What South Africa needs to forge a resilient social compact for Covid-19

Abuses by police and the army point to the need for citizens to be involved in security and other crisis response measures EFE-EPA/Kim Ludbrook

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.

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.


Read more: Lockdown is riling black and white South Africans: could this be a reset moment?


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. Vuyo Zungula, leader of the African Transformation Movement, one of the smaller parties represented in parliament, observed on his Twitter page:

Until I see Whites, Indians getting the same treatment for breaking the Lockdown rules I will view the SANDF and SAPS as the enemy of the people.

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.


Read more: South Africa has raised social grants: why this shouldn't be a stop-gap measure


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.

What then is needed?

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 upscaled 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.

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