TRAINSPOTTER

This is what a failed state looks like

By Richard Poplak 14 July 2021

A burnt car on Jules Street in Jeppestown, downtown Johannesburg, on Sunday, 11 July 2021. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Its roots are intertwined with almost three centuries of extractive corruption, mixed with austerity. There are no savings to be made in this arrangement, and all of it will be paid for with treasure and souls.

Richard Poplak

It’s been a fine week for connoisseurs of civil unrest. 

Across Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, two massive conflagrations have conjoined to form a devastating wildfire. The first was the rage manufactured by an organised criminal network that found opportunity in the incarceration of a political figurehead. The second was the instability caused by the desperation of a people crushed in an ever-tightening economic vice.

Following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma last Wednesday, and after incitement from his hype squad – including his daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla and a local radio DJ named Ngizwe Mchunu – KZN exploded into unprecedented mayhem, which is saying something for a province that experienced the worst of apartheid’s end-game violence. The scale of the ruin is already staggering, while the impotence of law enforcement has been a reminder of the disarray that defines the police and intelligence services, neither of which were prepared for the obvious upset following the former president’s jailing.

Stupidity like this deserves a standing ovation. Sadly, South Africa is on its knees. Entire communities have been razed, but more significantly – at least for those trying to calculate what the future might hold – the violence has targeted vital nodes of distribution: logistics capacity in Mooi River; local food and dry good stores throughout eThekwini; large malls and warehouse facilities along the coastline and up into Pietermaritzburg. Sasria, the state insurance agency, is on the hook for these costs, which ultimately means that taxpayers serve as guarantors. The damage is likely to amount to tens of billions of rands, but that’s only part of the cost. It will be nearly impossible to rebuild what has been burnt.

Own the supply chain, own the country: this is a basic tenet of warfare. And make no mistake, there is a plan. The trouble in KZN is much more than a political protest or a spontaneous statement of local anguish. Under the cover of Zuma’s jailing, this was a large, local gangster network flexing its muscles, saying: 

We are here. Stop us if you can.

The state’s reply was as anaemic as it was articulate:

We can’t. Help yourself. 

Ethnic shmethnic

Zuma’s opponents – aka nearly everyone on Earth – like to remind us that the former president has no real power; that his support has faded away with his political prominence; that his kids are drunk lunatics and not the lethal social media influencers they take themselves to be. But his arrest has dragged up something dark and vicious from the underworld bog in which he remains a representative daemon. South African elites are reflexively horrified by any talk of tribalism, but when it works in the ANC’s favour – as it did in the 2009 national elections that saw the party win a large majority in Zuma’s previously unseduceable home province – it gets smiled away as a topic not to be discussed in polite company. As in most African countries, tribal divisions were diligently maintained by successive white overlords for decades, and the wounds never healed. Zuma has made a career of exploiting them: it’s been the source of his power all along.

(These observations shouldn’t be confused with a certain opposition politician’s view that Zuma is a charming if guileless traditional chieftain who doesn’t know from fancy Western-style constitutionalism or democracy. In fact, Zuma is a highly methodical grifter who knows exactly what he’s doing, and who is both a populist and an adept at strumming white liberal passions.)

For another thing, as the “war against corruption” makes nominal gains by jailing former presidents and humiliating the ANC’s D-team in court, the fight for control of the gangster economy becomes commensurately vicious. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by torching the country. Listed corporate entities are being informed, in the language of blood and fire, that South Africa is no longer a cozy environment in which to run their monopolies. The ensuing vacuum is being filled by what economists term “new entrants”.

It is, for example, no longer safe to truck goods into KZN, which serves as the successful culmination of a campaign to dislodge “foreign nationals” from the trucking industry: As of today, all roads into KZN are controlled by the mob. It is no longer safe to run a Shoprite, or a Checkers or a Woolworths, even in tiny Johannesburg retail spaces. These warnings represent the birth pangs of a Russian-style hyper-capitalist shadow economy, which threatens to become the real economy a vision Zuma and his cabal in the State Security Agency hoped to initiate under his presidency.

Better late than never, as they say.

