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South Africa at 30: The Fallacy of Failure

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South Africa at 30: The Fallacy of Failure

Though the May 29 general elections are now only two weeks away, South Africa’s election season began a while back. Political parties have been criss-crossing the country, engaging communities and households, and making multitudes of promises to the electorate. Opposition parties have also been rubbishing the three decades of South Africa’s democracy, under the ANC’s rule, as disastrous.

While this can be understood within the context of penurious electioneering, the suggestion that the past 30 years were a total failure is not only stretching things too far, but it is fundamentally fallacious. It feeds into another false narrative which has gained prominence in the country’s political space for a few years now; that South Africa is either a failing or a failed state. Those who are advancing the failing state narrative point to what they view as an array of melancholic symptoms of state failure: high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, declining service delivery output, persistent energy and water crises, slow economic growth, and the high cost of living.

Yet available evidence points to a significant measure of success for South Africa, though admittedly, a discernible vortex of contradictions persists in our political economy to this day. StatsSA’s South African National Census Report of 2022 and the 30-Year Review of South Africa’s Democracy recently released by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) detail the work done since 1994 to place the country on a trajectory of sustainable development. These, together with previous reviews, confirm that numerous policy efforts have been made, positively impacting the lives of millions of South Africans since 1994, although the vision of ‘a better life for all’ is yet to be realised.

The varying mix of socioeconomic outcomes for the population over the past three decades is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. All states in transition produce mixed outcomes of a socioeconomic kind for different segments of society. In spite of this varying mix, by and large, South Africa is a much better place today than it was in 1994. Therefore the characterisation of the 30 years of democracy as a failure is at best nebulous and, at worst, highly polemical if not politically virulent.

State transformation and South Africa’s transition

 Particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, a multiplicity of scholarly literature has been produced on state transformation and transition. Granted, the focus was initially on post-communist states that embarked on liberalisation, macroeconomic stabilisation, privatisation, and legal, and institutional reforms.

However, the concept of state transformation and transition has been extended to states that ‘graduated’ from their third world status – such as China and Southeast Asian nations of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea – to emerging markets. The concept covered changes in a state’s political and administrative structures, as well as  changes of economic and social kinds in the wider society. These changes are very often characterised by complications among liberal democracy, a market economy, and the rule of law.

In the case of Africa (including South Africa), the transition has not necessarily followed neatly the path of post-communist or Asian states. Africa’s first transition, in the latter part of the 20th century, started with efforts to construct a post-colonial state. Africa’s second transition was in the form of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) introduced by the Bretton Woods Institutions – the World Bank and the IMF – from the 1980s. The SAPs, in the main, sought to roll back the state’s role in the economy to allow for the so-called ‘self-correcting’ mechanism of the market to guide supply and demand as well as resource allocation.

By the 1990s, as Apartheid was being brought to its knees in South Africa and Eastern Europe set out on a new transition journey, the world was changing. The Cold War had ended and globalisation was taking place at a rapid pace, with the emergence of the market as the single organising principle of the global economy. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the triumph of capitalism in his most controversial book, The End of History and the Last Man.

The ANC and its alliance partners, the SACP and COSATU, deliberated on what the new objective global balance of forces portended for the country’s transition. The overriding agreement was that the formulation of the struggle was within the tradition of a National Democratic Revolution (NDR). In its 1992 Ready to Govern document, the ANC declared the state would play a leading role in driving socioeconomic transformation. It also sought to define the nexus of the state and capital in the interest of orderly development. At issue was whether, in a post-apartheid South African context, the state or the market had higher chances of success in driving development. The debate was settled on the understanding that the relationship between the state and capital is that of cooperation and not contestation.

Thus, the ANC’s experience in government in the past 30 years has necessitated an on-going assessment of the relationship between the state and capital, as well as of the extent to which this relationship enables the state to respond to the national imperatives of transforming society and addressing the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. This tactical approach has straddled various facets from state modernisation, service delivery, capital accumulation, black economic empowerment, job creation, poverty and inequality reduction, economic inclusion, the management of state-owned companies to the conceptualisation and implementation of economic growth-inducing plans. The state continues to permeate all these facets of the South African life.

