Max du Preez

South Africa not a failed state

2015-03-03 08:34

Max du Preez

History teaches us that countries with open societies very seldom become failed states. Only when a state’s openness and personal freedoms are destroyed can there be a breeding ground for failure.

The terms failed state, banana republic and “becoming Zimbabwe” are being used freely nowadays to describe South Africa, even more so after Eskom’s failures and the scandalous behaviour during the State of the Nation Address last month.

This is uninformed nonsense. Prod those who use these terms and nine out of 10 times you will find an Afro-pessimist or someone that never believed that a black government was able to manage a modern democracy and economy like ours.

The openness of our society is our greatest asset. This is the product of our constitutional guarantees of free speech and the rule of law, but it has now been internalised and become the new “normal”.

There are few societies in today’s world where citizens engage with each other and those in authority with as much robustness and freedom as is the case of South Africa.

Where our media aren’t free and independent, it is mostly due to the owners of media houses and senior journalists rather than legal impediments.

A struggling state

We live as if it is the most normal thing to criticise the head of state and other politicians using extreme language. The deepest secrets of the state are regularly exposed without endangering the journalists’ lives.

When I wrote nasty things about the last two presidents of the pre-democratic era and exposed their unholinesses, I was dragged to court dozens of times, my office was bombed and agents were sent to assassinate me.

Our openness is one of the most important building blocks upon which our democracy, our stability and our relatively free economic activities are built. This is why South Africa cannot be described as a failing state in any sense of the word. Struggling state, perhaps, state with a multitude of challenges, yes, but not a failed state according to the accepted definition of the term.

Who do we have to thank for this state of affairs? Certainly not the present government or the present version of the ruling ANC. If it had been in their power, we would have been a much more closed society, as their attacks on the press have demonstrated over the years.

But government and the ruling party have been prevented to undermine our freedoms and openness by our constitution and by resolute civil society organisations.

So far, I should add. Because there is a new, brutal assault on our freedoms and the open nature of our society. It has been coming for a while now, but it has recently been intensified, as was evident when the securocrats took over the opening of Parliament recently, blocked the cellphone signal (and lied about it) and sent in armed riot police to remove protesting elected Members of Parliament.

What we’re witnessing is a disturbing rise of the securocrats – someone called it the Zumacrats recently. They have done a lot of damage to state institutions recently and we see their tentacles reaching into all levels of society.

In short, and this is not hyperbole: we are witnessing the creep of authoritarianism.
President Jacob Zuma and his personal power circle are using the so-called Security Cluster – state security, justice, police and military – in the same way that PW Botha used his National Security Management System (NSM) according to his doctrine of a Total Onslaught.

Botha’s State Security Council and its tools had the country in an iron grip with little say for Parliament and civil society. This is becoming a threat again of the post-apartheid era.

South Africans are fighting back

It’s not only the seizure of state institutions like the National Prosecuting Authority, the police and the Hawks that should concern us. We should ask questions about phone tappings, e-mail interceptions, harassment and dirty tricks used against opponents. We should be deeply worried about the rise in political assassinations of Numsa shop stewards, whistleblowers, dissidents, change agents and political/social activists, especially in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. (Remember Vlakplaas, the Civil Co-operation Bureau and the Directorate Covert Collection?)

Professor Jane Duncan, author of The Rise of the Securocrats, warns of security cluster’s “drift to becoming a Praetorian Guard for the ruling elite”. She talks about South Africa being a “National Security State under construction”.

The good news is that South Africans are fighting back. I have learnt on good authority that there had been several meetings of the remaining constitutionalists in the ANC determined to halt the authoritarian tendencies.

The influential South African National Editors Forum is taking a strong stand, while several lobby groups and think tanks are discussing more efficient counter strategies.

As importantly, ordinary citizens are making it clear through loud protestations across the racial and political divides that they will not tolerate the undermining of our freedoms and the open nature of our society.

This is a fight we simply have to win.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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