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South Africa needs dialogue and a new social contract

The attempted insurrection in our country last week that has resulted in violence,  looting, lawlessness, loss of life, racial tension and destruction to property is a truly sad moment for all peace-loving citizens of South Africa. The impact of this senseless violent rampage is going to be devastating in a context where South Africa already has the highest  unemployment and inequality levels in the world. 

It is no surprise, however, that such a nightmare could have played out in the way that it did. A combination of factors provided the perfect context for the instigation of  the violence and the spectacularly poor response to it by the State. The failure to  fundamentally address the conditions of poverty through more imaginative macro- and micro-economic and public policy instruments and through an ethical and capable developmental state has come home to haunt us. The perpetuation of apartheid’s spatial and racial segregation in South Africa is endemic without any clear and decisive government programme. 

The new democratic state was meant to be the instrument through which our constitutional aspirations had to be realised. This includes addressing the inequities of the past and  ensuring socioeconomic justice through effective service delivery and sustainable development so that all citizens, especially the most vulnerable, can be supported to uplift themselves and live with dignity. Instead, the state became a tool to move in the opposite direction. State capture in the democratic era, in the broadest sense, has been an unfortunate reality which started soon after 1994 with the Arms Deal and in every instance where the state may have capitulated to narrow business, private, corporate, or foreign interest rather than set and deliver public policy and programmes that utilise resources to maximise the public good and upliftment of our people. During Jacob Zuma’s term of office, state capture was taken to another level through deliberate manipulation and serious hollowing out of state capacity. This included slow filling of key positions in ministries and departments, constant changes and instability of state institutions and entities, and deployment of incompetent or pliable people. It has left us ravaged to such an extent that our security cluster could hardly respond to the riots and looting that took place with such impunity, and in fact elements of the security apparatus have been party to the  attempted insurrection. 

The foundation of any state is its ability to provide security for its people, to protect life, property and human rights. If the state does nothing else but this, it may actually be enough. So, the hollowing out of the state security apparatus across policing, military and intelligence is extremely concerning and has to be addressed as a priority going forward. Security, safety and stability are the critical ingredients for enabling communities and businesses to function and to attract investment for growth and development. 

No surprises in our weak security

Again, there are no surprises about our weak security apparatus. For years they have not been able to do basic crime fighting effectively. The opportunity cost to our economy because of crime has been enormous. The impact on quality of life, psyche and development has been huge. This basic function of any state is absolutely critical and provides the first order environment for investment, growth and development that enables nations to address poverty, unemployment and inequality. 

All successful nations have prioritised stability, law and order, protection of their citizens’ lives, property and basic rights. The impunity with which corruption and criminality is occurring in South Africa has to be stopped. It occurs across all classes and strata of society. It is happening within the government, the private sector and communities. This is a societal problem that will require leadership and interventions at all levels and across all sectors of  society, but the state has to be the critical driver and change agent. 

There is a turnaround plan

Despite the grim situation we are in right now, the question is, can we use this as a moment of serious reflection and change course? The majority of citizens have rejected the attempted insurrection and are already taking back their streets and neighbourhoods. There are still many challenges and racial conflicts on the ground in this process and the hope is for  solidarity and peace which South Africans in the end generally abide by. The clean-up,  rebuilding and food assistance by communities has already kicked into gear showing the resilience and camaraderie of our people.

We owe it to this spirit of our people to use this experience to end the unnecessary traumas  we bring upon ourselves as a turnaround moment towards truly building a society of socioeconomic justice, prosperity and dignity for all. This can be achieved if we refocus and pull everyone in society to work together to rebuild our country through deep and sustained engagement processes and not as political sloganeering. In order to do this, we need a  renewed social compact between all sectors of society and government through a dialogue process that must be immediately operationalised towards and beyond the upcoming local government elections. 