When debating the legacy of the past three decades, the relevant question should be: to what extent has South Africa’s transition achieved impact at scale? The words ‘impact at scale’ denote some measure of success, as opposed to a total failure. Apart from the country’s contradictory accumulation process, governance failures, corruption and state capture, there is a critical factor of the interplay between market-led and state-led interventions in South Africa’s transition. As conceded by government, for instance, in its ASGISA Annual Report (2008), most programmes, such as those creating more, better jobs and more micro-enterprises, which were designed to achieve impact were measured as market-based outcomes. Even though government plays an important role in shaping markets, it has not had great success in areas where outcomes depend on a market response.

What failure?

It may be worth posing the question: what are the variables that constitute South Africa’s state failure? The response to this question invariably exposes a disjuncture between a strictly economic argument and a politico-social argument. Yet both make a whole of South Africa’s post-Apartheid transition.

It may very well be that South Africa has made more progress on the politico-social front than it has on the economic front. Even that has to be qualified. The growth in the number of black millionaires and, in some cases, billionaires, as well as the emergence of the black middle class owe to the enabling environment deliberately created and driven by the post-apartheid state.

Certainly, for many rural and township poor, the black middle class and the black bourgeoise, South Africa is a far better place in 2024 than it was in 1994. It must also be acknowledged that the biggest beneficiaries of the post-Apartheid order are white; not so much because the system deliberately favoured them, but mainly because by 1994, as a group, they were already at a much more advanced position than their black counterparts and therefore, took advantage of the opportunities that were provided by South Africa’s new order.

Beneficiaries of the BEE policy were assisted by the state to acquire stakes in white companies. The latter was not disadvantaged as a result of these transactions. On the contrary, they raked in billions in government-funded and supported transactions. It may also be that white and black bourgeois classes’ advance has lagged behind global averages, and that the quality of life for the rural, urban and semi-urban poor and working classes has not improved to the same level as for South Africa’s global peers. But to dismiss this improvement, or characterise some aberrations, simply as emblematic of state failure is disingenuous.

The governing ANC, which believes its energies over the past three decades have been expended in the theatre of building the state’s vaunted capacity to respond to the ever-soaring expectations of South Africans, is correct in dismissing the state failure claim as unhelpful. If anything, the notion has become synonymous with either cynicism or sycophantic adulation with theories which have nothing to do with South Africa’s realities.

Is it a meaningful debate or a cliché?

In a 2008 Third World Quarterly volume under the title ‘The Fallacy of the ‘Failed State’’, Charles T. Call opines that:

… the ‘failed states’ concept – and related terms like ‘failing’, ‘fragile’, ‘stressed’ and ‘troubled’ states – has become more of a liability than an asset. Foundations and think-tanks have rushed to fund work on ‘failing’ states, resulting in a proliferation of multiple, divergent and poorly defined uses of the term. Not only does the term ‘failing state’ reflect the schoolmarm’s scorecard according to linear index defined by a univocal Weberian end state, but it has also grown to encompass states as diverse as Colombia, East Timor, Indonesia, North Korea, Cote d’ IVoire, Haiti, Iraq and the Sudan.

Influenced by their fears, prejudices, aspirations, and ambitions, which are largely shaped by historical circumstances that give content to the current dynamics of politics, those who sustain the narrative of 30 years of failure are not invested in an objective, evidence-based debate but rather in the promotion of a cliché that South Africa is going to the dogs.

In his famous book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Jay Lifton popularised the concept of ‘thought-terminating cliché’, likened it to ‘loading the language’ and referred to it as ‘the language of non-thought’.  This characterisation of a cliché was conceptualised even more dramatically by Charles “Chaz” Bufe who referred to it as “thought-stopping phrases (that) include any use of the language, especially repeated phrases, to ward off forbidden thoughts”.

Those who charge that South Africa is either a failing or a failed state are mostly white (of all classes), the black middle class, and the black intelligentsia, whom, I argue, are the major beneficiaries of the economic largesse heralded by the post-Apartheid politico-constitutional order.

The white section of the population has a considerable financial muscle and either controls the media and/or has access to other agenda-setting platforms and formations. Think tanks like the South African Institute of Race Relations, the Helen Suzman Foundation, and right-wing organisations such as AfriForum, are critical platforms for agenda-setting, with substantial financial backing from their funders. AfriForum’s narrative of farmer genocide or ethnic cleansing and the ongoing legal tussle over whether certain struggle songs and chants constitute hate speech, as well as the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) push for devolution of certain national government’s functions to the Western Cape, all constitute agenda-setting, if not underpinned by resistance to being part of South Africa’s new order.

