South Africa


Great success and abject failure for South Africa in 2019

Great success and abject failure for South Africa in 2019
Former president Jacob Zuma, left, President Cyril Ramaphosa, centre, and former South African president Thabo Mbeki, right. (Photos: Mike Hutchings / EPA | Sebabatso Mosamo / Sunday Times | Darren Stewart / Gallo Images) / (Photo: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times)

South Africans have caused spectacular ripples across the globe this year. But also in 2019, my scribblings and notes-to-self grew about whether we are edging closer to being a failed state.

I haven’t gone cuckoo. But this has been an extraordinary year for South African can-do and fabulousness.

In New York, Trevor Noah chalked up first after first: he filled up Madison Square Garden, The Daily Show bagged an Emmy nomination and Noah is in the top-10 league of the world’s best-paid comedians.

The Ndlovu Youth Choir got into the top two of America’s Got Talent finals; Sho Madjozi was the breakout talent of the year, and when she wrote wrestler John Cena into a song it went stratospheric. The Bokke played a beautiful final to bring the Rugby World Cup home. Then the Blitzbokke played magnificently to triumph at the Dubai Sevens.

To cap the year, Zozibini Tunzi took the Miss Universe sash and turned it into a cool feminist moment when she counselled young women to take up space and noted that people of her colour and her natural hair hadn’t made the leader boards before. What a fabulous statement.

The world went wild with wow.

Thebe Magugu won the LVMH International Fashion Showcase. Liza Essers took the Goodman Gallery global. John Kani scooped up more awards to make him one of the world’s leading thespians. As head of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka continues to create campaigns for empowerment that are original and interesting. I could go on. Keeping a list of South Africa’s world-class people, companies, institutions and organisations who create ripples across the globe is a hobby. And I am never short of ideas to add to it.

The failed state

But this year I’ve been scribbling something else too. Every so often, I come across something which surfaces, a thought I quickly banish and it is this: the state may be failing. I banish it, for it’s too awful to contemplate for the beloved country now free, or a little free, after its brutal history.

The struggle for this freedom was long and hard. It was hard-won by great women and men. It’s tough to say that their efforts may have been squandered by the inheritors of their political mantles – but as load shedding hit and not a single politician in a Cabinet that is still among the world’s largest, and not a single Eskom executive (the utility has more managers than the average listed blue-chip by multiples) knew what to do, the thought went from hazy to clear.

Is the state failing and did we put too much faith and trust in the ability of a single man, President Cyril Ramaphosa, to fix it?

My scribblings and notes-to-self grew in 2019. Take, for example, Astral Food. Unable to rely on the Lekwa Local Municipality to provide clean water without which its plants can’t run, the company’s been forced to build its own water treatment plant.

Then, closer to home, I am on community WhatsApp groups for Ward 58, which covers the working-class Joburg suburbs of Crosby, Brixton, Mayfair and Fordsburg. On those groups, local state failure is clear. A few weeks ago, an exasperated community member said she had killed her third 3kg rat in a week. This rat plague is common across the country. On every measure, those areas have failed.

If you look through the auditor-general reports it’s clear this is a general story across municipalities.

Sometimes I find succour in the World Bank accounts of what a truly failed state is (technically, we are not one); but how do we prevent failure here with the layers of incompetence in the state growing faster than Game’s profits from generators during an episode of Stage 6 load shedding?

The nightmares grow: one of the definitions of a failed state is when a government can’t protect its people. Crime in South Africa is so out of control that we live lives completely disfigured by it. The Maverick Citizen series on mothers who lost children in the Cape ganglands was remarkable. It was also astonishing how commonplace the mothers’ stories are. It’s not okay to live on your nerves as we do, to have lives so punctuated by crime that the abnormal becomes the norm.


