South Africa: A failed state?

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South Africa: A failed state?

By Gillian Hugo

The controversial words “failed state” appear synonymous with “South Africa” lately. Is South Africa in danger of becoming a failed state, or are we already there?

According to BusinessTech (2 May 2023), “South Africa is already a failed state. The latest index for 2022 ranks South Africa 79th out of 179 countries – where the higher the rank, the higher the risk of state failure. This position is up from 89th in 2021, 115th in 2012, and 132nd in 2007 – its best position on the list. Zimbabwe ranks 15th on the index, with Yemen ranked in the top spot.”

Wikipedia defines a failed state as “a state that has lost its effective ability to governits populace. A failed state maintains legal sovereignty but experiences a breakdown in political power, law enforcement, and civil society, leading to a state of near-anarchy. Common characteristics of a failing state include a government unable to tax and police its populace, control its territory, fill political or civil offices, or maintain its infrastructure. When this happens, widespread corruption and criminality, the intervention of state and non-state actors, the appearance of refugees and the involuntary movement of populations, sharp economic decline, and military intervention from both within and without the state are much more likely to occur.”

South Africa ticks many of those boxes. Our infrastructure is in disrepair. Potholes abound, traffic lights don’t work, and many municipalities are corrupt.

In a recent interview with BusinessTech, Magda Wierzycka, Founder and Executive Chairman of Sygnia, says, “South Africa’s municipalities are failing, and many have already failed – and municipalities are the core of the country and the backbone of the government. Municipalities are essential, as they are constitutionally mandated to procure and provide critical services and wield more power than national and provincial governments in this regard. Therefore, if South Africa’s municipalities fail, the country fails.” Wierzycka noted that municipalities are failing on the most basic of the basics, unable to deliver core needs like water and electricity.

If we look at the characteristics of a failed state, South Africa only meets some of them. Scholars like Stewart Patrick and R E Brooks focus on different aspects, including a broken monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, ineffective law enforcement, and the inability to provide essential goods and services.  

Industry experts like Daniel Mminele, chairman-designate of Nedbank, MTN Group CEO Ralph Mupita and The Institute of Risk Management South Africa (IRMSA) have warned that South Africa is fast becoming a failed state. The water and energy crisis, high unemployment rates (32,9%), inequality, poverty (61,6% of the population live under the poverty line), and economic growth need urgent attention. ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula in an interview with BBC HARDtalk’s Stephen Sackur, said, “South Africa could become a ’failed state’ but has yet to reach that point.” Mbalula blamed high levels of corruption, global economics, the impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Ukraine-Russian war for affecting the country’s economy. He said, “Some of our own weaknesses in terms of managing the economy well” were also to blame.

To the ordinary citizen, South Africa has little chance of turning itself around and becoming an investment-friendly and functional country. Is it possible to overcome this dire situation, or will those responsible for the country’s running sit back and continue to look the other way? What can we, the ordinary citizens of South Africa, do?

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