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