Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 28 April 2021

The writing is on the wall: The good ship South Africa is on course to become a Greek tragedy

South Africa is stuck in the wild and treacherous waters of the Strait of Messina – too scared to turn left or right, and with a political class that cannot decide whether it wants to go backwards or forwards.

Ismail Lagardien

Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

For the better part of a decade I have contested the idea that South Africa is a “failed state”, and I still believe that it is not. Well, not yet anyway. Over the medium term, say the next 25 years, the country may well continue to slide towards being a failed state. I have, nevertheless, long ago lost hope for a better future for the current and the next generation. The exceptions are those who have wrapped themselves in a fleece of gold

As we passed the 27th year of democracy and freedom in South Africa this week, the country continues to resemble a listing ship, veering from left to right, and unable to make its way through the Strait of Messina of Greek mythology. The ship’s passage, its captain, more specifically, and with good reason, seems to be fearful of being sucked into the whirlpool of Radical Economic Transformation (RET), and the slow drag, from the opposite side, of looming elections, a fractious and restive society, and a National Prosecuting Authority that, with good reason, cannot seem to round up the demons fast enough. The captain appears undecided whether to go forward or backward, and so the ship is stuck in the strait, with demons waiting to destroy the good ship South Africa.

The sunshine of joy blinded everyone to what lay waiting

Like the crew of Jason’s mythical Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, South Africans were filled with joy and optimism as they set out in 1994 (and when the new Constitution was adopted by Parliament), but were blind to the dangers that lurked ahead: the mighty whirlpool and the six-headed monster that lurked in and along the Strait of Messina. Like Jason and the Argonauts, South Africans face betrayal by the ruling alliance and the politics of revenge promoted by the EFF and the RET faction. And as do all Greek myths, it all could, for South Africans, end in tragedy… 

While several commentators or trolls may want to roll out the “failed state” trope, and while evidence mounts that we may be heading in that direction, South Africa is not a failed state. Not yet, anyway, but the weakening of the judiciary is an ominous sign, when added to institutions that are typically evaluated as indices of state failure – or a state’s strength and stability. As the insightful Professor Balthazar stated this week, “the signs that the country will slide ever further from a country based on freedom, dignity and equality are there for us to see. The dream may not simply be deferred. It could be destroyed if civil society is not especially vigilant.” There is no gain in arguing with that.

What we have to do is look at the indices that are typically used to determine whether a state has failed. These indices typically include: increasing demographic pressures; large-scale movement of refugees, or internally displaced persons with resultant humanitarian emergencies; vengeance-seeking groups, grievances or group paranoia; chronic and sustained human flight, especially a brain drain; uneven economic development that tends to favour certain groups; sharp and/or severe economic decline; criminalisation and/or delegitimisation of the state; progressive deterioration of public services; the suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law with widespread violations of human rights; security apparatus operating as a “state within a state”; the rise of factionalised elites, and the intervention of other states, external political actors; and an increase of paramilitarism.

Among these indices there is, indeed, cause for concern. For instance, the Economic Freedom Fighters represent the politics of revenge, and are surreptitiously undermining the legitimacy of the state and the judiciary. AfriForum and other minority groups under a loosely defined rubric of “coloured politics” continue to raise grievances and reflect group paranoia (as evidenced in the myth of a white genocide). We are experiencing two types of brain drain. One is that people with skills (mostly white people who acquired valuable skills during apartheid) are leaving, while others are simply dismissed and replaced by people with questionable skills, or engineers with fake qualifications

There has been a marked deterioration of public service. Economic development, according to the last census, has confirmed that whites are better off today than they were for decades, and significantly better off than black, Indian or coloured people. It is also clear that we have a highly factionalised elite, and by one account the country has experienced a significant economic decline (at least of Gross Domestic Product) that is the worst in 100 years. In short, we are stuck in the wild and treacherous waters of the Strait of Messina – too scared to turn left or right, and with a political class that cannot decide whether it wants to go backwards or forwards.

