No, South Africa is not a failed state … not yet, anyway


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.

What logic should we follow? What evidence should we look at to determine whether or not South Africa is a failed state? Or maybe we should simply believe our eyes.

It feels as if I have been swimming against the tides of commentary and opinion about South Africa being a failed state for several years. See here, here, here, and here for some of the pieces I have written on the topic in this space. I still don’t believe that South Africa is a failed state, least of all because of the Wall Street-Washington Axis’s late 20th-century power to “certify” failed, weak, fragile, collapsed, rogue or quasi-states. While each of these “definitions” differ, one from the other, they have in common the fact that they are, for the most part, post-colonial states, and Washington’s “power to certify” invariably clears a path for various interventions. 

Having said that, the quasi-militarism of South African society by the various political factions, increased violence accompanying service delivery protests and land occupations, and violent confrontations between black and white parents at schools are a cause for deep concern.

Let’s look briefly at the self-awarded licence to intervene in sovereign countries by first defining them as something perverse and out of step with Western civilisation. This is not dissimilar to the “othering” of people before attacking them. These interventions range from selective investments, often in military spheres, but also key infrastructure builds (I found it curious, in 2006, that one of the first major investments in collapsed Somalia was a gleaming new Coca-Cola plant, which, not unexpectedly, had Muslim fundamentalists frothing at the mouth for all the wrong reasons); representations that enable policies, from economic sanctions (Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe), to invasions, occupations or regime change (Iraq, Afghanistan), and, further back, the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Iran (Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953), Chile (Salvador Allende in 1973), and proxy wars during the 1970s and 1980s in Southeast Asia, across Africa and Latin America. 

In particular, when I recall the US-led dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia and the commentary by James Bovard (author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny) about what he described as “America’s Bullshit Bombing of Serbia”, I am reminded of Colin Powell’s declaration, in February 2001, that the US had the right and a “responsibility to protect the United States and our friends and allies from rogue states”. So you unilaterally certify a state as being “rogue”, which gives you sufficient cause to invade or bomb them from the skies, because you’re too shit scared to send boots on the ground. Or, as in Somalia, they might not have potable water, so let them drink Coke. All of that, I would be so bold as to say, is what we have come to expect from the US, and they’re really good at it.

The Nobel Laureate in Literature, Saul Bellow, wrote in one of his novels that a leader of a developing country complained that Washington’s military adventures were robbing the country of its future by dispossessing it of its past. Mark Twain, in A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, insisted that pre-industrial society had to be destroyed to save it from itself. And so, wrote Norman Mailer, Americans were “the most Faustian, barbaric, draconian, progress-oriented and root destroying people on earth”. We get, then, to the US commander who, on 8 February 1968 bombed the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre without regard for civilian casualties. When he was asked why he destroyed almost everything in sight, he replied: “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” Consider the state in which the US left Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, in an attempt to “save” these countries, each one of which is, in conventional Washington-speak, now a “failed” or “collapsed” state. 

Who gets to declare that a state has failed?

What logic, then, should we follow? What evidence should we look at to determine whether or not South Africa (or any African or Asian country) is a failed state? Last week, I referred to the near complete absence of trust, but that that was difficult to measure or observe with the senses. At an empirical (surface) level the evidence of government failures is widespread. From reliable sources, vast swathes of Johannesburg – situated, as it has been since its founding, on some of the richest seams of gold on the planet – including areas like Mayfair, Hillbrow and Yeoville, are either crumbling or have descended into ungovernability and chaos.

“The decay that was once the preserve of smaller towns such as Makhanda and Mthatha, as well as provincial cities such as East London and Pietermaritzburg, has now arrived in the metropolis [Johannesburg],” writes the editorial team of New Frame.

I was born in Vrededorp, 10m or so from the main train lines that brought people in and out of the great city, but Johannesburg is no longer a city of trains. The Group Areas Act would later move us to Eldorado Park, where we spent our lives between Kliptown, Lenasia and Noordgesig. Later, still, I would live in Yeoville. Like the devil itself, it is almost as if I have left behind me a trail of death and destruction.

Across this once great city, “the tracks and stations were first abandoned and then ripped up for scrap. Pavements are crumbling, drains uncovered, roads full of potholes. There are piles of rotting rubbish in some neighbourhoods. For many, to be impoverished means wintering in a shack, burning plastic in a brazier to keep warm and possibly facing eviction. Even in the suburbs it is no longer unusual to spend a winter evening without water or power. The police are frequently just another group of armed thugs….” And, in the meantime, the middle classes are barricaded into fortified homes or gated communities, many planning their exit or working to get their children out of the country. 

All of this is so terribly reminiscent of Georgetown, Guyana, public services are virtually non-existent and those in government look out only for each other. And, as I explained in this space previously, a 2003 survey of 1,700 Guyanese high school students, found that 59% said they intended to leave Guyana permanently within 10 years.