Speaking of late Julius Malema, whose Economic Freedom Fighters have evolved into an effective shakedown crew in Johannesburg, Tshwane and beyond, has tried to tweet himself into the national free-for-all. “No soldiers on our streets! Otherwise, we are joining. All fighters must be ready… they won’t kill us all,” exclaimed Julius, who has a knack for avoiding personal involvement in the violent protests he initiates. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Cape, taxi industry leaders and Premier Oscar Mabuyane have been in talks to protect the province from looting. These new racketeering alliances are the future of South Africa: the gangster economy has become fully integrated into the remnants of the “real” economy. Hoods, assassins, ex-spooks and drug dealers are now partners at the table.

It no longer matters how much a CEO bench-presses, or how many minutes he dedicates to Mandela Day, or how much viognier his wine farm produces. A new age is upon us.

Lockdown and out

Case in point: Gauteng is currently a working diorama of Hell. At the Madala Hostel in Alexandra; at the Jeppestown Hostel in the CBD; at hotspots throughout the southern townships, ancient ethnic resentments have been jump-started, and the mayhem has been instantaneous. The method has worked before, during the xenophobic attacks of 2008 and 2013. Out-of-work, idle young men are an ever-present, highly efficient delivery mechanism for extreme violence.

And yes, while this may have started as a #FreeJacobZuma mega-event, it has morphed into something much more widespread and uncontained. The people free-shopping in stores and malls form part of an economic underclass that has been humiliated for generations. It is almost impossible to generate a socioeconomic reality more inequitable than South Africa’s, largely because no other country has been insane enough to try. Political systems tend to fail when a quarter of the population is out of work. In South Africa, that number has reached nearly 50%, while almost three out of four young people do not have any prospects of employment.

That Zuma’s State Capture project contributed to this situation is almost beside the point. South Africans are facing a second successive winter under lockdown, where the deprivations have become unbearable. The government’s inhumane response to the Covid-19 pandemic has loosened something in the streets, and the pent-up response is now fanning out across the country. The economic Brahmins insist that there was no way to pay for comprehensive social relief programmes, so even the pathetic R350 Covid-19 social relief grant was suspended. This is an obscenely cruel austerity regimen, the result of successive self-imposed structural adjustment packages that are nearly indiscernible from the famine campaigns of the colonial era.

The government’s parsimony has had inevitable consequences: people are enraged. None of this justifies the violent behaviour of the small minority torching malls, looting storefronts and annihilating SMEs. But the point is that the #FreeJacobZuma movement and the resultant chaos have dovetailed with much larger grievances. Big chunks of the country have been rendered ungovernable. It doesn’t help that Police Minister Bheki Cele is more effective as a meme than as a functional human being, and remains locked in a bunfight with the National Police Commissioner, Khehla Sitole. The police on the streets – themselves underpaid, under-trained working people – have never had the trust of the people, and now they’ve become the face of the loathed lockdowns. Because of this, and for the third time in two years, the army is now roaming South Africa’s poorest communities, ready to shoot and impervious to the nuances of causality. Meanwhile, well-armed white militias have emerged from the gloom to protect property that has been abandoned by the cops or security companies, firing off live rounds at unarmed black people – not a particularly sustainable way to engender racial harmony.

This is what state failure looks like. Its roots are intertwined with almost three centuries of extractive corruption, mixed with austerity. There are no savings to be made in this arrangement, and all of it will be paid for with treasure and souls.

Pay to play

Establishment armchair analysts have insisted, throughout Cyril Ramaphosa’s tenure, that he is fully in charge of the machinery of the state, and is impervious to any genuine threats from the mouth-breathing factionalists in his party. Ace is aced. Zuma is in orange. But Ramaphosa is the weakest ANC leader in the party’s modern history. At this point, should the National General Conference go ahead, the big ANC meet-up could have existential consequences for his presidency. The current civil unrest will be held up as proof of his incompetence, and it will cost a fortune in both cash and political capital for him to retain his post. The assertion that he’s a shoo-in is laughable.

From this vantage point, in the middle of a pandemic and amid bouts of mega-violence caught on camera, it is difficult to see how municipal elections, scheduled for October, can proceed. Should they be postponed, South Africa enters a cryogenic freeze in which Ramaphosa’s ever-expanding executive will face off against circling opponents in his party.

The president is already forced to run the country through a sort of expert-advised plutocratic technocracy, where his official Cabinet members are little more than decorative dashboard ornaments. When they do speak, they’re embarrassing disasters. The security cluster is in such chaos that Ramaphosa may have to take control of the SANDF himself. This is the destiny of most tinpot presidencies.

