Defend Truth


Is South Africa a failing or failed state? Let’s stop with the useless labels


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Some in the chattering classes would like to believe that South Africa is already a failing or failed state. This does seem a bit odd, given the reality on the ground.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly, and the emphatic celebration of democracy throughout the world as well, I hear, in recent months, the buzzwords from some quarters asking whether South Africa is a failed state or very nearly there. 

Accordingly, on the one hand, writes Professor Rosa Ehrenreich Brooks, “successful states control defined territories and populations, conduct diplomatic relations with other states, monopolise legitimate violence within their territories, and succeed in providing adequate social goods to their populations”.

And on the other hand, Brooks writes, “failed states, their dark mirror image, lose control over the means of violence, and cannot create peace or stability for their populations or control their territories. They cannot ensure economic growth or any reasonable distribution of social goods: they are often characterised by massive economic inequities, warlordism and violent competition for resources.”

Before we take a closer look at these two definitions and which one is more applicable to our situation, there are additional definitions which I think we should interrogate. One notch up the food chain from failed states are the numerous “weak” or “failing” states, which together constitute much of sub-Saharan Africa, significant chunks of central Asia and parts of Latin America and south Asia.

These weak states are tremendously varied and may in some cases combine fragile governance structures with substantial regional influence and wealth — consider Indonesia, Pakistan and Colombia — but they all teeter in common on the precipice, at seemingly perpetual risk of collapse into devastating civil war or anarchy.

When looking at these criteria it does seem a bit odd that some in the chattering classes would like to believe that we are here already as a country. They forget that one must also factor in the legacies of both colonialism and apartheid, and how exactly they handed over the country to the black majority. 

As Professor James Mayall reminds us: “If we are to understand the problem of contemporary state failure, we must necessarily start by trying to understand the contribution of the colonial legacy. This is because, at the most general level, the concept of the state itself was a colonial export.

“Modern international society is essentially a Western creation. Its foundational principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states emerged simultaneously with the rise of the centralised state in Europe. These values — and the practices that typically embodied them, such as the state monopoly on the legitimate use of force and legal jurisdiction — were subsequently spread around the world by imperial conquest.” 

Surely a failed state also cannot claim to exercise a healthy democracy? While democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy and that democracy does not belong to any country or region; democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of life. As is the case here in Mzansi, you only have to look at this Heritage Month and see how diverse we are as a people. Beautiful.

I have written previously that we have satisfied (achieved) the big issues and what I meant by this was that we have achieved:

  • A Constitution and Bill of Rights;
  • The separation of the three arms of state;
  • An independent judiciary;
  • An independent Fourth Estate (media);
  • Regular free and fair elections nationally and locally; and
  • A most transparent government budget process.

When looking at independent analysis of progress over the past 25 years, the South African Institute of Race Relations presented an independent report on progress since 1994 titled The Silver Lining. In it, the institute demonstrated various success stories that have generally improved the lives of ordinary South Africans, be it infrastructure, housing, electricity and water provision, education and so much more. It is for this reason that I argue that in order to further consolidate our young democracy, we need to concentrate on the small issues:

  • The interpersonal skills between me and you;
  • Race issues that remain present;
  • Gender matters with GBV and femicide out of control; and
  • Cultural considerations.

One other element of a successful state is the degree of transparency and openness. Nicky Roberts, a mathematics education professor at the University of Johannesburg, who, in referring to the reopening of public schools during the Covid-19 period, wrote in Daily Maverick:

“The last few weeks have seen our vibrant democracy in action. Our education departments consulted and made plans. The plan was revised based on feedback from health experts. Our Minister of Basic Education made announcements. Parents expressed themselves in public and private. Five trade unions and three SGB associations raised formal objections to the plan. Press briefings were delayed. Plans were adjusted. One province insisted on opening their schools. Courts were petitioned. Legal cases were heard. It is not easy. And no process is perfect. Many remain voiceless. There is no on-off switch for schooling. The question of whether or not to reopen schools under Covid-19 has presented multiple dilemmas.”

