|   Let integrity lead.

South Africa – a failed state?


Our history is one of migration, colonial conquest and the construction of four countries that were amalgamated to enclose a single economy, within which solutions to the “national question” continue to drive conflict. The tribe, class, race, creed and gender issues central to the building of our nation remain unresolved.

Despite significant variation in definition and usage, we can accept that a State is the political and legal entity through which a country is governed. It acts on behalf of a government with a party-political content that fluctuates with time, and is limited in turn by our constitutional framework. Possibly, in South Africa, both state and government have failed: the rules separating government, state and party have blurred, allowing deployment of weak cadres, poor service delivery and corruption.

There are compelling arguments for defining the SA state as a failure. Our record unemployment rate, lack of security, high crime rate, regulatory weakness and the like are all evidence of failure. There is a long list. 

However, counter-arguments are also to be found in a more rigorous examination. Not least is that government agencies successfully measure and report on its own performance. The Attorney General’s office works; census is taken; judges judge; Cabinet budgets; and so on. Our response to Covid-19 was, in the main, guided by science. These are all evidence of a functioning state.

A state is held to have failed when some combination of the following applies: 

  • It loses control of its borders; 
  • The erosion of legitimate authority is increasing; 
  • It is unable to deliver basic public services as defined in the Constitution; 
  • State monopoly on physical violence (police, army) is compromised; 
  • It can no longer contract with other states; and/or
  • Political corruption becomes endemic.

Accepting these conditions as definitive, we can identify grave warnings in three or four – but  SA would not qualify as failed. A more accurate characterisation is that we are an increasingly “fragile state” with very weak capacity in many areas. The most concerning is that we have proven incapable of delivering a “Marshall Plan” of any sort to improve the quality of life of the poorest of our people.

On the Fragile State Index we have dropped 40 places since 2007. Nowhere near Zimbabwe or Yemen, but worse than Namibia and Cuba. The World Governance Index, which tracks six measures (democracy, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption), also sees us steadily dropping down the ranks.

I believe that our great failure of leadership and values has involved the conflation of party (ANC), government and State, with too few checks and balances, and no barriers to cross-tier activities, all of which has allowed rampant looting of the future of our children and the destruction of hope for all. A measure, if BUSA is to be believed, is the redirection of more than R1,3 trillion to the pockets of powerful political and business interests and the senior councils that defend them.

One must accept that these declines have slowed post the Zuma era, but continuing contestation for power within the ANC corrodes our capacity and increases the risk of accelerated decline. 

In the end, does it matter what definitions our pundits use when the poor get poorer and hope crashes? Technically our state and government may not have failed but we as society, as a nation in the making, have not delivered on the promises of democracy.  

We must. We know what to do. 

Get into the arena!

We govern a colonial legacy.

In defining who we are, most don’t remember our history. The destruction of the Mozambican economy through the development of our mining industry is something that always sits with me as we complain about foreigners – that and the Zimbabwean note. 

Our country’s borders are in the wrong place. They were drawn with no reference other than colonial control of our national wealth. For example, the impact of Zulu and Afrikaner expansion into what is now Zimbabwe would have had that border further north if the cultural (and not only economic) history of SA had been considered. 

Our mining economy and relative wealth was built on the labour of men from southern Mozambique as much as it was by the ancestors of those who are now South Africans. The accompanying social and economic destruction manifest in Mozambique just as it has here. But none of the benefits that flowed from the increased wealth of our nation reached them. Rather, it left a legacy of traumatised bodies, broken families and a weak agricultural economy. The extraction of wealth continues today through the activities of South African businesses (Old Mutual, MTN, Sanlam, Checkers, miners etc.) which operate in the rest of our continent and bring the profits home. 

The question has to be asked:  if not for English colonialism, where would the borders of our state and country have been?


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