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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