suffrage. Hence the formation of a new social contract.
COVID-19 offers South Africa and the world an opportunity to be exceptional in re-imagining the social democratic contract. How and what we do with it will be critical. Future generations have already judged us for burdening their humanity with our arrogance and recklessness. They have also blamed us for mortgaging and squandering their future. With what little salvation is left we still have the chance to do the right thing and provide them with the prospects of a better and kinder future. We should consider the words of Thomas Sankara and lets ‘Dare to invent the Future’ as an inflection point towards a complementary and evolutionary new social contract where in the words of Vandana Shiva we aspire to ‘Earth democracy [that] connects people in circles of care, cooperation, and compassion instead of dividing through competition and conflict, fear and hatred’.
Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed are personal.