And so, in the very near future, in order to maintain something resembling stability, Ramaphosa will have to face up to the fact that the state will need to re-establish the monopoly of violence. But this will require the murder of people in the streets on an industrial scale. Neither he nor his backers have the stomach for this. There is an alternative, of course, but it may be even more unpalatable to the government and its backers than mass slaughter – the drafting of a new social contract that delivers a fair deal for all.

The future is available only to countries that understand that basic subsistence is a human right – a right that can and should be guaranteed by the state. Should the current corporate/government rent-seeking arrangement continue, and should the Ramaphosa technocracy fail to understand that the present moment represents an opportunity to change tack, then the gangsters will carry the day.

Gauteng and KZN offer a warning. The post-apartheid elite-driven looting spree is over. Others are looting now, and it’s as bad as it looks on TV. DM

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All Comments 42

  • Good article. Support of Cyril to lead and make the correct decisions needed by all, including state of emergency. Drop all political point scoring immediately by DA and be part of Cyril’s team to get us out of this mess. Remember that if Mrs Zuma was elected ANC president where we would be today.

  • Spot on, as always. Signs of the ex-USSR remnants, like Khazakstan, run by local mafias after the counter revolution. Be prepared for convoy ‘security’ supply chains

  • Thanks for an excellent & sobering article. I’m afraid that the looting spree has continued unabated even under Cyril’s watch; billions in Covid relief funds etc. The chickens are roosting…

      • The state has the power to create the funds necessary. All it needs is the will. Doing so may risk inflation, yes, but seems like a risk worth taking given the circumstances.
        It’s a terrible mistake to think that a national budget should be managed on the same principles as a household budget.

  • You mention that ‘the army is now roaming South Africa’s poorest communities’. The fact is that they are not. They could at least be present at every door to every mall in the hotspot areas – but the fact is that they are not. That 75,000 (plus/minus) were deployed to enforce Covid regulations while 2,500 have been deployed to protect our infrastructure and economy, bears analysis. It certainly looks like the intention is to allow the country to become ungovernable. Why does Cyril allow this?

    • One has to be careful when ordering an army out effectively against their own people. Military training is VERY different to Police training. Simply put, the Military does not issue rubber bullets to their members.

    • The army is a blunt instrument. Its a hammer that hits everything that looks like a nail.
      The “keep people off the streets” order has a completely different meaning in a police station and in the barracks.
      Furthermore one has to ascertain that the army generals have their loyalty in the right places otherwise those soldiers may march a completely different direction.

  • I thought it was a bit harsh, maybe even extreme? Having said that, Richard has been doing this job for a while so he will have better insight than I do.

  • “The current civil unrest will be held up as proof of his incompetence, and it will cost a fortune in both cash and political capital for him to retain his post. The assertion that he’s a shoo-in is laughable.”

    There is no one else that has his image though. Even with his blunders, who else in the ANC will actually draw the voters in? If they get rid of CR the ANC may as well toss the opposition the elections.

  • The simple truth is that the majority of South Africans have had sub standard or no education which means they are mostly unemployed or badly paid therefore have a bleak future, and nothing Ramaphosa has done in the last three years has improved their lot. This situation and the violence of the last few days is firmly in the lap of the completely inept and deeply corrupt ANC.

  • As ever from Richard, this is trenchant, eloquent, and rich writing, which gives rise to many thoughts.

    However, from a position of undoubted and admitted ignorance, there are a couple of questions on which I would appreciate more clarity. I will pose my questions in separate posts to allow for the word-limit.

    First, who exactly are “the gangsters” who will carry the day – do you mean Magashule, etc. and Zandile Gumede in the ANC? It seems to me that Zuma, steeped in the toxic culture of the Angolan camps, acts as an example – we won, so why don’t we just take what we conquered? Are his followers and those who fly his standard doing the same? Or, a generation after the ANC “won”, is the struggle now over different things? Clearly there is a *lot* of money still to be made in tenderpreneurship. But how does this relate to someone taking from a business in which there isn’t the slightest prospect of their having a stake?

  • Following my first post, how in view of the disparities on the ground which are currently protected by “the constitution” is real social transformation to be achieved? “Basic subsistence” can mean entrenched dependency on the provider, *or* be a platform for fuller participation in civic life. I’m thinking not only of material capital. That (e.g. land) can be expropriated and redistributed/transferred and even rebuilt where it has been destroyed (the rail network). But even that can only happen *if* the state (or as in Russia, the Party) are sufficiently strong and ruthless, and has the plight of South Africa become so desperate that people really want to pay those costs? But there is also impermeable capital – literacy, numeracy, etc. How can that be created and is there any real wish to create an informed society? The “developed” world shows that misinformation can hold sway even when most of the population are nominally “educated”. So “basic subsistence” can also mean Bread and Circuses, which merely shifts the front line…

  • Thinking forward, I understand (again admitting my woeful ignorance) that Bolivia has managed a massive shift towards a “fairer” society. But I also gather this has been by having, and using, a state monopoly on hydrocarbons? What would the equivalent be in South Africa and how would it be achieved? Presumably this would have to entail seizure of the “commanding heights”? Even so, how is the state to guarantee “basic subsistence” *without* overwhelming (if not actual monopoly) firepower? And how would that power be reconstructed from the ruins of the remaining state? I’m thinking of examples of postcolonial circumstance the hobbling polities of the rest of Latin America and Africa, in which inequality teeters alongside instability? They have their armies and police as agents of elite terror funded by a small tax-base to maintain distance from the abject. Inequality and dependency *work* precisely because they reduce the destitute to helplessness: a “failed state” financed Sally Mugabe’s shopping flights…

    • We have a massive renewable energy resource. But it’s a mistake to think that prosperity is built from resources. In fact, resource abundance usually hinders equitable social development: “The resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty or the poverty paradox, is the phenomenon of countries with an abundance of natural resources (such as fossil fuels and certain minerals) having less economic growth, less democracy, or worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources.” (Wikipedia)

  • Finally, is Ramaphosa not himself a creature of sleight-of-hand whereby Capital decided to buy off political victors in order to bring them into the fold (a la Federale Volksbeleggings)? So where is the actual struggle? It may seem to be between looters and property-owners, or between internal factions of the ANC, but may these be inchoate proxies for a more globalised conflict (as we’re seeing in Cabo Delgado)? Where is the seat of corruption?

    So the questions seem to be who and what will emerge from demonstrations of “people’s power” expressed so widely, albeit negatively, incoherently and “self-destructively”? Ramaphosa and his, not really “technocratic” but more properly plutocratic, regime may survive in name, but their substance will presumably become thinner? Or may it even be strengthened as clusters of private redoubts, as the “old” state – cities, roads, civic institutions, the environment – rusts away?

    None of which makes the front lines any more comfortable, or denies the urgency of the situation for those living so directly with it… Again, I must emphasise that these are thoughts generated by ignorance, and I would value enlightenment from Richard.

  • 1. This article is incorrect on so many levels. Having spent time in truly failed states like DRC and Liberia, South Africa is nowhere near that state. Despite the chaos, SA is currently one of the most functional states in sub-Saharan Africa. The photo at the top of the article shows functioning traffic lights and street lights. In a failed state there is no electricity, only portable household generators. SA is a failed state when petrol is only transported to Joburg by bicycle from Maputo.

    Similarly, it is easy and simplistic to say that there should be increased grants to the poor, etc. Without doing the arithmetic, one is doomed to talk nonsense. Where is this money going to come from?

    Even when I’m in Africa’s most functional states – e.g. Ghana – they are in awe of our social grants, free healthcare, free education, RDP houses, free water, free basic electricity, etc. SA offers so much more to its population than any other African country. We need to acknowledge this.

    Our biggest challenge is not absolute levels of poverty, if that were true, the whole continent would be on fire.

    The problem is… (cont…)

    • 2. The problem is inequality. Until we lower the standard of living of the rich, we will always be an explosion waiting to happen. We need to stop fooling ourselves that inequality will be solved by enriching the poor. Just do the maths on a country where GDP/capita is R7000 per month and where professionals feel underpaid when earning R50,000/ month. For every professional earning R50k requires 6 people to earn R0 to balance the equation. We need to recalibrate what the rich (black and white) think is a “normal lifestye”. More Toyotas, fewer Mercedes, more apartments, fewer swimming pools, etc. We are a poor country that cannot benchmark elite salaries against rich countries like Australia and Canada which are ten times richer.