The signs are clear that we are slouching towards failure

Against all of that as a backdrop, we can pick at five specific things to get a more immediate sense of where we are as a state. Before doing that, it would be sloppy if I were not to mention that there are no general transhistorical laws (or perhaps even practices) governing the concrete role of the state in capitalism. We are, after all, a capitalist country. We are just too scared to admit it. Such general laws are merely postulates of particular political ideologies. We may want to avoid simply reproducing these ideologies uncritically, but rather to explore the state’s role in specific historical and geopolitical contexts. It’s not outlandish to say that most African states were born in state failure.

Let us, then, zoom in on those five things, and see how we’re doing. 

First, leadership. My understanding is that we have the best president available, and the best since the start of the Mbeki era. But he does not appear to have a firm grip on his leadership. I could be wrong, but only Cyril Ramaphosa will be able to explain that. When we consider “leadership” as more than just the president, we are in trouble. I will use a silly analogy to explain what I think Ramaphosa’s problem is: You can’t soar like an eagle when you’re stuck in the mud with turkeys.

Then there is the military. South Africa has a military, but somebody has to say it: You need military personnel who can march in straight lines; who know a left from a right turn. You need junior military personnel to take instructions – even if such instructions are given by an “Indian”. You also need to place the demands of national service before that of your trade union. 

The other institution is the police. Nothing has changed since Professor Tom Lodge of Wits University wrote in 1997 that the police are the most corrupt institution in South Africa. Today, the public simply do not trust the South African Police Service

The civil service works when individual public servants want to. One reason for the lack of public service delivery is precisely the absence of ethics, urgency and professionalism in the public service. 

The final focus is the judiciary. 

When the judiciary falls, our days are numbered

Until a year or two ago, it would have been safe to say that South Africa’s judiciary was stronger, and more independent than it had ever been. But constant attempts to undermine the judiciary, mainly by the EFF and former president Jacob Zuma, and serious allegations of malpractices in a small group of judges reflect a judiciary that is descending into the swamp that is South African politics. 

Judith February pointed out, “[Chief Justice Mogoeng] Mogoeng’s failure to halt the intemperate questions by Malema to Judge Pillay that caused the [JSC] interview process to descend into a farce…. ‘I am going to argue in a closed session that you are nothing but a political activist. You are no judge, and you deserve no high office,’ Malema told Judge Pillay.” 

During the same process, February wrote, “Advocate Thandazani Griffiths Madonsela SC asked whether candidate Lawrence Lever SC’s observation of the sabbath would interfere with his judicial duties. Lever responded that he did not observe the sabbath but he had always performed his duties as required and that the same would be true for judges of other religious persuasions.”

In a gradation of state failure, with Somalia being the ultimate case of state collapse, South Africa is a long way down the road, but nowhere near failure. When I visited Somalia and Liberia for research in the early 1990s, before I went to Rwanda, Mogadishu barely had a police officer, or a public official behind a desk. 

I hate to sound Panglossian, but South Africa is not a failed state. However, the hope we had in 1994 – like the way the sun sets at the end of every day, and we are assured that there will be a tomorrow – has been fading fast and things are not quite working out the way they were meant to. DM


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All Comments 23

  • I lost interest at the part where the author says that the current brain drain is largely persons leaving the country who gained their skills during the apardheid era. WTF? 27 years plus the decade to qualify/gain sufficient skills to be so called ‘brain’, that person is around the 55 yr old mark.

    • ..continued.. What nonsense. If we cant get past seeing fully why we are failing and not always falling back on the never ending ‘blame apartheid’ game, then I for one do believe there is no turning back from the inevitable failed state outcome.

      • I totally agree. My son’s generation of “born frees” are emigrating at an alarming rate because they feel there is no future for them as white South Africans.
        Their new countries are welcoming them and their skills / qualifications with open arms. THAT’S where our future is going.

    • Exactly my sentiment. At least the ‘apart-hate’ brain drain is voluntary. The scary part is the second bunch who get kicked out forcefully because the are (mostly) the ‘wrong colour’ and then get replaced by incompetent anc cadres. And some people seem to believe that is okay!?