Multiple dilemmas indeed, but no one can deny that as a democratic state, this does constitute a fairly transparent and open process. 

Another charge usually put forward to somehow demonstrate that SA is moving towards a failed state is the control or non-control of our borders. Seemingly, there is a constant influx of undesirables across our northern borders, according to some. This could not be further from the truth. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic and the necessary measures put in place by our government have demonstrated to the contrary that we can close our borders and shut all airports and other ports. We can enforce a curfew and the movement of people throughout the country and so much more. 

Yes, I hear you saying, but what about all our challenges to date, the three priorities the president spoke of recently? Getting through the Covid-19 pandemic, fixing the ailing economy of SA and combating corruption at every turn. These do not constitute a failed state, simply a struggling state.

Hence, the revolutionary duty remains that all of us must do our part to help fix the state. I am of course encouraged to learn from the president that an economic recovery plan has been agreed upon between the social partners at Nedlac and cannot wait to see what they have in store for us as a country.

It was Thabo Mbeki who said: “trying times need courage and resilience, our strength as a people is not tested during the best of times, as said before, we should never be despondent because the weather is bad, nor should we turn triumphalist because the sun shines”.

Let’s stop with the useless labels and rather focus our attention on doing good — “just do right, you don’t have to ask anybody, the truth is right”. It may not be expedient, according to Maya Angelou, it may not be profitable, but it will satisfy your soul. She directs us to try to live our lives in a way that we won’t regret, not a life of useless virtue, inertia and timidity. Take up the battle, take it up. 

As to whether South Africa is a failed or failing state, this remains a fallacy. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    A non-failed state can operate it’s airline. And educate it’s children. And build modern hospitals. And jail it’s criminals. And, and, and….

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    A state is a failed state by definition of it lacks capacity in its public service and institutions . Without educated honest non-political administration, even with the best constitution and policies, the state can not function.

  • Sergio CPT says:

    Dear Oscar – I find your piece disingenuous to say the least. It is only thanks to a line being drawn in the sand that the anc was brought to their senses, kicking and screaming, for the sole reason of fearing a loss of power. This was most definitely not initiated by them, but forced upon them and thanks ONLY to the media and brave journalists, the many NGO’s, religious bodies, the judiciary and the public at large that were and are still gatvol with the Zuma & co shenanigans and the very anc that shielded, protected him and turned a blind eye for all those years. You waxed lyrical about that piece from Mr Landsman on what has been done to date. All well/good and there is some light at the end of the tunnel, but to date not one of these thieves and scoundrels, who are sitting in Parliament heading committees or in charge at Luthuli House have been arrested, never mind account for their robbery and paid any monies back. Yet the minute Joe-citizen does something wrong, the full might of the law comes down hard on them. We became within a whisker in perpetuating the grand-scale and devastating theft of SA had Dlamini-Zuma won instead of Cyril. SA is very much a failing state – ask the millions upon millions of our people who have no jobs, well before the pandemic, and who live in abject poverty and misery. We are bankrupt and we have been downgraded to junk status. If that is not gross failure, then what is? The slippery slide started with the arms deal – instead of spending money on housing, schools, hospitals etc., we spent it on arms, as if anyone was or is going to attack us. Get it into your head that the recent and current anc is completely different to the original noble one, who had the respect of just about the whole population. This anc is nothing but predatory, parasitic and a mafia/patronage-run criminal and thieving syndicate. I’m not saying that we are beyond hope, it will be an arduous task to right the ship, but please see reality for what it is.

  • Mr Ilitirit says:

    IMO, calling SA a failed or failing state is far more useful than pretending that we only need to concentrate on the “small issues”. The government of the ANC has in many very significant ways failed the country, and it’s very clear that the situation is not getting any better regardless of their lip service. Anyone who cannot see that is either blind, and/or willfully ignorant, or just simply a liar. And if we are prepared to acknowledge the immense failures of our government (as opposed to pretending that they don’t exist) then at least we are better prepared to deal with it.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.