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Lost in transformation, the state lurches from crisis to crisis while communities keep the country going


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.

We seem to have reached a point where the haves and the have-nots have simply given up on the state. As a crisis state, the liberation movement that governs runs around dousing flames among its followers, recycling politicians with sticky fingers and continues to mainline on second-hand toxicants.

I wrote a bit of a screed a few years ago in which I suggested that the people of South Africa were doing more to keep the country going than the state was. I would provide a link to that article, but I am a bit embarrassed by it… 

The main contention at the time was somewhat hyperbolic. To be sure, the state, such as it is or was, does provide public goods, like traffic lights, paved roads, public transport, healthcare and education, a police force and a military — among many others.

Nonetheless, today the liberation movement in government seems lost in a maze. It continues to operate and function within inherited spaces and patterns of government, generally doing statecraft the way Bono does poverty and hunger. In the meantime, it is increasingly apparent that the people of South Africa simply carry on with their lives and are ignoring the liberation movement. 

Think about the things that are most functional and it is clear that it is communities of practice, communities that share multiple affiliations across social and historical divides, epistemic communities and especially the independent media that keep South Africa going while the state is in constant crisis mode.

This crisis state is a direct result of what the ruling elite has lost in transformation, and what appears (at least to me), a gradual loss of ideas after the first 10-12 years of democracy. 

This is by no means an appeal for anarchy, for a minimalist libertarian state, for the redundancy of the state, nor is it an argument for the irrelevance or obsolescence of the state. Somalia in the 1990s and early 2000s is the poster child for all of that.

There is little better than an open society with the values, policy objectives and practices of a strong social democracy and with necessarily strong social safety nets for the poor, the needy and the unemployed, as well as strong buffers to protect society from the worst impact(s) of recurrent economic, financial or currency crises. But, I don’t use this space to discuss my global political-economic interests…  

The crisis state in action

So, South Africa has a state. That’s just a fact. Rickety as it may appear most of the time, the state provides basic public goods and services to most people. The problem (there are three main ones), of course, is that this provision of basic public goods has come at high costs because of rent-seeking; it has failed horribly in very many sectors and this has resulted in a bifurcation of the political economy of society.

All the while, the state hops from one crisis to another, most of which are self-inflicted. Whether it’s Prasa, Eskom, Denel or SAA (the list is long) the crises that are the defining features of these state-owned enterprises or agencies — all of which can and ought to benefit society — can be laid at the door of the crisis state.  

This state may be likened to a fire station. The brigade sits around all day cleaning the fire engines, servicing machinery, playing cards and, well, waiting for the next crisis. Today the crisis is a child drowning in a pit latrine, tomorrow it is an escalation of murders on the Cape Flats or in rural communities — it is difficult to shake the horrific memories of the cruelty and brutality in the murders of Uyinene Mrwetyana and Hillary Gardee — the next day it is shameless graft and maladministration, and through it all we have interruptions of the energy supply that are naught for the comfort of all, with very little incentive for production and industrial investment and expansion. The crisis state seems quite unable to roll back any of the structural causes of these crises.  

Parenthetically, when we discuss the banking crisis, it is usually said that when one bank fails, it is a problem with that (one) bank. When two banks fail, it may be because of contagion mechanisms or relations between the banks or the (bad) practices they share, but when all banks, or 20 banks, fail at the same time it is a systemic problem. I remember focusing on the corralito financial crisis of 2001-02 when people in Argentina were unable to access their personal bank accounts for almost a year.  

This may seem a tangential reference, but we best keep it in mind when we consider the accumulation of crises and when we are lulled into complacency by brief periods of calm while structural issues are never resolved. That, said Diego Sánchez-Ancochea, a professor of political economy and the head of the Oxford Department for International Development, (it may have been last year) is because the structural imperfections (at least in Argentina) never went away.

South Africa faces, then, an accumulation of crises and the liberation movement in government can do no more than attempt to manage these crises — which are of their own doing. 

Bifurcation is a prime example

The high levels of rent-seeking (corruption and State Capture), and collapsed or crippled state-owned enterprises and agencies have been in the news for a few years. While we should not be tempted to ignore them, the one development that the crisis state has presided over, and which may well gain momentum in the coming years, is the bifurcation of society.

This bifurcation is essentially the age-old division of haves and have-nots. In South Africa the haves can afford to spend money on the best medical care and education, live in fortified estates — some historical perspective is useful: communities have established walled cities since the Middle Ages — and drift towards self-reliance.  

