The term ‘developmental state’ has become part of the South African lexicon.

As I recall, it first became commonly used around the time of the Thabo Mbeki presidency, presumably referring to a state like those in East Asia, which were the first to be described as developmental states.

These were countries which developed and industrialised rapidly, shaking off the yoke of colonial humiliation, and dragged their populations, whether they wanted to or not, into a glorious technocratic future. 

However, anyone with anything more than a nodding acquaintance with reality would know that to call South Africa a developmental state today would be a complete misnomer. 

What kind of state?

But what kind of state are we? There are a couple of options for a term that describes the kind of state South Africa is.

The first of these is the ‘cosplaying’ state.

For those that don’t know, cosplaying is a hobby common among those who enjoy the genres of science fiction and fantasy, or related entertainment, such as superhero movies. People will dress up as their favourite character and attend conventions or similar get togethers with like-minded people. Sometimes the care taken and their attention to detail by those who have made these costumes can be mindboggling, and it’s hard to believe that the costumes were made by amateurs. But of course, no matter how much you look like Superman you still aren’t going to be able to fly or shoot lasers out of your eyes.

And arguably the South African state is cosplaying at actually being a state.

As any South African can attest, the government is increasingly failing to fulfil its basic functions. It can’t maintain infrastructure, can’t keep the lights on, is increasingly failing to provide water, and can’t keep people safe.

The government then cosplays by making announcements about certain things, or forcing people to follow nonsensical regulations, without doing any of the hard work of actually governing.

Mask regulations

The current regulations around masks and Covid-19 are an example of this. South Africa is likely one of the few countries in the world which still expects citizens to wear masks in indoor spaces, despite the evidence of the efficacy of cloth masks being fairly weak. At the same time, most South Africans are now fairly well protected against Covid-19, either through vaccination, previous infection, or a combination.

South Africans are now expected to wear masks to ostensibly protect their health. However, the same government which is mandating mask-wearing cannot repair hospitals which have burnt down, or fund posts for much-needed doctors. 

Or consider a statement by the minister of transport, Fikile Mbalula, that South Africans would soon have access to charging stations for electric vehicles, this while road infrastructure continues to degrade and it is a struggle to give South Africans a constant and reliable supply of electricity. 

Vampire state

But perhaps South Africa is a vampire or a parasite state, continuing to take resources from citizens while not providing them with reliable services.

We have seen this in the reluctance of the government to reduce various levies and taxes South Africans pay, notably the fuel levy.

Although the fuel levy has been reduced, the last-minute announcement on Tuesday this week that it will continue to be kept at a lower level for a few months shows that there is a clear reluctance in the government to not restore it to its previous level.

A telling statement came from Gwede Mantashe, the minister of mineral resources and energy, when the relief to motorists was announced.

Said Mantashe: ‘This is a significant sacrifice by government in realisation of the strain that the high fuel prices are placing on the consumer and the public at large.’

If one had to be uncharitable it seems that Mantashe believes that South Africans exist to pay tithes to the voracious state with very little benefit, rather than the opposite, of a state existing to serve its citizens.

Everyone’s favourite minister, Mbalula, also gives credence to the theory that the South African state is a parasitic or vampiric one, rather than a developmental one. This week another suggestion from his department was that a new tax be introduced. This ‘traffic-management’ levy would be collected through licence fees and more levies on fuel sales. 

Your correspondent was also nearly a victim of the vampiric state. The rates and taxes on my property in Ekurhuleni nearly doubled last year, despite regular water outages and roads which are becoming more pothole than tarmac. 

I was not the only denizen of the East Rand who was slapped with a massive new rates bill, with many people receiving statements reflecting astronomical increases. The new rates bills were linked to a new valuation roll, which valued many properties at far above the price they would reach in a sale. Due to a combination of pressure from residents (and perhaps because the ANC was voted out of office in the city) many valuations were reassessed and recalculated. My re-valuation, at least, was far more reasonable.

But this is but another example of a state which demands more and more resources from those it governs without any benefit to those who pay their taxes (whether these are consumption taxes, such as VAT or the fuel levy, or income taxes) and their other financial obligations to the state. 

Flailing state

South Africa could be on its way to becoming another kind of state – a failed one. There is still a long way to go until the country gets there, and we are a long way from being like Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo, And we may never get there.

What South Africa certainly is – along with the other monikers suggested above – is a flailing state. It is increasingly unable to fulfil basic functions while refusing to accept this reality. 

However, time may be running out for the ANC, which has brought us where we are now – away from being able even to pretend to be a developmental state, to where we are a flailing, vampire, or cosplaying state (take your pick).

The party itself believes that it may be on the brink of losing its national majority and, for the first time in post-apartheid South Africa, an ANC electoral victory is not a foregone conclusion. 

Whoever or whatever comes after the ANC, their key aim should simply be to make South Africa a ‘functional’ state. Let’s hope that the trail of destruction left by the ANC is not of such a magnitude to make this impossible.

[Photo:  Igam Ogam for unsplash]

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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.