When this piece was commissioned, I was downloading an app. It’s called Eskom se Push and it is another example of South African can-do in action. It takes load shedding schedules and overlays them with suburbs to give you instant access to when you will lose power. Brilliant. In a macabre kind of way. At that point, we were at Stage 6 load shedding, which has the sound and feel of Armageddon. Eskom’s terse press statements keep saying that load shedding is better than a national power collapse. That, in turn, sounded like Gilead, the dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale. My failed state list grew and fattened; my eyes widened with disbelief at how out of control it all felt.

Now, power cuts are the norm, when one of the few positive inheritances of the odious apartheid order was cheap and reliable energy. That public good has been extended with some dexterity to South Africans who were not wired for lights when apartheid ended, but the Stats SA surveys show that people who were wired can’t afford the electricity.

That good is gone; ground to dust by successive rounds of incompetents placed at Eskom. It was failed by presidents all the way from Thabo Mbeki and now to Cyril Ramaphosa who have not known how to run the utility. Mbeki was told the power stations which powered the apartheid mining-energy complex were at the end of their lives, but he and former trade and industry minister Alec Erwin put off a new build. They could also have sown the seeds of a just transition away from coal-fired power at that point, but failed to do so.

Then came Jacob Zuma. We all know what happened when his friends the Guptas worked out that coal contracts were the quickest way to extract as much as possible.

Ramaphosa has not managed to get a handle on things at all, despite putting in place a new board at Eskom and another of his beloved task teams. One of his go-to books is Why Nations Fail – perhaps he needs to take another read?

Electricity and water systems are bellwether checks on whether a country is working or not. The droughts in the Northern and Eastern Cape are part of the matrix of what happens on a Burning Planet, but they also reveal another story: state failure. There was no planning for the obvious shortages that were to come; no relief plans, no storage plans, no desalination plants commissioned and ready to deliver potable water to the coastal cities.

Now, I read that a serial politician, Thami ka Plaatjie, a former Pan Africanist Congress secretary-general, is heading up a R900-billion (that’s right, almost R1-trillion) emergency water plan after his benefactor, Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, put him in charge of it. It’s a cadre deployment disaster waiting to happen.

Watch this space for our headlines in 2020. We are skirting uncomfortably close to state failure, but I don’t want to write that and sound like a merchant of doom when I love my country. As part of the benefactor generation of Nelson Mandela, I always feel it’s our duty to make it grow into all it can be. But how, when the people with the power and the resources seem unable or unwilling to do so?

We are all Nigerian now?

Nigerian culture is the centre of cool right now. Its online companies and streaming music and film services are the talk of the connected world. Its writers, artists and thinkers are firing up imaginations from Dakar to DC.

A home to Nobel winners through the post-colonial decades, the country breeds leaders for global financial services, for the arts, for engineering and for the brains trust to explain and advance our world.

But the state is failed, despite new-age governors who are approaching government and governance with modernity, influenced by leaders like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew or Rwanda’s Paul Kagame or the contemporary thinkers at the Harvard School of Government. Still, on the whole, it does not work: there is no power and Nepa, the Eskom of Nigeria, is a national joke. It has been for long. Successive task teams and promises of change delivered by presidential candidate after candidate have failed. The din of generators is part of the soundscape of Nigeria’s cities. Sound familiar? It’s happening here too.

With every round of load shedding, generator sales go through the roof. So do sales of inverters. How we talk about Eskom is how Nigerians talk about Nepa – unfixable, corrupt and the thing that holds back an African country from being modernised.

Going backwards in a modernising Africa

South Africa is regarded as a modern African state thanks to our infrastructure, economy and financial sector. The continent is home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but South Africa has long fallen out of the basket that includes Ghana, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Still, we could be part of the new phase of modernising growth which has pulled millions of people out of poverty by leveraging a young population and other assets. Instead, South Africa appears to be moving backward – third-quarter growth is in decline, joblessness grows unabated every year, electricity is no longer stable, neither is water – so the impetus toward modernity or development (for more South Africans) is slowing.

For all of 2019, the feel-good moments of great sport and fabulous ambassadors and a thriving music and arts scene were often reason to be proud and hopeful. But the nagging feeling of state failure grew in intensity in 2019. What will a new decade hold? Where will we be in 2029? DM


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