The need for a social compact.

Prof. Deon Pretorius

President Cyril Rhamaphosa’s admiration of the idea of social compacts comes as good news to people who have been implementing collaborative development models as we have been in the Sundays River Valley of the Eastern Cape.

We introduced a social-compact type approach in the Valley in early 2019 with the aim of breaking an impasse of conflict which was threatening to erode if not destroy the socio-economic wellbeing of this globally exporting region.

Since 2019, a track-record of successful collaborative action has already been built up even though a formal social compact has not yet been crafted. The list of these successes is long and ranges from assisting with the COVID sanitization of the Valley to working together on economic projects, education, training, sport, social welfare, art, and culture projects to resolving the day-to-day conflicts by way of pre-legal problem solving.

Below are some of the key lessons from our experience.  

Lessons from the valley.

Firstly, the Social Compact came from within the social system. An outside authority did not impose it. The leaders naturally gravitated to the point where a tacit social compact was already in place and formalisation is just taking the next step.

Secondly, it is probably better that social compacts be created on a local level and that it sets the tone for the accumulation of social compacts throughout South Africa. This does not mean that there is no need for support from the centre, but the real McCoy happens at a local level because this is where ordinary people become owners of their own development.

It must be facilitated because locals are too entrenched in their perceptions of one another. An independent development facilitation process is invariably required. It may even be necessary kick-start the process with professional mediators who could get the local protagonists to agree to a cessation of hostilities to make way for a peaceful process. The initial emphasis must be on relationships and not specific issues, needs, demands and expectations. The emergent social compact must be used to create a set of values and norms to guide relations so that they can overcome their excessive self-centeredness and realise that their sectional interests and the common good are inextricably intertwined.

Reasons why social compacts are imperative.

Social compacts not only provide South Africa with a means to deal with socioeconomic exclusion, conflict, bridging divisions and working together but it is a system-survival imperative. We have no choice but to work together. There is a plethora of reasons, among some listed below.
Firstly, the “South African Problem” is a very big problem; it is the problem of acute socio-economic inequality as is evidenced by all the vital statistics from our education system to unemployment, health, crime and so on. These failures produce conditions for destructive conflict and if we do not find a solution it will eventually bring ruin to all South Africans.
Secondly, the reality is that the current South African state does not have the capacity nor the sufficient level of benevolent commitment to focus on the issues that are of common interest. Despite some ideologues remaining fixated on the idea of an overly stretched state doing everything; it is too divided and distracted by other agendas.
Thirdly, it is not desirable for the state to be the sole or monopolistic agent of societal development even if the above was not the case. The Sunday’s River Valley case shows that the best development process is a multi-sector co-responsibility process in which the state, civil society, business, and labour find a way (or be assisted) of overcoming their differences and to agree on a differentiation of roles and responsibilities to bring about national prosperity. A Social Compact is the means through which this arrangement can be structured.

What is needed to make the SA social compact work?
  • Make a national commitment to the idea of a high-level National Consensus or Social Compact but do not be disappointed if it runs into politico-ideological opposition. Thus, place more focus on the formation of Local Social Compacts. Provide support from the national, provincial but enable local partnerships to build relations from the bottom up and to serve as demonstration that it can work.
  • Make provision for independent specialist local facilitation. Thus, it must be a planned, managed, and driven process but it is important to find the balance between patience and urgency. The need for the socio-economic development is urgent but the process of development requires time to mature and morph from stage to stage.
  • Focus on “low hanging fruit;” find a way of packaging projects and initiatives so that they can produce certain results but mostly demonstrate that local partners can actually work together.
  • Discourage excessive ideological contestation; we do not need debates about socialism vs capitalism or the state vs the market on a local level. We need a pragmatic focus on development that involves an eclectic mixture of ideas and ideologies.
  • It is key to respect the context and appreciate that no two local areas are similar, and the process of local development will take on its own unique contours and trajectories in each locality.
  • Work out the appropriate institutional arrangement to enable the implementation of the Social Compact. There is no simple template, but it is likely that in many instances the most workable arrangement would be an independent entity that is co-governed by the Social Compact partners with professional development specialist taking responsibility for the day-to-day operations. Such an entity should be made exempt of excessive bureaucratic formalities and be resources so that it can get on with what is important for everyone and that is a stable, prosperous, and inclusive society.

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