    • I agree, silly comment. The brain-drain is the early 30 somethings. They had to COMPETE to get qualified and are now being head-hunted by overseas companies yet spurned locally. Old people educated during apartheid are not sought after, so the statement is inaccurate and spoils a good article.

    • Absolutely agree. We, the educated 55 years and older and are going nowhere. Whatever we have managed to save in retirement savings is worth very little abroad were we to leave now. Contemplating retirement with the track record of this government is frightening. Where are we going to be in 10 years time?

    • Totally agree I came here from the UK. In 1972 mechanical engineers qualification. Now a retired man sons have emigrated with decent education and without hope for a job here. I’m 71 and a fully fledged citizen here since I was able to get it. No I’m not running my children are.

  • This article is like reading Wilbur Smith’s latest novel…”The legacy of war” with a heading …..”A family in turmoil. A country in ruins”.

  • Sigh … Ismail, but what would you find to write about if things had gone the way you wanted? And stop bellyaching about the irrelevant EFF. Malema is nothing more than the nation’s public toy boy. Ignore him for long enough and he’ll go away and sulk in a corner.

  • The fact that the writer finds it necessary to use Somalia & Liberia in the 1990s as comparisons to reinforce the view that South Africa is not a failed state, says it all……

  • Ismail, this country has been a failed state since 2007 when a corrupt person became president. What happened in 13 years can’t be fixed with the snap of fingers. Blaming Whites for this failure of the state is most unfortunate. I guess soon you will also imply that Whites caused Covid-19.

    • “What happened in thirteen years can’t be fixed with the snap of the fingers”. True. But apparently you believe that what happened over 350 years of slavery, colonialism and Apartheid (all imposed by the whites you don’t wish to blame) should no longer have any effect. Double standards at work ?

      • Not at all Cedric…to the contrary. But the main emphasis in the article is about a failed state during the 13 years following Zuma’s election as ANC president. Until and when Mbeki was fired as president of the country we’ve seen growth. State capture and corruption destroyed all…not the Whites

  • While we may not be a failed state, we certainly are a failing one, iow in the process of becoming a failed state. Thats bad enough. What’s worse is we have no viable political alternative. The leadership cupboard is full of bare bones. That’s the real depressing thing.

  • The fault lies with the ANC’s view of Society. The obsession with historically failed Soviet – type analysis of S.A.’s past. Hence the Cuban Engineers , EWC, BBEE, and other measures that erode the economic base. The litany of failed S.O.E.’s speaks Volumes to a deaf ANC.

  • If The Media trash the opposition we will end up in a one party state. Time to support the opposition and that INCLUDES THE DA! If you do not like the ANC just vote for a non-racist, democratic party.

  • I want to know what are the good reasons why the NPA can’t round up the bad guys fast enough.
    What would the observable difference be if Ms Batohi and the rest of management went on extended sabbatical on compassionate grounds since the task is beyond them and shame, it must be causing stress?

  • Ismael, I fixed your intro: ” … and with a political class that cannot stop stealing“. Why would you say “most African states were born in state failure”?

  • Good article. Commentary concerning when skills were acquired is not relevant. The fact is that race based policies are destroying hope for the poor, as those who can create jobs NOW are being thwarted at every turn. ANC learn from the mistakes that most post colonial African countries have made.

  • Sad that nine words in parenthesis (nogal), succeeds in getting most opinions to rush off to hiding behind the old trope “all he does is blame apartheid”. I agree, the current brain drain is that of young people, but the brain drain itself is a 20+ year phenomenon. The article say so much more…

  • What a sad “affairs of the state” and the allowance by Justice Mogoeng of an attack by Malema on Judge Pillay because of his (Malema) inbred hate of Indians were despicable! If this is a glimpse of what the future holds for the judiciary…and add the RET Clan to that attack…be vigilant…

  • Obviously the ANC is not fit to govern, yet they will probably continue to do so and lead the country to ruin. But the even more frightening thing is that there is not a single credible leader emerging post Ramaphosa.


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