The crisis state seems to have run out of ideas (and money) to do more for the have-nots than it did during the first 10-12 years of democracy. This is when the issue of growth should be evaluated seriously in the context of distribution. You can have all the growth and stability — or a surplus for that matter — you could wish for, but it does not amount to a hill of beans when all those gains are misspent, mismanaged or simply stolen.

We have a situation today with multiple informal micro-enterprises, piece-jobs, scavenging (metal to sell to buy food), or using parts of built infrastructure (door and window frames, sheet metal, and so on) to erect informal housing.  

We seem to have reached a point where the haves and the have-nots have simply given up on the state. As a crisis state, the liberation movement that governs is running around dousing flames among its followers, recycling politicians with sticky fingers and continuing to mainline on second-hand toxicants; the faded lights of what may have been good ideas in an earlier era. The people of South Africa seem to have given up on the state and are simply getting on with their lives.  

Civil society, activist and community groups, churches, companies, manufacturers and a range of communities of practice, communities that share multiple affiliations, variations of epistemic communities and independent media outlets are carrying the country forward.  

The conclusion from all this — which I hope has some clarity — must be read with extreme caution and intellectual honesty. The liberation movement as a crisis state and the continuing decoupling or aloofness from the publicum (the recipients of public goods and services) while it is running around fighting with itself should not be mistaken, nor compared irresponsibly with the 2019 shutting down of government in the US, or when Belgium went without a government for almost 600 days in 2018. As it goes, and also in 2018, Italy was described by La Stampa as simply “ungovernable” for the rate at which it had to build new governments on the remains of collapsed predecessors.  

Consider the fact that since 1945, Italy has had about 69 governments, yet that country remains in the influential G7, like them or not, and is currently the eighth-largest economy, based on per capita gross domestic product. We can dispute the value of GDP as a measure of economic success at another time. Italy is also one of the longest-serving members of the G7 since its founding in 1975 (when it was the G8 — Russia was expelled from the group in 2014 in response to its annexation of Crimea).

There was an attempt to invite South Africa to attend G8 meetings in around 2005/06, but that failed to come to fruition. Perhaps a prescient someone had visions of an impending presidency led by Jacob Zuma and the G8 (at the time) changed its mind.

In each of the three cases, governments collapsed, and came and went like our ubiquitous minibus taxis, but society carried on. The problem that South Africa faces is that the liberation movement in government is not going anywhere any time soon. It has to be stressed that these societies, never mind their domestic problems, have been “settled” for at least a couple of centuries. 

As for South Africa, the best that can be hoped for is some sort of coalition following the next general election, but we have to be careful what we wish for; any future coalition could be made up of the liberation movement, including its radical formations and the Economic Freedom Fighters. Should this come to pass, it’s hard to see the ANC sharing power with anyone that it cannot control. It’s harder still to see EFF leader Julius Malema taking orders from anyone…

Until then, South African citizens and the people who live in this country are on their own. They go about their days to put food on the table, most have given up on the state — or so it seems anyway — and others have lost interest in the liberation movement’s battles among themselves which seem like a joke that has no punchline. DM



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  • SA a is society that is completely out of balance. To re balance the country we need equal participation in the democratic process by the public and private sectors as well as by civil society. In addition, healthy families are the anchors of a function society and healthy communities are the anchors of a functioning country. Unfortunately both families (most?) and communities are anything but health.
    However, with a bottom-up approach by creating healthy communities a first step towards a functioning country can be taken. I am not talking from a theoretical point of view, but from practical experience. I am involved with a group of committed citizens that operates under the motto: “To co-create and foster socioeconomically vibrant communities with agriculture at its core”. The smallholder farming sector we work with is fertile ground for this change to happen.

  • It might even be worse than we think. I see the ANC of today as a virus (COVID helped me here) that has infected the State. State Capture should not be seen as a product of a faction of the ANC, but as a general policy of the liberation movement. We all know that the ANC makes no distinction between Party and State, and it is debatable whether they even recognise this as a conundrum. I would guess that the Italian State didn’t fail without a government because it was not infected via cadre deployment and a (Stalinist) need to control. Mature democracies know that unfettered interference in the State is bad for the health of the State, Government and democracy. If, at this point, we are not actually a failed state, the State is failing us, without doubt, and even a new Government will in all probability be unable to correct the State with immediate effect because it is terminally infected with cadres who are not qualified nor interested in running the State for the people.

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