South Africa: What chance a failed state?

James Pierson
James Pierson

Senior Researcher, Tactics Institute For Security & Counter Terrorism

After apartheid ended in 1994 and Nelson Mandela came to power, the international community lauded him for his conciliatory approach. Broadening out Archbishop Tutu’s concept of the Rainbow Nation, Mandela sought to reconcile the racial divisions of the past and move forward as one South Africa. A big part of this was the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, where those who had committed crimes and atrocities could atone by telling all without risk of prosecution. And undoubtedly it worked. South Africa didn’t descend into ethnic civil war as some feared and instead marched into the 21st Century.

But while Mandela’s approach, laudable as it was, allowed the country to move on from its past, there were many problems seeded by Apartheid’s poisonous legacy which sprouted and grew. These now threaten to cripple the fledgling nation and pose a serious threat to its economic and social fabric.

Corruption and a disparity in wealth greater than any other advanced nation are the biggest risks, but they flow from all the others. And ironically, some of the South African state’s failure to address these problems, and thus the current predicament the country finds itself in, is precisely, albeit inadvertently, because of the success Mandela had in peacefully transitioning the country out of the Apartheid era.

There were several organisations which opposed Apartheid, but the most important by far was the African National Congress (ANC), the movement led by Nelson Mandela and others, and which eventually formed the Post-Apartheid government. But even during the long struggle for freedom there were those who were disenchanted with the ANC, such as the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which advocated a more African-nationalist approach. Such groups never came close to garnering the support the ANC enjoyed, and this is something which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was the ANC’s bargaining power, which allowed it to first defeat Apartheid and then secure the rainbow nation. The curse is a certain arrogance and complacency which many observers believe has taken hold of the movement.

One major issue left over from the Apartheid era is the urgent need for land reform. Mention land reform regarding southern Africa and many people think of the disastrous, corrupt and vicious campaign by the Mugabe regime in neighbouring Zimbabwe to wrest land from white landowners and gift it to his supporters. This is unfortunate, because while Mugabe’s campaign was repressive and unforgivable, there is an urgent need for the issue to be addressed in South Africa. According to a 2017 land audit, 72% of arable land is in the hands of white landowners (whites making up just 10% of the population). The reason for this is historical, and dates back to land dispositions from the 17th century onwards, but Apartheid made the situation much worse by designating prize land as “whites only”. After Apartheid ended, the ANC pledged to rectify the problem and restore justice in resource ownership. But in the intervening twenty-eight years they have failed to make progress.

This feeds into a second problem leftover from the past and that is the remarkable level of disparity in wealth. Such is the extent of this that in 2019 the World Bank recognised South Africa as the most unequal nation on earth. The richest 20% of the population control 70% of the resources, and Oxfam South Africa points out that this elite remains predominantly white. A couple of examples: the average white, male CEO earns the same as 461 Black women in the bottom 10%; Black female graduates earn 24% less than their white counterparts; just shy of 3 in 10 Black households have no health insurance. Unemployment is now systematic, with the country recording a record high of 32.6% in the first quarter of 2021. While Covid has had an impact (see below) the rate has been steadily rising over the years and had reached 27% in 2017, long before the pandemic.

But Covid has hit the country hard. While the official death toll stands at 55,000, the South African Medical Research Council, a body which received funding from the government, puts the figure at 203,446, which is one of the worst in the world. Now in the grip of a third wave, which far outstrips the previous two, the country’s health system is struggling to cope. Previously the government resorted to banning alcohol so as to ease pressure on hospitals – South Africa has a tremendous problem with violence, particularly at weekends, the results of which regularly overwhelm Emergency Rooms – and visits to the beach.

All this would be enough for the most stable and well-functioning of countries, but South Africa is riven with corruption. A 1998 survey found 55% of the population believed civil servants took bribes. While in 2019 64% felt corruption had got worse over the past twelve months, and 70% thought their government wasn’t doing enough to tackle the problem. While “only” 18% of public service users admitted paying a bribe. Corruption scandals have plagued the government, with alarming regularity, and leading politicians have been implicated, not least Jacob Zuma, who served as President from 2009 to 2018.

Indeed, it was the arrest of Zuma which set off the most recent civil unrest, the worst since the end of Apartheid, a spate of rioting and looting which left 337 dead and led to 3,407 arrests. Zuma is a divisive figure who attracts great loyalty from supporters, but while his arrest might have sparked the riots, it’s difficult not to see them as symptomatic of a wider malaise. South Africa is a deeply troubled country, its institutions failing its populace and its government failing to address people’s concerns. With the ANC in power since the end of Apartheid, the establishment has become stultified.

In September 2020, the risk consultancy Eunomix Business and Economics published a report which predicted South Africa would become a failed state by 2030 should things not improve. The report stated “the pandemic is the last nail in the coffin of strategic fiasco…The economy is unsustainably narrow and shallow. It rests on a small and declining working population burdened by very high debt and taxes.”

Whether South Africa can avert becoming a failed state depends on whether the government can heed the desires of the populace for change. It’s not too late but the country’s outlook is bleak, and the problems are only getting worse. Without courageous leadership it can only be of matter of time before the “Rainbow Nation” attracts the ignominious label of “failed state.”

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