South Africa


Crisis, despair and harnessing hope as the state of South Africa disintegrates (Part One)

Crisis, despair and harnessing hope as the state of South Africa disintegrates (Part One)
The Heidedal Primary School voting station during by-elections in Borcherds, George, 19 July 2023. Photo: Shelley Christians

Elections are short-term ways of distributing power between political parties, whereas the problems of a systemic crisis, state collapse and state disintegration require long-term perspectives. There does not seem to be any political party in South Africa addressing the long term. This is Part One of a two-part series.

We are living in a time when every second analyst, academic or forecaster advances a plan as to how we can extricate ourselves from the present crisis in South Africa. Most are unconvincing because the problems we face are complex and unsusceptible to quick solutions. But that does not mean change is impossible to achieve, even if the possibilities are not immediately visible.

It is hard to know how to be constructive in this situation. 

We are confronted by what looks like state collapse and disintegration – not merely a crisis of the state, not merely a systemic crisis, but a systemic crisis that may lead to or is already on the way to the disintegration of the state of South Africa. 

This is evident, among other ways, in the collapse of a range of structures, institutions and services, many of whose existence and relatively effective functioning we took for granted only 10 or 15 years ago.

The ANC has played a significant role in bringing us to the present situation. Paradoxically, it was the leading force inaugurating democracy, but now it has been the leading force in its destruction, which coincides with signs of the implosion of the organisation itself.

What is a marked feature of the present period is the absence of serious debate. Ideology and the significance of ideology have been diminished or are absent. And there is not a serious conversation among the people of South Africa on the way forward.

In the period of colonialism and apartheid, there was continual advancement of ideas and debate. There were ideas generated on the side of the oppressors to justify what they were doing and to find new ways of providing a rationale for the continued domination of the majority of the people.

On the side of the oppressed, the ANC and its allies did have good thinkers. When we consider the evaluations on the side of the oppressed people of South Africa, especially in the ANC and the South African Communist Party, it was a long-standing debate over how one analysed and characterised the South African social order. From that analysis, we considered the potential routes for extricating South Africans from a situation that was demeaning for the majority of the population.

These were not the only participants in debates on South Africa’s future under apartheid. There were a range of actors who had their own, distinct ways of blunting the power of majority rule or, on the other hand, overcoming what they saw as the limitations of the left project of the ANC and its allies, with a view to achieving socialism.

Those debates raged over many decades, with periods of straight repression, with limited peaceful opposition to the banning of organisations and illegal discussions, pamphlets and journals. These debates raised a series of options for addressing the crisis on the side of the oppressed.

There was a similar debate and advancement of ideas, some of which, like that of the oppressed, drew on ideas from other countries – in the case of the oppressed, drawing on ideas from former socialist countries, from other countries of the South, or what was then called developing or Third World countries.

And on the side of the apartheid regime, drawing on assistance for security and ideas for thwarting democracy from right-wing governments and thinkers. Among those that provided military cooperation were Pinochet’s fascist Chile and what has now been characterised as apartheid Israel.

So, it’s quite a new thing to have politics in South Africa without political debate and political discussion or, in a sense, to have politics that has very little content.

When people draw up ideas for saving coalition government, they don’t really advance ideas; unifying ideas for these potential coalition partners. This is partly because there is no real basis for unity between them. 

However, there is a commonality, and that commonality may be the absence of ideological expression on the part of most potential partners, paradoxically, apart from a party like FF Plus, which is fairly clear about its policy positions and maintains them without the type of flip-flops that one finds in the EFF. 

It may be that the FF Plus is one of the few parties that is free of corruption.

I’m not dismissing the idea of having stability in coalition governments, because it is important for us to have them do the little they attempt to do and achieve the level that they attempt to achieve, especially in terms of realising goals in municipal and other local government services.

In government departments that provide social services, we need them to urgently prevent the levels of starvation and privation that currently prevail in the country. Most of us have probably read of young mothers killing themselves and their children because they are starving and without a source of income. These sorts of tragedies need to be averted.

If putting together a coalition government can provide the necessary stability, that is something to be supported. I’m not, however, convinced that the parties likely to form a coalition would necessarily be viable for this, especially when it comes to remedying conditions in the rural areas.

One of the most serious crises in South Africa today is the growth of inequality since 1994 – South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. This is coupled with a situation where there is no longer any party that can be designated as the representative of the poorest of the poor.

The ANC and, to some extent, the Communist Party and the trade unions did, at one stage, represent the poorest of the poor. But now the ANC, which did derive from the poor at a certain point, is no longer a party of the poor. 

It is the party that steals from the poor and unashamedly continues to hold in its ranks people who have been found to have stolen.

It is hard to say who in electoral politics can be a bearer of the interests of the poorest of the poor. This is one of the reasons why many people, including myself, have little confidence in elections as a way of delivering a solution to the problems of South Africa. 

Elections are essentially short-term ways of distributing power between political parties or interest groups, whereas the problems of a systemic crisis, state collapse and state disintegration require long-term perspectives even though their resolution is urgent. 

There does not seem to be any political party in South Africa that is addressing the long term. They are fighting with one another and scoring points against one another with a view to the 2024 elections.

In this situation, time is running out because, not only are there these collapses of state functioning and state institutions and services, but there is a fiscal crisis that makes it very difficult, even if there were a plan that was accepted for remedying the problems. 

The fiscal crisis makes it difficult to find money to resolve the issues.

We are not dealing with something that can be disposed of by some quotation or readings from one or other adherent of one or other ideology, whether it’s Marxism, liberalism or whatever.

We need a careful analysis as there was in the National Planning Commission, which, if implemented, could have contributed to effective governance. But it was not put into practice and we now need an even wider plan addressing the multiple areas of crises and how they can be addressed.

As indicated in my previous articles, the notion of hope is a resource to break the cycle of despair and passivity (read here and here). I return to this in Part Two. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at the University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history and social questions. His X handle is @raymondsuttner.


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