South Africa


One weakness too many? State’s years of failure enabled the disasters that beset us

One weakness too many? State’s years of failure enabled the disasters that beset us
From left: Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Bafana Mahlangu) | Deputy Minister of Defence Thabang Makwetla. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Lisa Hnatowicz) | Minister of Defence Thandi Modise. (Photo: Gallo Images / Deaan Vivier)

While there are many reasons for the current weakness of our state, involving the pandemic, inequality and poverty, it seems clear the main reason is political.

The images of two Cabinet ministers and a deputy minister being “held hostage” by a group of Struggle veterans and their rescue by the Special Task Force may well be an apt symbol of our times. They depict citizens’ anger towards those in power and the way they may act once the politicians’ safety bubble is burst. 

This wild event comes during a local election campaign. The campaign has resulted in the state’s weakness being portrayed live on the news media. The failure of the state’s delivery was clear for all to see and the consequences of that inability were demonstrated. It may well be that the story of this period of our history is the waning of South Africa’s state power, with the dangerous consequences that are bound to follow shortly.

On Thursday night, the Minister of Defence, Thandi Modise, the Deputy Minister of Defence, Thabang Makwetla, and the Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele, were held hostage by a group of people who had fought against apartheid during the Struggle.

See: ANC military veterans arrested after allegedly holding ministers hostage

On Friday, Modise attempted to downplay the incident, claiming that there was no physical danger. But that does not explain why the SAPS Special Task Force had to be called in, or why tear gas was used during the operation to free the ministers.

This incident is a symbol of the multi-sectoral weakness of our state, and the deep-seated anger that people feel towards it. A subset of SA people who believe that the promises made to them were not kept — they live in poverty and inequality — were finally able to get physical access to the representatives of the movement that made those promises. It was their opportunity to make their voices heard.

To be clear, this was the minister of defence in the physical power of people outside the chain of command. 

This show of weakness comes after what was a much greater indication of the state’s inability to exert control over its own territory.

Two months ago there was violence and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which claimed the lives of at least 342 people and inflicted damage estimated at R50-billion.

Again, on live TV, it was clear to the nation how the state was powerless to stop this violence, how the police were unable to prevent or control it.

The state’s incompetence is now being demonstrated in another way, as it is becoming clearer that the police and the State Security Agency are not able to determine who was responsible for instigating the violence and to hold them legally accountable.

This bears repeating. On the evidence publicly available, those responsible for creating a set of events that killed at least 342 people will probably not be punished for it. And so there is no reason for it to not happen again. As Ferial Haffajee has explained, it may well be that that failure of the state led to the hostage drama last week.

All of this is occurring as citizens’ daily lives are made miserable by the state’s incompetence and corruption at the municipal level.

Rolling news channels provide virtually permanent coverage of the problems with service delivery. Across South Africa, water pipes are broken, sewage flows into streets and sometimes homes, there are frequent power cuts, rubbish is not collected and residents are overcharged or have not paid their dues for years. 

It is a depressing picture, one which took many years to paint.

The local election campaigns have shone a spotlight on this and shown the daily lived experience of millions of people around the country.

This leads to increasing levels of frustration and drastic action from citizens desperate for services and help.

One of the consequences of this failure of the state is that it opens the space for other players to promise to fix all the problems while practising identity-based politics. The situation is ripe for the rise of populism.

One of the government’s main functions is to bind a nation together, using systems like schools, hospitals and municipal services as tools in that process. When these fail, cohesion is badly weakened.

When crucial systems fail, sometimes people fall back on charities with a religious or ethnic dimension, or are pushed into the arms of those who make them believe their identity based on language or ethnicity is more important than their national identity as a South African.

There is another mechanism at play here.

It is tempting for politicians in local government to promise to serve the needs of only their constituency.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, for example, the then mayor Mongameli Bobani (who has since died), said that he would provide services only for black people, while claiming that white people had stolen the water of black people.

It is easy to see other politicians taking this approach, making promises to serve only their constituencies. It is the ultimate destination of identity politics.

But, as Trevor Fowler, the former municipal manager of Joburg and currently Adjunct Professor at the Wits School of Governance, has pointed out, this may have difficult consequences for a municipality.

In an interview with Newzroom Afrika last week, he suggested that while it may be tempting for a municipality to concentrate all of its efforts on helping the poorer people within that council, that municipality needs money to make things happen.

