Defend Truth


South Africa state institutions have been captured, looted, and left to absolute ruin


Anthony Norton is the founder and managing director of boutique regulatory law firm Nortons Inc. He is a Rhodes scholar, and has a Master’s in Law from Oxford University.

It is not possible to give a full and comprehensive account of the damage done to public institutions over the last three decades. Virtually no public institution has been left unscathed and not in some manner been compromised by attempts to use it for pecuniary gain.

April 1994 signalled the advent of democracy in South Africa and Nelson Mandela being elected as the first democratic president of the country.

The opportunity to use public institutions, which up until then had predominantly served the interests of only a small minority of the population, to serve the needs of the broader population should have been the foremost priority of the new government and should have been the key agenda item for future governments to follow.

While there can be no doubt that Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to freedom from oppression and to creating conditions for a better life for the majority of South Africans, there has been a failure by successive governments to support and foster key areas of essential public service provision in relation to areas such as education, healthcare and policing, among others.

Instead of developing and enhancing the capabilities and capacities of public institutions for the greater good, many have unfortunately seen it instead as a chance to loot and plunder for self-enrichment.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Civil society must demand a country free from the political elite’s blatant self-enrichment

As a result, the day-to-day functioning of many public institutions today is largely characterised by poor service delivery, combined with elements of corruption.

A brief overview of certain key public institutions in South Africa lays bare the extent to which they have been compromised by poor management and corruption.


In any society, observance of the law and its enforcement is one of the key foundations of any successful democracy. The South African Police Service (SAPS), was always going to be a crucial institution in a democratic society, and given its historical role in enforcing racial segregation under apartheid, it was a key institution that required fundamental reform and strong leadership.

Unfortunately, this opportunity was not used and it has been characterised by infighting, incompetence and the removal of multiple national police commissioners over the years, some of whom engaged in serious criminal activity.

The most well-known in this regard was Jackie Selebi, who was the SAPS National Commissioner from 2000 to 2008. He was found guilty of corruption in 2010 and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Subsequent to the Selebi era there have been multiple senior police officers who have been investigated for corruption and the merry-go-round of national police commissioners continues apace.

One small indication of the extent of the issues currently facing the police service, was that the national police headquarters in Pretoria was recently shut, because they were “not fit for any person to work in”. This is hardly surprising, given the extent of the dysfunction of SAPS.

Furthermore, the murder rate in the country has got progressively worse and the most recent statistics are alarming. Murder rates have reached a 20-year high with approximately 27,000 people murdered in 2022/2023.

According to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), on average, 45 people were killed every day during 2023. To put these numbers into perspective, it is estimated that somewhere between 27,000 and 30,000 people were killed during the Israeli incursion into Gaza, which is an active war zone that involved bombing by fighter jets and a full-scale military incursion.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

Judiciary challenges

The other key facet of the rule of law is the judiciary. Confidence in the court system is absolutely central to not only instilling trust in government and the day-to-day workings of civil society, but is also crucial to investor confidence in the way in which a country is perceived by external parties.

Unfortunately, the judiciary has not been immune from institutional challenges. We have recently witnessed the first two judges in South African history to be impeached. One happened to be the judge president of one of the provincial divisions of the high court.

His removal had been a long time coming, but due to the failure of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) to act with alacrity, he was allowed to continue in his post for far too long.

Indeed, one of the great shortcomings in relation to the judiciary has been the failure of successive JSCs to apply clear and objective criteria on a consistent basis in determining appointments of judges. As a result, a number of excellent candidates for judicial appointment have been overlooked and political appointees to the JSC have instead often used the interview and appointment process as an opportunity to score cheap political points.

In a judicial system which is understaffed at the most senior levels, the country cannot afford not to appoint high-quality candidates.

The situation when it comes to the lower courts such as the magistrates’ courts is even worse. In the last few weeks, the Magistrates Commission informed Parliament that it couldn’t cope with the scale of criminality by magistrates, involving issues such as bribery, corruption, gambling on duty, physical abuse et cetera.

Healthcare emergency

Another key pillar of any society is the provision of healthcare. Public healthcare in South Africa is in a very precarious state. Not only are a number of public healthcare facilities in extremely poor condition given the state of the buildings in which they are housed, but crucially they are severely understaffed and there is a critical shortage of specialists in virtually every province across the country.

