Calling South Africa a failed state is misleading and destructive

Two intense arguments have dominated the news and discourse in South Africa for several weeks: whether we should extend the life of ancient coal-fired power stations to help alleviate load-shedding, and whether the country is a “failed state”.

The former question warrants no debate. It is frankly farcical that our Gwede Mantashe-enslaved cabinet has become so distracted by a proposal that not only has the potential to put billions, if not trillions, of rand of transition finance at risk, but will also not make one iota of difference to load-shedding in the short term, as electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa is pretending it will.

The failed state debate, however, is interesting – as is trying to figure out the motivations driving those who insist South Africa is past its sell-by date.

For CEOs and others in the public eye, sounding wise and troubled while declaring the end of times is a sure-fire way to grab a headline. Journalists know that South Africans, wherever they are, find it hard to resist these stories. Those who have left like to hear things that suggest they were smart to do so, and those who live here have been so bludgeoned by bad news and doomsday predictions that they can’t help themselves.

But few who pronounce that South Africa is a failed or failing state appear to have given much thought to what the term means, or whether it means anything at all.

“Failed state” entered the political lexicon of the US in the 1990s. It was used to describe Somalia after the 1991 coup that deposed dictator Siad Barre, leading to warring among the country’s clans and a descent into anarchy that embroiled the Americans in the disastrous battle of Mogadishu. The term gained further traction after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, because of the threat that “failed states” such as Afghanistan posed to the security of the US.

What The Economist describes as “the least-coveted accolade in geopolitics” is controversial and highly subjective. War-torn countries such as Yemen and Syria might be reasonable candidates for the term. In these countries, huge swathes of the population don’t have homes or food, there is no health service (for example, no response at all to Covid) and civilians are routinely murdered by those in power.

Beyond that, according to Charles Call, an American expert on international peace and conflict resolution who has written extensively on the topic, the terms “failed state” and “failing state” “have come to be used in such widely divergent and problematic ways that they have lost any utility”.

Call argues that the concept is a fallacy, “and should be abandoned except insofar as it refers to wholly collapsed states, where no authority is recognisable either internally to a country’s inhabitants or externally to the international community”.

Whether you agree with him or not, it seems a stretch to lump South Africa into the same category as Yemen, Syria or Somalia.

Ignoring the positives

So what are the failed state advocates trying to achieve? Do they hope to shame the government into behaving better? We’ve seen how that works. Is it “just analysis”, requiring no objective? If so, it is unfortunate analysis: reductionist in the extreme, focusing entirely on that element of our society that is undoubtedly disastrous, and erasing the roughly 60-million others who also live here.

These people are also extremely frustrated with the incompetence, inhumanity and greed of our leaders. But they still get up every morning to go to work – if they are lucky enough to have a job – or to school or university, or to play a role in their communities, paid or unpaid.

Writing South Africa off as a failed state ignores the thousands of innovators in every field trying to figure out how to do things better, the slow but steady breaking down of racial barriers that most South Africans experience every day, the universal hunger to forge a better society, and the knowledge that it absolutely is possible to do so.

It ignores the artists and musicians, the authors and playwrights, the singers and actors, the dancers and comedians, the chefs and farmers, the pioneers, the generous, the kind, the hopeful and the determined, who reflect and embody the unbelievable diversity, talent and richness of this country.

I don’t wish to gloss over the extraordinary challenges we face, but we are a relentlessly pessimistic nation. Let’s not give up on ourselves just yet.

This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 4 May 2023.

By Tracey Davies

IMAGE: Getty Images / Louise Donald

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