We have reached a point then where Makhanda, Mthatha, East London, Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg (including Hillbrow, Yeoville and Mayfair and outlying areas like Eldorado Park), as well as the Cape Flats have become outdoor torture chambers and veritable killing fields. Add to this the state’s inability, inertia or outright fear of addressing at least one of the layered causes of breakdown. 

State and society held to ransom

There are at least two levels at which the state is held to ransom. One is discussed selectively, the other privately. Selectively spoken is the militarisation of South African society. This sounds hyperbolic, but there is sufficient evidence to substantiate that claim. Earlier this month, the ANC’s National Working Committee confirmed the disbandment of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association, and supported a process of amalgamating it with the rival MK National Council. That may look like a progressive move, but it is a spineless effort to keep a paramilitary movement alive. The Constitution is specific that the South African National Defence Force is the only lawful military force in the country. In the meantime, the Economic Freedom Fighters periodically display their own paramilitary formation. Meanwhile, in KwaZulu-Natal there is talk of “Zulu regiments”.

Axiomatically stated, there is no room in a constitutional democracy for a multiplicity of military or paramilitary forces. However, the government is either unwilling, unable or just too scared to ban paramilitary forces in the country. They simply dance around the issue.

In whispers, most people are aware that the housing crisis, which runs deep in society, is intimately tied to the issue of land (re-)distribution and, whether we like it or not, together they are a massive threat to stability and any pretence of cohesiveness. On the surface, it goes something like this (bearing in mind the historical housing and land crises and the reality of urbanisation): You move anywhere you want to in the country, find an empty space, build an informal house – if you can call it a house – then protest, often violently, because you live in a shack with no electricity, indoor plumbing or potable water. 

One outcome, often with deadly outcomes, is electricity theft, which might provide some help to shack dwellers but compounds South Africa’s energy crisis. In a paper written by Jamil Ddamulira Mujuzi, a professor of law at the University of Western Cape, he concludes that: “Eskom has lost billions of rands in annual revenue owing to electricity theft. Different strategies are in place to combat electricity theft. However, in South Africa, electricity theft is not a statutory offence. This contrasts with the approach adopted in countries such as China, Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand.”

Are we there yet?

So, if we ignore the conventional Western definitions of failed, collapsed or quasi-states, we are left with evidence of our own failures, much of which points to a ruling elite that neither has the courage nor the ability to do something about the myriad problems that beset South Africa. 

The state seems too scared to demand that people pay for electricity, lest there is a mass uprising, or because it’s a violation of people’s rights to receive free homes, water and electricity. The state is too busy with other things (don’t ask me what) to start a block-by-block clean-up and rejuvenation of what was once one of the great cities in the Southern Hemisphere. Imagine the state starting at one end of, say, Hillbrow, clearing out hijacked blocks of flats – whose owners have long ago abandoned the building and left the country or given up collecting rent – refurbishing them and letting them out. It’s not going to happen. The fightback will be too difficult to handle. Cutting off the electricity supply of people who refuse to pay, or clearing out hijacked buildings will give the EFF’s militancy fresh opportunities to manipulate the emotions of disaffected people (or people affected by the state’s demands for payment for electricity supply). 

We may say, then, that South Africa is not a failed state. Not yet, anyway. Though, on the surface, what we actually see around us every day is a police force that nobody trusts, groups of paramilitary types playing war games, some of which are led by self-appointed commanders-in-chief, and a national defence force that can barely defend its own installations. There are towns, cities and infrastructure that are crumbling. People are electrocuting themselves while making illegal connections. Others are finding plots of vacant land on which to build homes, and soon will either be moved by the state or they will protest against non-delivery of service – either way, there will be violence. 

The state can do something about all of these things, in theory. But how do you tell someone they cannot build themselves a home, or destroy the illegally built home? How do you tell people they cannot make illegal electricity connections, when people need to warm and feed themselves? How do you tell people to vacate a block of flats they hijacked, when they have nowhere else to go? How do you stop a wayward bullet from killing an innocent child during a housing protest or during a gang war

There are times when the enormity of the task is foreboding, and there are times when it seems like the state has given up completely, and our leaders are simply looking the other way. And we have not factored in the rise of identity politics and the retreat into ethnicity, or “culture” around the country. DM


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 13

  • This is a good explanation: ”
    Naazneen H. Barma
    Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif. Director, Bridging the Gap Project.

    Failed state, a state that is unable to perform the two fundamental functions of the sovereign nation-state in the modern world system: it cannot project authority over its territory and peoples, and it cannot protect its national boundaries. The governing capacity of a failed state is attenuated such that it is unable to fulfill the administrative and organizational tasks required to control people and resources and can provide only minimal public services. Its citizens no longer believe that their government is legitimate, and the state becomes illegitimate in the eyes of the international community.”