      Even with the most optimistic GDP growth forecasts we are not going to grow ourselves out of this problem. Salaries at the top are consistently increasing by more than the GDP growth rate. If we want a South Africa that’s worth living in, the wealthy classes need to reflect on how their attitudes fuel inequality.

      • Hey Dave, 50k per month attracts about 10.5k in personal income tax assuming you have already paid 7.5k to retirement funding before tax. Rental or bond for said professional will be entry level at 15k. Feeding a small family plus school fees for 2 plus electricity and water will guzzle the rest. Your ‘Greedy’ professional will have nothing left to buy and run his Toyota, notwithstanding any luxuries like insurance, entertainment, medical aid and any thought of savings. The spouse will have to buck the unemployment trend and bring in the extra 25k required to meet basic cost of living.

      • I don’t agree. Following on from John Cawood’s reply, taxes scale with income and 40% PIT is pretty high. Why should we, the otherwise productive, law-abiding citizens put up with wanton corruption and criminality when we can just emmigrate to countries like Australia and Canada? It’s a global market place, I don’t think you nor Mr Poplak understand that very well.

          • Leaving inequality till last is exactly what the ANC has done, the result of which is burning right in front of your eyes.

        • If you accept the simple maths showing that in a country with GDP/capita of R7000/month, when one person earns R50k, it means, 6 others must earn R0, then surely you can see the absurdity of complaining that you can’t survive on R50k when this necessitates 6 others to survive on R0.

          Because those R0 earners are going to destroy your quality of life.

          99% of South Africans are living on less than R50k. It is clearly possible. Just not at the levels of comfort you expect. A 2 bedroom flat in Wynberg CT can be had for R9k. Get just a hospital plan or use government health care. The point is, that what you expect as your minimum standard of living that you are entitled to is just not the norm in a developing country like ours. If you visited our economic peers like Peru, Indonesia, Colombia, Bosnia, etc you would never find professionals expecting the level of luxury that South Africans expect. We are an outlier. Which is why we are also an outlier at the bottom end with way more people surviving on less than $2/day than our peers.

  • A new social contract that delivers a fair deal for all? Therein lies the rub. A few pointers by the author will be enlightening. Nevertheless, thank you for a brilliant essay. The spectre of the mob running the country is frightening (perhaps it has been happening for some time now?)

  • “… a fair deal for all” would have been the solution 27 years ago, and no doubt there was that intention at the start. But its too late for that, unless we go back to START, without collecting the money. We need to rethink our political system, our politics, and just what we as South Africans are prepared to give – because ‘giving’ is going to be the bottom line – and take, because there has to be a cut-off point. Its worth keeping in mind that the Republic is a colonial construct. It might be time to change the basics and work a new deal, participate in a new CODESA. Because sure as fluck, the old one ain’t working no more.

  • A bridge doesn’t fail once it collapses, it passes the point of failure long before then, while still standing. The final catastrophic collapse comes when the structure is stressed to elevated levels that it should be well able to withstand normally. We’ve been living in a failed state since before Covid. No single state entity delivers fair value to it’s shareholders, the citizens of this country. The true cost of services in the country is staggering when calculating the value vs the cost. Massive spending such as 32nd highest global education budget as % of GDP, yet delivers unemployable numerically illiterate matriculants. Our govt fails to create value due to the trefecta of corruption, ignorance and incompetence. This permeates and suffocates functionality at ALL levels of govt, from the highest executives to the lowest civil servant. But no protests against that.

    This round of looting has been a good curtain raiser for when the state runs out of money for pensions and social grants.

    The social contract has failed indeed, but not because of the nature of the contract Mr Poplock, but because govt failed to deliver value to the people, and the people failed to hold govt to account.

    The political crisis cannot respond to the economic crises and vice versa. The state failed long ago, this is the slow motion collapse.

  • Ouch, how does one become so utterly unhelpful when your country is burning. In the world of Richard Poplak, there is no one other than himself that has an answers. Problem is, there’s not a hint of an answer from himself. Give us journalism, satire, critical reflection – but please not this sort of overdose, over and over, of pompous cyanide.

  • Brilliant and eloquent. And sadly funny. My favourite line: …his official Cabinet members are little more than decorative dashboard ornaments.

  • DM168 COVID-19

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