Is the state losing legitimacy?

The Freedom Charter is 60 years old this year, but its interpretations raise issues that are open to debate

In discussing the role of intellectuals in South Africa’s renaissance ideal, we should keep in mind the fact that intellectual work preceded colonial conquest.

Precolonial society had an intellectual organising framework with sets of beliefs, artistic expressions, rationalisation of systems of social organisation and abstract intellectual pursuits.

This fact is not raised to glorify the past, but mainly to draw attention to the break in the social evolution of African societies. However, such breaks are not unique to colonial experiences.

The Meiji Restoration of 19th-century Japan was a self-imposed economic, social and political transformation.

The same can be said about China some 2 500 years ago and, recently, in its “four modernisations”.

These transformations reflected brutal self-criticism of what some called “backwardness” in national development and a determination to rise from the pain and shame of national humiliation.

Brutal self-criticism is largely absent in South African intellectual discourse. An imposed alien modernity seems to influence South Africa’s subjects to strive to remake themselves in the image of their colonial former masters.

But attempts have also been made to remould the tools of an imposed modernity into weapons of struggle. A balance needs to be found between these contradictory states.

Renaissance, civilisation and modernity should be approached from two angles.

The first is about the agency of resistance and reconstruction; the second is about the development of productive forces and the pursuit of humane sociopolitical relations.

When Steve Biko and Pixley ka Isaka Seme argued Africa could give “the world a more human face” by introducing a civilisation that was “humanistic … moral and eternal”, they introduced an important quality to the understanding of these issues.

In this year of the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, it is appropriate to locate discussion on the South African renaissance ideal in the provisions of this document.

The charter asserts a profound nonracialism and democratic bent and recognises the intertwining of racial oppression and economic exclusion.

Critique of the Freedom Charter

We should celebrate the charter, but also assess critiques of the document in the light of two decades of experience in governance.

Three critiques stand out. The first is about “equating” the oppressor and the oppressed. Could South Africa have developed a different approach given the large settler community that made the country their permanent home?

What has not found resonance in discourse, though, is the responsibility of the beneficiaries of colonialism to contribute to the righting of the historical injustice. For instance, a wealth tax, as proposed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The notion that current privilege has little to do with the apartheid order is bandied about as fact. An opportunity was missed and resentment will persist.

The second critique relates to the charter’s reference to “all national groups” and thus an implied subtraction from the principle of individual rights and of solidarity among black people who were all victims of oppression.

However, is the recognition of apartheid’s hierarchy of oppression, including among black people themselves, a conceptual aberration or does it enjoy resonance in lived experiences?

The third critique characterised the apartheid system as “racial capitalism” requiring the creation of a socialist order as an immediate objective.

This underplays the principle of broad fronts.

Yet current levels of poverty and inequality, defined largely along racial and gender lines, pose the question of whether it is possible to build a “nonracial capitalism” when the odds are heavily stacked against black people.

Property rights or nationalisation

Related to this is the interpretation of the property clauses of the Freedom Charter.

In debating this, we should avoid games of make-believe, taunts and ripostes that have little to do with the science of social development.

To paraphrase, the debate is firstly about whether the charter did or did not intend nationalisation.

Secondly, others evade the issue and resort to listing finicky details about black economic empowerment, the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act and land reform as proof that the charter is being meticulously implemented.

None of these approaches helps the discussion much, as each of them tends to ignore context.

When Nelson Mandela argued in the 1950s that the charter demanded nationalisation, he was reflecting the generally understood meaning of the property clauses in the charter then. This was formally reiterated at the 1969 ANC Morogoro Consultative Conference.

State ownership was seen as the primary instrument through which the redistribution of wealth and economic leadership could be exercised.

A new theoretical approach has emerged: the need or otherwise of state ownership is weighed on the balance of evidence to foster what the ANC’s 1992 Ready to Govern document refers to as “a new and constructive relationship between the people, the state, the trade union movement, the private sector and the market”.

Against this background, how do we interpret recent events that have thrown up contradictory trends about the state of the nation? On the one hand, the overwhelming majority of South Africans have broadly shown support for the National Development Plan and the forging of a social compact. On the other, negative events pose questions about the sturdiness of the country’s constitutional order.


Related to these developments are the recent electoral outcomes that reflected, among other things, the persistence of race as a marker of political self-interest; the recession of ethnic identity and regionalism; some fickleness among the African middle strata; and the 6% for a party that promotes nationalisation and land redistribution without compensation.

At the root of these developments is the persistence of social exclusion and marginalisation and the fact that social status is still defined mainly by race, with a sediment of society, especially young people, excluded from meaningful economic activity.

But this “underclass” has always been there over the past 21 years. So why is the social tinder now more prone to catching fire?


When the structural nature of our unemployment problem combines with rising inequality, a global recession and persistence of “racial capitalism”, the social tinder becomes more flammable.

But it is in more than the objective circumstances that we should seek answers.

When a weak state capacity merges with gross manifestations of corruption at local level (such as at Mothutlung near Brits, where water infrastructure was deliberately sabotaged so local politicians and bureaucrats could make money with water tank vendors), the sense of hope loses its flicker.

State security agencies become the first and last line of defence and some communities start to deliberately target them.

When public discourse is replete with cases of the abuse of state resources, shoddy responses to the injunctions of the Public Protector, patronage on a grand scale in state-owned enterprises and strange shenanigans in critical state agencies, the very legitimacy of the state is severely undermined.

In other words, the rulers can, by commission or omission, create conditions for a chain of delegitimisation starting with the individual leader, extending to the party, the government and the state.

In some postcolonial African societies, it was precisely at such moments that military coups were staged.

This, however, is not possible in South Africa.

Yet, in other instances, the state started to rely more and more on overt and covert repression.

The chain of delegitimisation takes various forms.

In extreme cases, the state is goaded to take precipitate action such as in the Marikana tragedy and the recent disruptions in Parliament. This, in turn, aggravates the process of delegitimisation.

Elements of the right also seize the opportunity, and the more extreme among them – particularly rabid racists who have gone into hibernation – start to question the very capacity of black people to govern and to rationalise latent disloyalty to the new dispensation.

In this regard, parallels can be drawn in relation to the unseemly squabbles in labour federation Cosatu.

A comprehensive analysis of this problem should include the changing character of the working class, the balance between private and public sector workers, business unionism, privileges and commercial opportunities that accrue to leaders – from shop stewards upwards – and blatant thievery.

But this is not sufficient to explain the impasse that has resulted in the expulsion of metalworkers’ union Numsa from Cosatu. Even the ideological differences have always been there and were more acute during the first 15 years of democracy.

This raises the question of leadership quality across the tripartite alliance, including declining legitimacy occasioned by, among other factors, corruption and patronage.

All this fuels an irrational and suicidal factionalism.

How to correct this 

Given these processes of delegitimisation, what are the corrective impulses that will drive a turnaround?

Must it come from the senior leadership of the governing party and/or the middle-level cadres driven by idealism, but also by self-interest as electoral prospects diminish? Or will it come from other political forces, as negative tendencies in the governing party congeal and become too stubborn to erase?

Intellectuals have an important role to play in ensuring such a turnaround.

If the country proves unable, in the medium term, to choose and pursue a positive development trajectory, South Africa’s intellectual community should accept a large part of the blame.

The inverse should also stand as true.

This is an edited extract from a paper by Netshitenzhe, the executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, at a roundtable on the role of intellectuals (

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