In short, no. But it is understandable why there is a pervasive feeling of failure within this country, which is largely due to the abysmal track record and collapse of many municipalities.
Municipalities are where the success or failure of government is most keenly felt, and because of that, for most South Africans, the country feels like a failed state. Add to this the ANC-inflicted energy crisis which plunges South Africa into darkness, and the lack of planning and foresight and downright corruption which has allowed infrastructure to rot and crumble.
While it may seem like an exercise in splitting hairs, it is more accurate to describe South Africa as a state with a failing government; that is to say that the term ‘failed state’ implies that South Africa is a basket case along with the likes of Yemen, Syria and South Sudan, and that our problems are intractable and in some cases too overly difficult to ameliorate.
While South Africa does have a lot of challenges and life can be quite a miserable experience due to the aforementioned problems, it is difficult to make the case that South Africa has already failed. It even borders on the absurd. As Centennial College professor David Himbara notes in his 2020 article A Sophisticated Failing State:
‘The idea might seem absurd. After all, this is a country with highly developed financial, real-estate and business-service sectors on a par with those of the industrialized world. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange is the biggest in Africa and the 19th largest in the world. South Africa is an industrial powerhouse which manufactures textiles, metals, chemicals, food-processing, automobiles, electronics and armaments. The country boasts one of the most advanced telecommunications sectors anywhere. South Africa is home to world-class universities that are highly ranked for teaching, research and innovation’.
All of this is still true, despite South Africans being pathologically pessimistic and doom merchants being prized in the media. It may not be true in the future, with the exodus of skills and taxpayers and other pressing problems, but it remains true for now.
Even this popular notion of coalition governments being failures, which has been parroted by Sygnia CEO Magda Wierzycka in her argument about South Africa being a failed state, is also overblown. This is perhaps understandable because of the spectacular blowups in Johannesburg and Tshwane. As Frans Cronje notes in his Business Day article, Finding positives amidst the overly dark national mood:
‘A third is that while some coalitions have broken up, many others have held together. By my count the ratio is roughly 8:1 in favour of working coalition governments, but precisely because they work, you are unlikely to have heard of them.’
Even pervasive and keenly-felt problems are down to the inability of the political and intellectual class of this country to accept that we cannot skip developmental steps. and we must first embrace a fit-for-purpose economy that prioritizes low-skill, low-wage work. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that having a large population of poorly-educated, low-skilled and military-aged young men sitting around doing nothing is one of the main reasons South Africa is such a violent and sadistic country. While better policing is important, simply having public policy that prioritizes job creation that is fit for purpose will go a long way to ameliorating our problems with crime.
Food security issues
This kind of public policy will also ameliorate our food insecurity issues. South Africa has technical expertise in agriculture, a diverse agricultural sector and the fifth-highest reserves of phosphates in the world (an essential ingredient in fertilizer). As noted in a CSIR study:
‘The findings of a recently released CSIR study shows that an estimated 10.3 million tonnes per annum of edible food, earmarked for human consumption in South Africa, does not reach the human stomach. This is equivalent to 34% of local food production, but because South Africa is a net exporter of food, the losses and waste is equivalent to 45% of the available food supply in the country. These results point to high levels of inefficiency in the food value chain in South Africa, at a time when there is increasing food insecurity in South Africa.’
We have enough food, we just eschew the kind of economy that would enable people to buy food.
Even our governance problems are fixable, as the spectacular turnaround in the Umngeni municipality by Chris Pappas and his team has shown.
With all of that said, the country is indeed failing and has significant risks and challenges which have been detailed elsewhere. What is salient for this article is that South Africa’s problems are not insurmountable or even necessarily very difficult to solve.
We have got so used to bad governance, bad policy and bad politicians that we fail to see a lot of the good that would come from having good governance, good policy and good politicians.
So, no, Magda, we are not a failed state, at least not yet.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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