Most of us have asked ourselves and others this question before. Is South Africa on the verge of becoming, or is it already, a failed state? To examine this question we need to set forth a theoretical framework.
Typically, a failed state is thought of as a government that has lost all meaningful ability to function. It can no longer extract taxes, enforce the law, enact or implement legislation or undertake any of the other actions of government. Classic examples of failed states are Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These countries have bodies that claim to be governments, but are too ineffective to be seen as real governments.
I am not a fan of this definition of a failed state.
The reason is that it implies too many functions for government. If a government is a failed state because it fails to deliver welfare checks, does that mean states that never had welfare are failures from the word go? Some would probably say that they are.
But I would not. States aren’t defined by all their actions. They are defined by an essential function which should define if they are succeeding or failing. All other acts are supererogatory at best, and a waste of resources at worst.
This function is the protection of its citizens from internal and external threats. This is most commonly manifested in the maintaining of an armed forces and law enforcement.
Among all states across the globe, this is a common unifying factor. It is also an historical factor for the creation of the state as an entity. The forerunners of states formed because communities settled down and needed to protect their now-stationary assets and homes. Armed men rose to power to fill this role.
The role of the state has shifted, but only in accordance with this key function. New roles and functions have appeared – such as zoning, planning and road building. But above all these, defence has remained the crucial function of government.
It is in this regard that South Africa may reveal itself as a failed state.
Reliable crime stats in South Africa are hard to come by. Trust in the police is dwindling, leading to reduced official reporting of crime. Even without taking into account all unreported crimes, the stats are still shocking – with a murder rate of 34.1, over 49 000 reported sexual assaults in 2017 alone, and much more.
Living with crime in South Africa is a crushing experience. We turn our houses into forts. We can’t enjoy our times out. We have to be constantly vigilant. And even then, there is the constant looming fear that we will lose our possessions and loved ones.
A common requirement for being a government, posited by Max Weber, is that a state must have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. ‘Legitimate’ is a bit of a petty addition. One could argue that any country is a government because only one group claims to be legitimate in its use of violence.
Rather, we should measure the success of a state’s security by its relative ability to stop crime and defend the country from attackers. While our government has succeeded at the latter, it has sorely failed at the former.
Gangs dominate much of our cities. Law enforcement are non-existent even in high rate paying suburbs, much less in rural and poorer areas. This is not the state of a successful country.
Some cite SARS and South Africa’s efficient taxation as a reason why South Africa is not a failed state (this is not even the case anymore, as revealed in The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw). But tax without providing an essential service in return is just looting. Governments are marauders by their very nature, but at least some put up the pretense that they are giving something in return. In South Africa, we are looted without any compensation.
In Frans Cronje’s recent book, A Time Traveller’s Guide to South Africa in 2030, one of the scenarios which he posits as a future for South Africa is that we will isolate ourselves into enclaves. The government will no longer exist in any substantive form – rather being made up of a few blatant patrimonialists suckling from the final bit of wealth left in the country.
Suburbs will be walled and look after by their own security. Townships will be completely conquered by warring gangs. Rural areas will come under control of ‘traditional’ leaders.
The scary thing about this prediction is that, to anyone who has been paying attention, it sounds very plausible – if not already happening.
Already, we rely mainly on private security for our protection. Walled communities are a common occurrence. More and more, we realise that we cannot rely on government and turn to our communities and the private sector for solutions.
South Africa still has a police force and military – for now. But trust in this waning force is collapsing. Society is based around trust. When nobody is willing to work with the state anymore, it will have truly failed. We are fast approaching such a scenario.
So, while South Africa may not be a failed state just yet – it is on track to become one. Any policy maker who wants to address this needs to take proper action to address South Africa’s fulfilment of its proper function: The security of its citizens. No welfare checks, misguided education spending or parastatal bailout is going to make South Africa any more of a successful state when its citizens are held hostage by criminal warlords.