Ralph Mathekga | We are exhibiting too many elements of a failed state

A view of the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
A view of the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
Deaan Vivier, Netwerk24

Just how close are we to becoming a failed state? A little too close, writes Ralph Mathekga. 

A decade ago when someone asked me if South Africa was at the real risk of spiralling into a failed state, I dismissed the thought as premature and failing to appreciate the dynamism of our politics and the wisdom of the people who successfully fought against the most repressive regime in modern history, namely apartheid.

If I were to return to the same question today and begin to think about what constitutes a failed state, my answer would be more elaborate than the dismissive tone I took to the this question a decade ago.

I still do not think South Africa is a failed state if you consider the most basic definition of an effective state (the opposite of a failed state). Based on this we can conclude that the state in South Africa is still capable of exercising its sovereign authority over its territory, meaning the country is not a failed state yet. 

The question then arises as to how strong is the state in pursuing its goals.


This is where complications begin to emerge and shows that the answer to the question is neither here nor there.

It is also reflected in the state of things in the country over the past decade, which is also neither here nor there.

When I travelled through Addis Ababa in Ethiopia during the time when there was xenophobic violence in South Africa a couple of years ago, one curious Ethiopian asked me how South Africa is.

He was certainly not asking about the weather.

My response was that South Africa is "fine, and so-so".

I could not say that South Africa was unbelievably terrible because that would be gross misrepresentation of the reality. Neither could I say my country was exceptionally good because that should be the reserve of South Africa's Ambassador in Ethiopia, whose primary job is to tell everyone how great we are as a nation.

South Africa has its moments.

It has moments of glory such as being able to boast about great world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Oliver Tambo and Helen Suzman. However, this is still the same South Africa that has produced controversial leaders such as Jacob Zuma. It is a mixed bag.

A troubling picture emerges when one asks whether South Africa is a facing imminent risk of becoming a failed state.

A commission of inquiry 

The fact that there is is currently a commission of inquiry into state capture is the first place to start. If one is undertaking such an inquiry, one is just not in a position to dismiss claims that there is a serious risk of state failure.

Under normal circumstances, this commission would not have been needed if those elected to power followed the rules and acted in the interest of voters.

However, South Africa needed the inquiry to get to the bottom of how some of the state institutions were hijacked to serve the interest of the few with political connections. 

It is embarrassing for us as a nation that at some point in time we had to stop and ask in whose interest is the state power being exercised in South Africa.

The collapse of service delivery at local government level and the dire financial distress that many municipalities find themselves in are not features of a strong coherent state in which citizens can dismiss questions about state failure.

When one looks around South Africa in terms of provision of basic services and water, one can say the state is failing to exert its authority in providing services to the people.

Some would say the problem is not the state, it is only those who steal from the people through corruption.

However an effective state has at its disposal institutions through which to sanction those who steal from it.

Law and order are principles that have been adopted over the years across societies to ensure that those who transgress against the state are held accountable.

If state institutions are experiencing challenges (at times, political pushback), when it comes to holding those who transgress to account to the public, then a nation has entered a stage of state failure. 

When it comes to the phenomenon such as state failure or general decline of democracy, a nation does just wake to an announcement that from now on they are considered certified citizens of a failed state or an autocratic regime.

Gradual erosion 

In reality, the erosion takes places gradually, leading to citizens adapting to living with some features of state failure as they learn to survive under the conditions.

South Africans are worryingly becoming accustomed and accepting of living with too many features of a failed state, including wider lack of safety in their homes and work.

It is cause for concern, because at some point it will be impossible to come back from once the country becomes a fully-fledged failed state.

Perhaps South Africans are just too proud to notice how acclimatised we are to these conditions. But the current situation is just likely to worsen with time.

Our political system, as it stands, dominated by the ANC, seems not to have a response to how to address this challenge.

Nationalisation and centralisation of political power are not desirable responses in dealing with the question of state failure and recession of the state and its replacements by interest groups.

Good governance is needed as a foundation to begin rebuilding authority and to ensure effectiveness of the state and its institutions. A task which currently the ANC is not up to. 

- Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn. 

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