In this regard, the Movement for a United South Africa (Musa) of which we are members, has been facilitating a discussion series on ethical and capable leadership and government since the beginning of the year with faith-based communities, academics, policy experts, community activists and business leaders. There are three big issues emerging that can be considered as part of a  turnaround plan for the country. These are: Renewed Constitutional Commitment as a transformative instrument, Recapacitation of the State and New Economic Paradigm. 

Renewed constitutional commitment

Firstly, there has to be a renewed commitment by every citizen and the whole of society to our constitutional dispensation. This commitment has to recognise the value of our constitution and democracy in the evolution of the political and social system of the country and the principles, aspirations, rights and responsibilities that it espouses. This renewed commitment must include the appreciation of the rule of law and acceptance that all are equal before the law. It must also reinforce the appreciation that our constitution is aimed at rectifying the ills of the past and promotes an inclusive society so that all race groups can live in harmony and solidarity towards building a united nation. There has to be appreciation that the constitution provides the rights, freedoms and frameworks as a platform to realise socioeconomic justice and development, and transformation of society. The constitution provides the framework for addressing the power structures of society and the ownership of the economy and land. We have failed in state policy, regulation and  implementation to manage different competing interests in society between business, workers, financial markets, international interests, social movements and communities to  fundamentally meet the needs of people. The focus should be on broadening the ownership of the economy to the extent of empowering every citizen in the country, especially the  vulnerable and marginalised. 

The implementation of the constitutional prescripts is the responsibility of all citizens and it  is the responsibility of the state to ensure adherence to the constitution and capability for service delivery and development that can progressively realise the rights of all, as  enshrined in the constitution. This has to be further appreciated as a long-term project that requires focus, consistency and discipline and smart and effective design of public policy instruments and application thereof. Citizens must take responsibility for their own development within this context and contribute collectively to building a prosperous society. There has to be a massive civic education drive in communities including the  practical integration of civic education into the education system to build a culture of patriotism, citizenship, sharing, generosity, honesty, selfless leadership and a drive for excellence and success. 

Recapacitation of the state

Secondly, there has to be an urgent and appropriate recapacitating of the state at all levels as an ethical and moral entity that is accountable to the people. There has to be consequence management and effective performance systems so that a refreshed leadership and public service is brought to bear. There has to be clear separation between party and state ensuring an objective and professionalised public service. This recapacitating has to start with the security cluster and law enforcement agencies with loyalty to the constitution followed by rationalised government ministries and departments that can undertake effective policy design, planning, budgeting, strong expenditure controls, accountability mechanisms, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. 

The effective and basic functioning of the state is crucial to generating investment, growing the economy and creating jobs. The state has to focus on running effective public health, education, transport, housing and basic services programmes through a competent, capable, ethical and caring public service. The district development model initiative of government to practically and strategically coordinate all three spheres of government so that there is coherent service delivery and development on the basis of the conditions, opportunities and potential in the 52 district and metro geo-economic spaces must be fully rolled out and accelerated. The single long-term plans for each of these areas, integrating the priorities of all three spheres of government, private sector and key stakeholders need to be the basis upon which a programme of action is devised and upon which all state resourcing is prioritised. In this way the state can address people development, local and regional economic development and strategic infrastructure investment in an effective way that talks to local conditions and unlocking diverse opportunities across the landscape of  our country. This is a practical way for the government to implement the National Development Plan so that it is localised and yet supported across all state institutions in a co-ordinated  way. 

The macro structure and organisation of the state has to be also looked at urgently.  Currently resources are concentrated at national and provincial spheres whereas it is  needed at local government level the most. The role of provinces has to be seriously  reconsidered so that we can shape a more streamlined delivery system in the country and  decentralise resources in line with the district development model into the 52 spaces.  There is currently too much duplication across the three spheres of government and unequal standards across the different provinces in terms of our biggest and most important sectors such as health, education and housing where delivery is not reaching  people on the ground. 

There has to be a serious overhaul and monitoring of the public procurement system to ensure that it is integrated with the objectives of service delivery rather than serving corrupt  elements.  

New economic paradigm

Thirdly it is most critical that a new economic paradigm and socioeconomic model is  constructed beyond the existing boxed systems and labels of capitalism, socialism, etc. Even  with the renewed commitment to the constitution and recapacitation of the state restoring basic service delivery we will still not be able to deal with all our challenges sufficiently. We have a special case of structural and systemic poverty, unemployment and inequality in South Africa that will require special and extraordinary measures. Even if we grow the  economy at 8 or 10% per annum for a consistent number of years which even the Chinese would not necessarily sustain, we would still not be able to halve or eradicate unemployment. 

Over and above this the world has completely changed. The impact of the  Covid-19 pandemic, together with the rapid changes in technology and the impact of  climate change means that economies are changing, and the nature of work and jobs are  changing. Technology, automation and artificial intelligence is going to pose a major threat  to job creation, and we have to prepare to reskill and train people to become agile, innovative, entrepreneurial and self-reliant. We must be collectively responsive and committed to envisage and secure a better future for everyone. 

We have to go even further to base the new economic paradigm and model on a socioeconomic, transformative consciousness as a citizen movement to deal with the idea of who we are as human beings and South Africans. 

What is the purpose of life, the purpose of an  economy? Is it to generate jobs in a commodified sense or is to ensure the well-being of society? 

The development of a radically more inclusive competitive economy that generates as many jobs and national income as possible must be complemented with a robust informal, social and solidarity economy where people can be engaged in work and crafts that are  fulfilling to them and beneficial to communities including relief, volunteer work and community upliftment programmes. 

It must enable sustainable social safety nets for the most vulnerable incorporating a Basic Income Grant to support our people to uplift  themselves within a framework of responsible citizenship. The entire macro-economic and monetary policy framework can be better orientated to direct finance and capital into the areas of production that will fulfil basic needs of people such as housing. As an example, a special regime of 0% interest loans for social and affordable housing can be established to enable people to build their own homes. This finance can be generated  through the Reserve Bank into the banking system to be managed on an administration fee basis, complemented with a complete overhaul of the existing housing subsidy programme.  

Safe as houses

The socioeconomic benefit of a housing programme of this nature will be massive from a perspective of stimulating infrastructure development, demand for household goods and services, neighbourhood development, social cohesion and a better sense of ownership among people instead of a passive beneficiary culture.

The new socio-economic model can enable community-driven development, stimulate local economies and community production and trade, and infuse alternative and innovative development approaches and practices centred on ubuntu, solidarity, co-operative economy and financing, including interest-free micro-lending that incentivises people’s creativity and industriousness as well as to unlock affordable and decent shelter/home ownership. It has to be crafted around the holistic well-being of individuals, families and communities from a material, ethical and spiritual upliftment perspective, and in the context of building social cohesion and solidarity within and between communities on the basis of a South African consciousness. We can have thriving communities across the length and breadth of our  country. 

The events of the past week must serve as a wakeup call to the entire country. Government has to urgently rectify, recalibrate and reconstitute a refreshed leadership and public service. Civil society must remain vigilant, engaged and constantly involved at all levels to  ensure that we never veer off again. Communities must drive dialogues among different race groups and sectors in their areas towards development of a social compact with the government on the three areas of a turnaround plan discussed in this article. In this way we can ensure that the entire country is ceded with socioeconomic justice consciousness, social solidarity and cohesion, to bring ideas and resources to the table as to how we can become a successful nation with upliftment, prosperity and dignity for all. 


  • Yusuf Patel is an integrated development consultant and activist. He is a former deputy director-general in national government and past president of the South African Planning Institute. He has an MSc in financial economics from University of London and an MSc in development planning from the University of the Witwatersrand. Abubakr Karolia has been a community activist since the 1970s. His focus is working with one’s nature towards an enlightened consciousness to serve community and humanity. He is a founding member of MUSA. He has a master’s in Semitic culture and language from the University of Johannesburg.