Recent estimates have suggested that there are approximately three doctors for every 10,000 patients in the public sector and despite the fact that several hundred doctors have recently completed community service, they are not able to find employment in the public sector, because of a hiring freeze on new posts.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Newly qualified SA doctors shut out of jobs owing to budget constraints — union

It is concerning that government claims that there are no funds to appoint new doctors and fill vacant posts, but at the same time seem to be able to expend tens of millions of public funds on wasteful expenditure such as the so-called Digital Vibes project.

Education shortfalls

Education standards and scores are also a vital benchmark of a society’s performance and the extent to which the needs of the population are being met. Once again government’s performance in the sector is dismal.

For example, the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timms) found that South African grade 9 learners (averaging 14 to 15 years old) scored the second lowest in mathematics and the worst for science of the 39 countries that took part in the study.

Another study in 2022 found that fewer than 30% of all final-year school students take maths and only half of them pass their exams. This is just one aspect of a dysfunctional education system and it is generally the case that in many educational surveys, South Africa ranks towards the bottom of most of the countries surveyed.

Armed forces

Finally, it is worthwhile reflecting on the state of the South African military, given that it is responsible for protecting our borders and coastlines.

Recently, the Head of the Navy, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese, indicated that a large proportion of the South African Navy ships are no longer capable of going to sea, at a time when South Africa’s coastline is under threat from illegal fishing and other similar activities.

The state of the South African army is no better and has been described as in a “critical state of decline” and one which was “too poorly equipped and funded to execute the widening spectrum of tasks to the desired level”.

Indeed, much like the position in healthcare, the defence force is characterised by collapsing infrastructure and certain army bases are in such poor condition that they have been regarded as “unsuitable for human habitation”.

Irregular expenditure bites

Of course, the response by government to pointing out many of these issues is to fall back on the somewhat predictable excuse of lack of funding and that South Africa is a developing nation and lacks the resources to be able to compete with other more well-resourced countries.

While this is true at the level of generality, it fails to acknowledge the extent to which public funds and resources have been misused. The clearest indication in this regard is set out in the various annual reports of the Auditor General, which reveal some of the misuse of public funds under the labels of “fruitless and wasteful expenditure” and “irregular expenditure”.

The extent of the so-called fruitless and wasteful and irregular expenditure varies from year to year, but the common denominator is that it runs into billions of rands. The figures in this regard are simply staggering.

In respect of only one of these categories, the latest Auditor General’s report for 2022/2023 states that “putting further strain on the provincial purse was the R28.96-billion in irregular expenditure disclosed by provincial auditees in 2022-2023. The closing balance of all provincial irregular expenditure stood at R209.63-billion.”

It is not possible to give a full and comprehensive account of the damage done to public institutions over the last three decades. There are so many instances of attempts to undermine public institutions and organisations, such as the endeavour to undermine the South African Revenue Service during the Zuma administration; the virtually irreparable damage done to organisations such as the national electricity supplier, Eskom; and other entities such as Unisa, South African Airways, Denel and Transnet.

Virtually no public institution has been left unscathed and not in some manner been compromised by attempts to use it for pecuniary gain.

It is devastating that after 30 years of democracy our public institutions are in such a precarious state and that the majority of South Africa’s population is poor, has inadequate levels of education and healthcare, lives in a dangerous environment, and currently has little hope of better prospects to come.

The facts reveal an abject failure to utilise public institutions to materially enhance standards of education and healthcare for the entire population and to improve the quality and standards of policing.

At the same time, various individuals within government together with parties in the private sector have used it as an opportunity for considerable personal gain. It has suited these individuals that the key institutions to maintain the law have not functioned effectively and it is little wonder therefore that it was in their interests to undermine these institutions.

South Africans face a stark choice, which is to acknowledge the reality of what is in plain sight and seek to identify solutions to preserve the integrity and capacity of key public institutions.

It will no doubt require a concerted effort between the state, civil society and the private sector if there is to be any possibility of changing the current trajectory of South Africa’s key public institutions.

An immediate priority should be to curtail the fiscal bleeding occasioned by irregular and wasteful expenditure, which runs into billions of rands annually of public money.

A failure to do so will inevitably result in a very dismal future where there will be a continued deterioration in public institutions and funding, which will be likely ultimately to result in the complete collapse of critical public institutions and services. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • ST ST says:

    State capture…quite an interesting concept or rather phenomenon. Who is the capturer-the one who claims to espouse keeping national industries national, but then sell them for pennies to lowest dirtiest bidder on the sly? The state being the county people?

