Tottering at the precipice of failed states

2011-04-16 12:51

This week I participated in the launch of the advisory board to the World Development Report 2011 in Washington.

The report does not make for easy reading, but in its meticulous scrutiny of conflict, security and development it warns us about what can make a state a failed one.

And absolutely clearly the issues of human rights and dignity, social justice and corruption are intricably linked.

As I spoke on the report I thought about Swaziland and Zimbabwe, two fine examples of failed states that are sitting on our doorstep in southern Africa.

There is a part of me that feels we have dropped the ball, particularly where Zimbabwe is concerned.

What was once the jewel and bread basket of Africa lies paralysed today by a dictatorship on which a vampire elite feeds while a quarter of the population has been forced to flee its borders out of fear and economic desperation.

And though our Zimbabwean neighbours should be allowed to find their place in exile, as we once did in their land, we South Africans no longer give due consideration to the consequences of having a failure for a neighbour.

We should, because there are many lessons we can learn from them.

And amid Zimbabwe’s turmoil our minds are now beginning to focus on Swaziland, where the youth of Africa’s last absolute monarch are finally shouting out that enough is enough.

They are telling their king they are no longer prepared to idly watch him dip into the national treasury as if it were his sole preserve; a bottomless pit from which he can fund his lavish ways while his so-called subjects live a life of squalor and misery.

Yet in their own words the Swazis and Zimbabweans are articulating the core of this week’s World Development Report?– the kind of rot which will take decades to recover from and will wipe out almost a generation of economic opportunity.

In these countries the elite use violence as a modus operandi to dominate local contests for power and resources. They have infiltrated public institutions and use them to dispense patronage and contracts.

Cronyism has been disguised as political deployment and an interlinking network of scavenging elite has undermined the integrity of the security apparatus with its links to the underworld of drug-trafficking and organised crime.

Fear stalks the land and independent civil society and a free press are labelled counter-revolutionary.

It makes these organisations and leaders legitimate targets of a compromised security system and shadowy and sinister elements that operate within the state or with its covert blessing.

South Africa is sandwiched between two precariously failed states that we, as citizens, would hope never to emulate.

Yet these past couple of years have shown us that we have not insulated our beloved country from the kind of practices that have forced other countries off the deep end.

Let us not forget that what differentiates us from Swaziland and Zimbabwe at the end of the day is but a matter of scale.

What we share are worrying levels of youth unemployment and what the report tells us is that joblessness destroys hope, increases the reality of marginalisation and turns our young people into rebels and gang members who in turn drive conflict.

What the report also tells us is that the face of conflict has changed.

Although the number of interstate wars dropped in the past two decades, it is now civil war and criminal violence that are threatening the fabric of society.

Elsewhere it records a survey conducted in six countries where citizens highlighted economic deprivation, inequality and corruption as the primary drivers of conflict.

Although South Africa does not appear on that list, we would be foolish to believe we are immune to such realities.

Today we live with such horrors as runaway corruption, rampant drug-trafficking, a repressive kind of aligned politics and the flailing integrity of our public institutions, particularly those with responsibility for security.

These are our new battles – the red flags flying for all of us to see.

It is up to us to decide whether we heed or ignore them.

But there would be little point in us standing up in a few years from now and looking aghast upon failed public institutions, or a weakened state presided over by an elite that will trample upon our Constitution as they laugh their way to the bank. By then we may not be allowed to raise our voices.

It is now that we can make the greatest difference, while everything we fought so hard for is still somewhat intact.

Let’s sharpen our discussion for once and for all and, like the people of Swaziland, say enough is enough.

Let’s bear in mind a key finding of the report which argues that “institutional legitimacy is the key to stability.

When state institutions do not adequately protect citizens, guard against corruption or provide access to justice; when markets do not provide job opportunities; or when communities have lost social cohesion—the likelihood of violent conflict increases.”

Let’s not go there.

Let’s instead learn from these changing times.

We have a duty to support the people of Zimbabwe and Swaziland in their struggle for democracy, because ultimately we are defending the hard-fought-for democracy we celebrate in our own country.

» Naidoo is the founding general secretary of Cosatu and former minister in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet.

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