That money comes from what richer people pay for services, particularly electricity. In some cases, 30% of the ratepayers of a council subsidise most of the services that the council provides. Thus, if you no longer provide proper reliable services (which require maintenance and investment) for those richer people, they will pull out of municipal services.

Some might move away or turn to other ways of getting electricity. This means that the council will not have the money to provide services for poorer people. This, in turn, will make the situation worse, enabling identity politics to intensify.

While there are many reasons for the current weakness of our state, involving the pandemic, inequality and poverty, it seems clear the main reason is political. Because there has been no accountability at local government level, or national government level, there has been no improvement and the process of this weakening has been allowed to continue.

And until there are consequences, until mayors are forced to account, until arrests are made for the violence we suffered two months ago, until there are very real consequences for scandals like Digital Vibes or State Capture, this process of the weakening of the state will continue, with all of the consequences that follow. 

It is that simple. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    For 14 years news media ran with news headlines such as this. In those 14 years things just got worse, and worse, and worse. And still the dumb voters will place a cross in the wrong box on the ballot paper. And failures will continue, and disasters will get worse

    • MIKE WEBB says:

      1996 = Forgive for voting cANCer. And perhaps forgive 2001. But 2006, 2011, 2016. Now 2021 = Vote cANCer AGAIN, and get what you deserve. The money was there to greatly fix the inequality and poverty, but ‘she was stolen’. So. Get what you deserve! cANCer Viva! Viva cANCer!

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Let’s just remember that the bulk of this nightmare can be laid clearly at ANC feet.

    • Charles Parr says:

      Yes, but do the voters realise that? Of course not.

      • Karl Sittlinger says:

        I just find it interesting that the entire article does not mention the ANC once…

        • David Anthony James Starley says:

          Spot on – not politically correct.
          Just like freedom of speech for ‘normal’ people is not allowed, but if one is WOKE, leftist/communist/LBQTI +++++++++ etc. etc. then anything and everything is allowed.

      • Guy Young says:

        Yes of course they do because they have been denied education. The ANC shut down teachers training colleges and got rid of school inspectors as soon as they were able.

    • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

      Oh no Karl – you are wrong. This is all the fault of Jan van Riebeeck and colonialism and aparthate and white minority capital. The anc have only done what is good for the people of SA. Equality for all means that all people must be brought down to the lowest level of whatever the anc believes is okay for their voters.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Are there any words left beyond total and absolute failure? Please don’t ask me to find the positives. We all know the solution.

  • Ann Bown says:

    The majority of Our politicians are not leaders they are point scorers, they are self indulgent and inward looking – they don’t work for the people they work for their party politics!

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    This latest mini insurrection seems to emulate the 6 January Capitol riot in the Disunited States of America! At least our little skirmish and the danger to the Ministers was not sanctioned by our own President! We can give thanks for that at least!

  • Charles Guise-Brown says:

    It turns out that Nasrec 2007 was a remake of the Rocky Horror show – “Its just a jump to the left”.

    But until the majority of the electorate realise that democracy is surprisingly simple – you vote for someone else – we remain in the economic death spiral that is, on the surface, democracy but is actually a one party state – at least at a national level.

    • Coen Gous says:

      Well Charles, at least the Rocky Horror Show was something to enjoy with great soundtrack. Unlike Zuma screeching, growling and mad moves, in person and in action

  • Derrick Kourie says:

    To say “…until there are consequences” begs the question: “Who should ensure that there are consequences?” The answer to this question is not “the politicians” but “the electorate”. The media continues to point fingers at the politicans, but they are only a secondary cause of “no consequences”. It is the electorate who are the principle and primary reason why there are “no consequences”.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Take a look at Beirut – identity politics, corruption and a total lack of accountability has led to disaster for all.

  • John Pearse says:

    I think you’ve got this one wrong. In the great battle between CR’s forces and the corrupt RET faction, JZ, Ace and Carl in particular the MKMVA have overtly backed the JZ faction. The result is that no self respecting Government would continue financing a riff raff bunch intent on your destruction and a return to RET total corruption. Therefore this is part of the process of simply cutting off their lights and water.

  • Stef Viljoen Viljoen says:

    Nice, hard-hitting piece. Left me thinking.

  • Clive McGill says:

    100% Stephen. Accountability and arrests are needed. But you are preaching to the converted here unfortunately.

  • Terry Bell says:

    Good one Stephano! Spot on.