The news media have traditionally been influenced by negative reporting and, therefore, set the agenda for the perceived reality of a failing or a failed state. The weakness, in this regard, lies in the state media machinery’s inability to isolate areas of excellence and project them through both traditional and alternative forms of communication. This should not in any way negate the real inertia of some state institutions – which are exactly that: part of a whole whose functioning cannot be regarded as having failed.

The black middle class, often trapped in a dual identity crisis of being black and historically disadvantaged on the one hand and harbouring bourgeois aspirations on the other, comprises about 3.4 million people, translating into 7% of South Africa’s black African population, with a spending power of R400 billion per annum. While there has been a maturation of the black middle class in South Africa, part of this segment has experienced uneven integration into the first economy and as such has a general disillusionment with government, resulting in volatility in its political identity.

However, regardless of the level of the black middle class’s integration into the first economy, it is often viewed, and in many ways, views itself, as a critical driver of democracy and development. Given this role, the middle class is targeted for political alignment. And given its political orientation and behaviour, there is a widely-shared political view that this class is increasingly becoming ‘less progressive’ – in the language of the Left – which makes it easily ‘co-optible’. Even the new political entrants, ActionSA and Rise Mzansi, are casting their eyes on the black middle class. The DA and ActionSA are pursuing centre-right politics which seek to diminish the state’s role in the economy and in other aspects of the country’s social life. The state failure narrative fits in neatly with this political objective.

Like the black middle class, the black intelligentsia has been a motive force in shaping public discourse during and immediately after the formal end of Apartheid. The new South Africa has afforded the black intelligentsia more space to freely shape public discourse within the axis of politics of criticism and politics of tolerance, with those in power expected to be tolerant of criticism.

Over time, however, the black intelligentsia has largely demonstrated a notable trend, to paraphrase Trevor Ngwane and Patrick Bond (2020) “South Africa’s Shrinking Sovereignty: Economic Crises, Ecological Damage, Sub-Imperialism and Social Resistances”, of surrendering the sovereignty of its very mindset, which manifests in limited political theories and strategies associated with state transformation and transition. The result of this has been a dialectical relationship between what former president Thabo Mbeki once described as ‘a paralysis of thought’ and an uncritical acceptance of given phenomena and paradigms, such that dispassionate analyses and public commentary on issues of governance and leadership are spectacularly missing.

The notion of state failure suffers from this paralysis of thought. That South Africa is a failing state has been repeated so many times on public platforms and in the media, to the extent that that some have so easily accepted it as a true characterisation of our current state of affairs. It is as if the public space is either an echo chamber, in which one black intellectual after another simply agrees that South Africa is a failing or a failed state, or they are unable to see the elevation of thought-terminating clichés into the public discourse.

Yet the notion that South Africa is a failing or a failed state is not predicated on any intellectual rigour; for it is exposed by scholarly definitional limitations of a failing or a failed state, as expounded by scholars such as Jean-Germain Gros, Pinar Bilgin and Adam David Morton, Jeffery Record, Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner, Francis Fukuyama, Turkan Firinci Orman, and Charles T. Call, among many others.

We have argued elsewhere that the paralysis of thought results in “the seemingly irreversible trend of elevation of speculative inferences and falsehoods to a body of knowledge upon which society, and its constituent parts, must necessarily exercise choices.” Moreover, we argue that the public discourse “is increasingly descending into a spectre of public fraudulence, replete with a gamut of slurs, vague generalisations, and factual inaccuracies”.

In the context of everything I have said, the contradictions of our political economy, which have produced mixed socioeconomic outcomes for the population, do not warrant the conclusion that the past 30 years have been disastrous or that the South African state is failing or has failed. While the notion of state failure is being deliberately and intentionally elevated into the public discourse, it is in fact a spectre of public fraudulence owing to political blackmail and grandstanding. Thus, the narrative that South Africa’s 30 years of democracy were a total failure is factually false and inaccurate.

Zamokwakhe Ludidi Somhlaba is the Head of Political Risk Advisory and Research at Frontline Africa Advisory in Pretoria