    Is the capturer the external entity, the opportunist manoeuvring in? Or perhaps claiming ‘finders keepers’ having found a country lost in mania. The state here-being the government?

    Business ‘hostile takeovers’, though brutal, at least the ‘captured’ may claim having been blindsided and may put up a fight to redeem themselves. Sort of like at the start of colonisation. This kind of enabling & willing the state of being captured is embarrassing. People should stop being captured and the government-well politicians are often captured, lobbyists etc. but usually there’s some semblance of an understanding of good governance.

  • Rob Currie says:

    What we need is one of the world’s superpowers to come and colonize South Africa again.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Erm, sorry mate but you only worked it out now?!

  • Lynda Tyrer says:

    A really depressing article to read but 100% accurate not many countries in this world would destroy themselves in 30 years and yet the anc have the audacity to sit on their soap boxes boasting about all the good they have done and achieved, talk about delusional and denial. We need a total reset of this country and all those fingers in various coffers cut off for good.

  • anton kleinschmidt says:

    30 years ago the white people of this country (belatedly) did something that is virtually unheard of in political history. We knowingly handed over political power in the hope of a better future for ALL South Africans.

    It would be a profound tragedy if history judges that the worst thing that white South Africans did to our fellow black countrymen was to hand political power to the ANC. To do so without sufficient checks and balances to ensure a successful transition.

    There can no longer be any doubt that the ANC has failed utterly. Let us all hope that we can find an alternative. Civil society, the media, the churches and the corporate sector must urgently embrace this imperative

    • ST ST says:

      I know you may mean well, but…

      “…knowingly handed over power…, without proper checks…the worst thing you did for your SA blacks…”!

      What a mixed bag of delusion, arrogance and pseudo empathy from a colonial era. You’ll find it’s more complex than that, that ‘you’ did not have the power to stop the freight train already in full speed. Fear of change prohibits rational power change.

      Apartheid saw the seeds of its destruction as the ANC has sown its own. Apartheid and similar regimes create revolutionaries (or terrorists’ as you/some may say). Although they would have some intellectuals, revolutionary movements often don’t know how to govern a country, they know anarchy and destruction.

      They run on anger, pain and other very strong emotions from people who feel they have no more to lose. There would have been no (proper) planning for the future because they never really thought they’d win! They more likely thought they’ll die fighting for freedom. Great freedom fighters don’t necessarily make for great leaders as we can see.

      Morale of the story, if you don’t oppress people…you wont end up with this kind of government. So no, the worst thing apartheid did, was to oppress the majority and cause it to seek (violent) liberation, create a poor disenfranchised uneducated population that refuses to believe that if ‘you’ got power back you won’t hurt them again. So they cling to their liberators at all costs. This to the benefit of corrupt leaders.

  • Ernst Swanepoel says:

    I am a member of a group of concerned engineers that voluntarily got together to align thoughts on our observations regarding the ruination of infrastructure and our economic assets as a whole. We identified common areas of concern and engaged in discussions with the broader engineering communities over a period of two to three years. It was also our privilege to present to the financial committee regarding our concerns in the new procurement bill that, in our opinion, does not address the challenges of true asset life-cycle management (i.e. from the idea phase to the disposal phase) that is essential to restore our economy and to create the right jobs in this market. Our concern regarding the absence of engineering accountability in (amongst others) the procurement bill received good comments, but HOW do we get the real message to the politicians?
    The original concerned engineers group consists of ex-Transnet, PRASA engineers, all of whom have extensive experience of maintenance, project and asset condition management experience.
    It remains a tragedy to observe the ruination of the assets after studying some of the Zondo commission findings and even assisting in the investigation of corruption cases that happened before the Zondo engagement.
    Perhaps an informal/ formal meeting with DM would add vaue?

  • Bob Carter says:

    I thought it was only bears that went into hibernation. I was clearly very mistaken…….

  • virginia crawford says:

    The African National Catastrophe: corruption is us. Perhaps we could drop the euphemisms like “irregular expenditure ” and call it theft. Naming things correctly affects what happens. The wilful assault on our public institutions is a form of treason, in my view, and should be treated as such. However, the JSC and the NPA don’t give much hope.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted