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Contract and conscience

What happens when the social contract and laws cannot guarantee protection?

SWELLENDAM – That memorable aphorism: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, penned by the 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, relates to another creation of the Age of Enlightenment – the Social Contract. That concept has survived centuries and remains the cornerstone of our understanding of the relationship between people and power; between citizens and government, and between the populace and the establishment.

At a practical level the social contract is enforced through institutions, laws and regulations, or, at a superordinate level, by a Constitution. Yet there is a far larger dimension that goes beyond a contract and without which the social fabric would simply fall apart. It is that dimension which enables you to trust a stranger in a mall and a handshake on an agreement. It’s a dimension only marginally guaranteed in written law, and explains why even in a high crime country like South Africa, where criminals have an 80% chance of getting away with a reported crime, you still have a much lower chance of being affected by a crime. 

That dimension is conscience. It may be reinforced through values, religion, and enlightenment, but it is that intuitive, perhaps even instinctive thing that sparks an automated action overriding first thoughts and even feelings. Even psychopaths for the most part pay heed to it, albeit in a rehearsed way. As social beings, by far the majority of people do not want to poop on their stoep. And the more they do, the more laws, regulations and prescriptions pour out of parliament or from the Governance office of Mervyn King. But never will they come near to replacing the vital role of individual conscience, or self-accountability.

Even people accountable only to themselves mostly have it. But you could argue that those entrusted by others to have their interest at heart and to be the custodians of their welfare, have to be subjected to a much higher order of accountability than can be captured in a contract. They include business leaders who can no longer behave as if they are accountable only to shareholders.

As Serge Belamant of NET1 discovered when expressing a callous disregard for the problems of his biggest customer and millions of grant recipients; arguably acting purely on conventional business principles and shareholder interest. He not only unleashed a PR nightmare for himself and the company, but invited the pique of one of his biggest shareholders. And now his departure pay-out raises the critical question: can good governance be served when people are rewarded handsomely for non-compliance? (See Moneyweb article here.)

That applies to the unfortunate, much maligned figure of Brian Molefe, former retired/AWOL/fired Group CEO of Eskom. For a moment he seemed to have done the right thing back in November last year when he “stepped down in the interest of good governance”. Until, of course, it became clear that conscience can be considerably eased by a R30 million pay-out and then later that the stepping down was none such. He could have reinforced his “good governance” act if he refused the pay-out (or most of it) and any invitation to return, but now scuttles any interpretation of noble intent by running to the labour court.

The overriding role of conscience over contract was movingly championed by former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, when he spoke at the parliamentary enquiry into Eskom and accused some leaders of not only acting out of blatant self-gain, but simply not caring whether they were seen to be doing so. Few could not have been stirred by his appealing to their conscience, an appeal he has repeated since then.

There is a point at which a position held, and the influence it has on others, has to stand far above the incumbent’s interests or rights. So state-owned enterprises minister Lynne Brown was at best expedient by defending Molefe on the basis of “innocent until proven guilty.” When a position itself is tarnished or brought into disrepute, then, in the interest not of the incumbent but of the position itself, it simply has to be vacated by that incumbent. A subsequent enquiry can at best clear their name, and even ensure some compensation, but a return to that position cannot be automatic.

Such a protocol will ensure a very high regard for positions of authority and a no-nonsense approach to governance and accountability. We simply cannot deny that our tolerance of political and business leadership misbehaviour is extraordinarily high compared with many other countries. Without some form of uplifting the self-accountability expectations from positions of authority, and some real pain in non-compliance, the fight against corruption is going to be extremely difficult.

Zero tolerance and an appeal to the higher order of conscience over contract have to apply equally, if not more so to accusers, investigators and social prosecutors. There is a blatant and astonishing level of hypocrisy and expediency in much of what we are witnessing, including the inordinate, often one sided petty political correctness in public discussion and social media. In the end, it does little to create effective accountability and governance, and simply creates opportunities for deflection by those scrutinised and scrutinising.

While we are witnessing a sterling job by the fourth estate in the Gupta e-mail revelations, the information explosion and chaotic state of media has aggravated the problem. I dealt with this in my recent Moneyweb article “Believe it or not” which need not be repeated, save to say that it is a proverbial Wild West out there, proliferated with intoxicated, trigger happy gunslingers, spreading more rumour and innuendo than fact.

All of this boils down a key essence, the very glue that holds societies together, and without which they descend into anarchy. That is trust – of outsiders in the country, of people in power, and of individuals in each other. 

As long as we continue to trust our neighbours, there is still hope.


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Lot of the publications, including Moneyweb, regularly complain about the low level of education, specially maths, in SA. In the second paragraph you claim that there is only 1 in a thousand chance of being a victim of a contact crime, with a link provided to an article as the proof. According to the article there were 461 thousand contact crimes in a 9 month period, extrapolating from this there were over 600 thousand in a year. To me this equals about 1 in 90 chance which is far worse. It implies that unless things improve drastically, a person has better that 50% chance that during his lifetime he/she will be the victim a contact crime.

Correct, Hun. If there are 600000 contact crimes per annum, this would equate to about 1 in 90 chance of an arbitrary South African being affected in any year.

If the arbitrary South African lives to be 80 then he/she lives 80 years exposed to the 1 in 90 chance of a contact crime assuming these stats remain constant.

The question is what is the chance of living 80 years without being affected by a contact crime?

This is a simple binomial probability.

dbinom(0, 80, 1/90) = 0.409 = ~40.9%

Thus there is a ~59.1% (100-40.9) chance of copping it a least once. A 36.7% chance of once, 16.3% chance of twice, 4.7% chance of 3 times, 1.0% change of 4 times etc.

The bad guy has a 80% chance of getting away.

Stats: @the Hun. You may have missed the essence of the comparison: that the chances of criminals getting away with a crime are far higher than you being affected by it… giving a “conscience buffer”.

But I concede that the comparison (while miscalculated) is a bit apple/pear: the one a constant state and the other period bound. That would make even a daily comparison valid (perhaps better) multiplying the odds against being a affected by a contact crime by 270 (9 month period.)

I normally have an aversion to using the term “only” in relation to any undesirable event, and have asked asked the editor to adjust that sentence. But on a lighter note: when someone stumbles in the street, one should not immediately rush to judgement that the stumbler is a drunk. Shame on those that do.

I understand the difference you tried to point out and I see that the text has been changed. I also understand that the crime stats were part of an illustration for the main thrust of the article. But from my point of view as a prospective victim, it is scary that statistically I have more than 50% chance of being the victim of some kind of contact crime during my lifetime if I remain in SA. From the victim’s point of view it makes no difference that the criminal has 20% chance of getting away with the crime or 20% chance of getting caught. For him the rate of crime is the only important factor.

IF…. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”…, Then why is he attached to a umbilical cord?…. makes you think doesn’t it?…

South Africa ranks 14th out of 172 countries for the most violent deaths per 100 000 citizens. At 28 violent deaths per capita per year, more South Africans die violently than in any active war-zone on earth. The death-toll on our roads is also of the highest on earth. Violent people drive violently.

South Africa suffers the most rape cases by far. Judge Mable Jansen was factually correct, but politically wrong, when she remarked that locals have a rape culture. What these statistics say is that the anarchy is upon us. There are very few places on earth where you will find more violent people and greater anarchy than in your own back yard.

I love South Africa and it’s people, and I believe in the inherent goodness of all people. In the community where I live, people respect and care for one another. I struggle to find evidence of the social contract on a national scale though.

Vintage Schuitema. Again!

Schuitema ends with the homily:

“… All of this boils down a key essence, the very glue that holds societies together, and without which they descend into anarchy. That is trust – of outsiders in the country, of people in power, and of individuals in each other.

As long as we continue to trust our neighbours, there is still hope.”

This is indeed a very true observation.

But the problem is that Schuitema does not address that “trust” is a rapidly declining attribute in our society.

There are far too many in all our leadership spheres (political, business, religious, academic, media, etc – you name it!) who are absolutely just not trustworthy at all.

The urgent issue of the day is … how do we restore and increase trustworthiness in our society? It’s not a mere academic question for idle discussion around cups of tea. It’s a really important issue (as Schuitema so correctly points out), and we have to be onto it with resolute vitality.

Schuitema stridently rings the alarm bell again, but … as usual …is totally SHY on venturing even the tiniest solution to the problem he exposes.

Not good enough, Mr Editor!

Please insist from your columnists that if they want to enjoy the privileged space in your columns to express their opinions, then it will be obligatory that they ALSO present their SOLUTION. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it must at least be an honest try.

Otherwise this is just excusing (and encouraging!) lazy opinions – which are of little help to any debate.

What about the following social contract:

The tax payers keep paying taxes – in return the people that do not pay income tax undertake to do three things:

1 Take responsibility for their vote – in not voting for politicians that do not do what they say.

2 Do not have more children than they can afford, and

3 Co-operate with the police on crime.

On a solution for Schuitema – the answer is strong leadership, with integrity, to show where the country is going and how it will do so.

End of comments.



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