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South Africa’s fear of state failure

For a man who had been held up at gunpoint the previous evening, Mmusi Maimane was on surprisingly good form, when I met him in Cape Town this month. Maimane, one of South Africa’s leading opposition politicians, was in a suburban restaurant when armed men entered, forced all the diners to lie on the floor and robbed them.

“I didn’t sleep too well last night,” he conceded, before pointing out that poorer South Africans are the main victims of crime. “On an average day 67 South Africans are murdered and the conviction rate is below 15 per cent,” he notes.

A high crime rate is not surprising in a country where the official rate of unemployment is 34.5 per cent and youth unemployment is over 60 per cent. Power cuts are a part of everyday life and reached up to nine hours a day in Johannesburg, the commercial capital, this summer. After cross-country riots a year ago, there is a fear that South Africa is primed for further civil unrest. Thabo Mbeki, a former president, recently warned that South Africa could soon face the equivalent of an Arab Spring.

When I asked Maimane if he would agree that South Africa is now a failed state, his reply was carefully phrased, but quietly devastating: “It’s an incompetent government leading a state that is about to fail.”

The grim mood in South Africa reflects disappointment with the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. When he took over in 2018, there was widespread hope that he could rescue the country from the depths it had descended into during the disastrous nine-year presidency of Jacob Zuma, when corruption was rampant.

But Ramaphosa himself has now been implicated in graft, after the alleged discovery of millions of US dollars, stuffed into sofa cushions on his game farm. Even those who are reluctant to believe that the president is personally corrupt often accuse him of laziness and an inability to get things done.

Ramaphosa talks eloquently about the need to repair the damage left behind by Zuma. But many key state institutions — from power generation to the police and railways — are still highly dysfunctional. Rich South Africans can often find a way around a crumbling state, relying on private electricity generators, private security and even private fire engines. But Siya Khumalo, a prominent writer, expresses a common view when he says that under Ramaphosa, “things are falling apart, faster than they are being fixed”.

Ramaphosa clearly has his flaws. But he is hedged in by the corrupt and dysfunctional political party that he leads. The African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, is now bluntly described as a “criminal organisation” by Songezo Zibi, a leading political commentator. Herman Mashaba, a former mayor of Johannesburg who leads the new political party Action SA, dismisses the ANC, saying: “I can’t work with a criminal organisation.”

The fact that Zibi and Mashaba can say this sort of thing is both good and bad. It is bad that the ANC is now so discredited. It is good that South Africa remains a free country, where opposition politicians can speak out without fear of retribution.

With crime so high and infrastructure crumbling, there are those in the middle class who mutter about the need for an enlightened dictator — a South African equivalent of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. But, in general, South Africans remain attached to their democracy. They know that most African dictators are the unenlightened variety, like the late Robert Mugabe who brought neighbouring Zimbabwe to its knees.

South Africa is now thought to be host to more than a million migrants, who have fled Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy and brutal government. This is a source of increasing tension in South Africa, with vigilante groups and populist politicians blaming immigrants for crime and unemployment and demanding mass expulsions.

The influx of Zimbabweans is both a warning for South Africa and a kind of compliment. It demonstrates the depths to which a “post-liberation” country can be brought. But it is also shows that South Africa, despite its high unemployment, remains the regional powerhouse and a magnet for those seeking work.

Despite his fears about state failure, Maimane can also tick off the strengths of South Africa: a strong financial sector, good roads, lots of qualified professionals, well-run private companies, an independent central bank and judiciary, wonderful scenery that make the country a magnet for tourists.

The fear remains that those real advantages could yet be frittered away. As confidence in Ramaphosa declines, many reformists are looking forward to the national elections due in 2024.

It is widely anticipated that, for the first time since the end of apartheid, the ANC’s share of the vote will slip below 45 per cent. That would open the door for a coalition government.

The real pessimists argue that a coalition will be more chaotic and not necessarily more effective — pointing to the mixed results of such administrations that have already taken power in cities and provinces around South Africa.

But continued stagnation and decline under the current arrangements is not a viable option. The ANC has done great things for South Africa in the past. The best thing it could do for the country’s future would be to lose the next election and leave power.

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