    We have the Media, the NPA, the Hawks, the Judiciary and other Commissions to point out the State failures and corruption, but we have NO arrests of role players, NO consequences or fear of the law. Crime and corruption thrive despite the ANC’s fabled words in their Manifesto.
    CR is my greatest disappointment to date. I expected more. Accountability, service delivery, better governance, the rule of law to name a few, but got nothing but talk. Never the Walk!!!
    The ANC has fleeced this country and it continues to do so.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    We need reputable political scientists to explain to us how the ANC has degenerated from an organization that was led by impressive people in the past into this deeply corrupt and completely incompetent institution. My own take is that it is because it has operated as an exclusive institution driven by flawed labels such as collective responsibility, democratic centralism and the national democratic revolution. Exclusive institutions tend to become extractive, eg the arms deal, and this in turn leads to factionalism. In the ANC there are not only the two major factions trying to extract the goodies from the national purse but many smaller factions all the way down trying to feed in the trough. There is no sign of the ANC wanting to serve the people. Individuals become active in it to feather their own nests.
    South Africa’s future is now dependent on a political party that has more support than any other party and that is dragging us down to the depths. Will they collapse because they are insolvent, will they split into two or do we have to wait until the electorate has an alternative to turn to? No viable alternative exists at the moment.
    Business leadership with the courage to stick its neck out seems absent so it is up to leaders at local level to set in motion processes that start to turn this mess around.

    • Derrick Kourie says:

      Your premise is that the ANC was once led by impressive people but has now degenerated into this deeply corrupt and completely incompetent institution. I believe that this is simplistic. Reality is much more complicated. I believe that in the past some ANC leaders were “impressive people” and some were deeply immoral; that some ANC ideas and policies were noble and constructive and others, based on a naive embrace of Marxism, were dangerous and degenerate. That past characterisation still holds today. The difference between then and now is that the balance of forces shifted progessively at all levels from the good to bad, without significant electoral consequences. At present, a battle rages between these forces. In my view, the best chance of the good forces winning is if the electorate severely punishes the ANC.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      “No viable alternative exists” – This is rubbish. The DA is doing a good job in the Cape. If you want an alternative to a totally rubbish party vote for the best of the rest. That is the DA. If it gets stronger the ANC gets weaker, which is a big plus.

  • Ivan Pillay says:

    I wish to go beyond the political. At the core of problems are (1) values and (2) competence. With regard to values, suffice it to say in this instance, the least requirement is that self interest is kept in check. Then let’s look at competence. One needs to be competent to account and the person in authority, who holds others to account, needs to be competent. If both parties lack competence, there will be disaster.

  • Tim Price says:

    One too many? No, dozens if not hundreds. #VoetsekANC

  • Reiner Hallauer says:

    Very well argumented but I doubt if someone of political power will take note being to busy to fill his/her own pockets
    R.H. by email

  • Sam Shu says:

    Another article from Stephan that tell us nothing new. It is a good summary, however. I sense the vituperative comments add no value. And wonder if both the author, the commentators are seeing the situation in a stasis when, it may be that there is a battle within the ANC for the heart of the party and country. The outward appearance is paralysis. I have no evidence for this but it is the one glimmer of hope we have and without some hope, what are we?

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    It took another less than ‘great’ democracy some six decades, also led by a ‘congress’ …to unravel … in India ! What has replaced it now … is a theocracy (identity politics) … with equally consequential results ! History seems to keep repeating itself in some parts of the globe ! Maybe we are heading for the next Myanmar ? With the disastrous ‘arms deal’ that should be a shoo-in ! AND … then there is that really inconsequential question of ‘climate change’ (not in the ANC!) to concern ourselves with. When you are holed out in Dubai on S.A. loot, that is the least of your concerns. What a wonderful World – apologies Louis Armstrong !

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Unfortunately people vote with their hearts, not their heads. The NP supporters did this for decades, so the “problems” will persist.
    Another point, surely this is not the same Stephen Grootes who spreads pro-ANC and anti-DA propaganda on ‘Morning Alive’ on the SABC? I have problems in reconciling the two different “Stephens”

  • Rod Sherwood says:

    You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. A coup is coming.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    We all know what has happened to South Africa- a quasi communist party with a growing amount of greed, captured the political scene, and wrecked havoc with its combination of identity politics, avarice and incompetence, resulting in a devastated country, which once had so much potential. Cadre deployment and the resulting lack of merit , has laid waste the land, from municipal right up to cabinet level.We know this as fact, but left to the electorate, is there any hope?

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