    Our borders are not protected; law and order is applied sparingly and selectively; State authority is not respected, neither by the cadres nor the opposition; service delivery has failed on both macro and micro level; party and state is one and the same and cannot oversee nor correct itself.


  • A weak ago a was severely critical of your article regarding “trust” in the Government. Not because of your main point, but your deviation from it to suddenly makes the suggestion that Whites immigrate to specific countries because they are racist, and those specific countries because they are sympathetic to Whites. I regarded that as pure nonsense.
    Now today, you publish another article, this one asking the question if South Africa is a failed state. I was wonderfully surprised, as not only is this an excellent article, but a lot of thought and analysis went into it.
    I applaud you, as well as the comment by Christoph Lombard. How I wish I had a way with words that you have, as I barely passed my language courses in matric.
    How dearly do I miss my social young and middle adulthood in the nineties, in the City of Johannesburg. Spending endless hours in Rocky Street and YFM radio station (a client of my company at the time) in Yeoville, mixing with people of all races, cultures, languages and opinions. Johannesburg was THE city, the hub, Cape Town a mere international and local tourist attraction.
    But once again I digress. Good as your article is, it is most depressing. Unlike myself, the youth of today are deprived of so many things, and once the pandemic is under control, they, of all races, will flee. Why, because the country IS a failed state, has been since Zuma was voted in as president by the ANC. The corrupt will remain off course, as there is a safe haven for them

    • If the names are anything to go by, like most of the rest of the cynical commentators, you will continue to be ‘surprised’ by the reflexivity of the author’s writing and thinking ! For the simple reason that your ‘world view’ and values are informed by a particular ‘identity’, which you have great difficulty in separating from thinking. As per the article, you simply need to look at the ‘great’ USA, where Republicans tell citizens not believe what they ‘see’ (insurrection 6 Jan) with their eyes …but what they ‘tell’ you (a picnic of patriots) to see ! And … they even have blackface without blackface Tim Scott (from cotton field to Congress fame) telling them the same ! Remember the Matanzimas, Alan Hendrickses and Rajbansis et al in our midst not so long ago?

  • Hey Ismail,
    Don’t be so harsh! The ANC is working very hard to make it a failed state and just needs a little more time.

    • Ha ha ha now you’re talking. If Ismail still lives in Lalaland and believes that SA is not yet a failed state, he will soon wake up to reality.

  • Of the three pillars the SA Constitution has tasked the State to maintain, namely 1) Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms;
    2) Non-racialism and non-sexism in our society; and
    3) Supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law; only the last one is still standing, albeit it on its knees. That indicates to me that our state is failing us. In terms of Governance, there is no argument that the State is failing hopelessly. In fact, the State in its present state, can well be described as the enemy of the people. In terms of Sovereignty – imho an overrated mechanism to protect the State’s excesses – our State uses violence to extend authority; its security agencies (the Defence Force, SAP and Intelligence Agencies) are dysfunctional, two of the above being criminal organisations; and for all intents and purposes unable to protect our borders and the people. I haven’t even mentioned water, power, education, transport, infrastructure, social services, health, conservation…. all tenets of Governance are failing. The ONLY thing that stands between this failing State being declared an outright failed State is the precarious hold of the Judiciary. In any case, the declaration of a state reaching ‘failed state’ status is retrospective, and quite honestly, a moot point. I am far more interested in stopping the state’s failure than knowing when it can be declared such.

    • Well, it’s debatable whether your #3’s still standing:it’s been 2 1/2 months and Zuma’s contempt case, a no-brainer, not ruled on…

  • NO,we the people,will not hand over our country to those who want to destroy it.We will hold these inepts accountable thru DM and other civil organisations.We will not rest until those who abuse our trust are shoveling in orange overalls.The millions of honourable,hardworking,honest and trustworthy of us will keep on and on because we have nowhere else to flee to and the generations to come must enjoy this most wonderful country on earth. God bless South Africa!

    • Mooi so Wilhelm! But who are your “we the people”? If you don’t influence the masses that keep the #ZANCsters in power, then you’re no better off than the rest of us who don’t belong to the in crowd. For starters, to turn things around – generations hence – those masses need education: you the minister of education?
      And they need grands: you control SASSA? (Asking for a friend.)

  • The ANC cannot even manage its own finances to pay their staff. It should be no surprise then that they will screw up everything else that they touch.
    Policy disasters like nationalising the SARB and EWC will ensure that SA is pushed into proper failed state territory.

    • Come to think of it, they couldn’t even maintain their own website…in this day and age?!
      Worst of it is, it made no difference. #ZANCster voters don’t need websites and definately don’t read DM!

  • I found this a profoundly depressing but rewarding read. Can you write a follow-up piece expanding on the point made in the last sentence?