Until not too long ago, there was a belief that the miracle of 1994 set South Africa on the path towards prosperity and growth. We were told the peaceful transition heralded the birth of a rainbow nation that would do great things collectively – for all to have a better economic life.
We also heard of a developmental state and the ruling party’s aspiration to become one many times. The construction of such a state was to extend beyond just the ideological, and it was to be realised through policies and implementable programmes such as rural development and infrastructure investment. Tellingly, the abovementioned has always been driven by ambitious leaders who perceive the country from a developed perspective despite the reality of it not being so.
The dominant political party seems to have, on the one hand, a few ideas about what it takes to turn the country into a model of successful development, and on the other hand, a few beliefs about economics. One of the ANC’s firm beliefs is that South Africa has economic potential and offers rewarding opportunities for domestic and international businesses that invest their resources in the local economy. In other words, business and investment can foster growth, job creation and development.
Yet we have witnessed an ANC-led government at the helm of a state that is captured by money, interest groups, and an arrogant commitment to self-enrichment instead of the people’s livelihood.
Relatedly, rather than correct the entrenched corrupt practices and punish those implicated, the ruling party has erected mechanisms and measures to delay accountability and justice as seen in the ‘step aside’ notion as a corrective for wrongdoing.
This political class group passionately believes that their role is to govern forever because they were once freedom fighters.
More troubling is the belief that their ANC is the only party capable of heralding economic empowerment to the people. Unsurprisingly, rhetoric has become the theatre of action for this elite, such as asserting to fight white monopoly capital, the ‘culprit’ responsible for poverty and inhumane economic conditions.
Worse still, there is an incompatibility between the idolised Soviet leaning ideologies that champions a socialist economy, redistribution of wealth and a government that controls the means of production and economic liberalism that promotes cooperation, integration an thriving economy with lower inequality.
Today, South Africa faces deepening inequality, poor economic performance, poverty and other innumerable crises (as illustrated by endemic youth unemployment, increased violence against women, crime, the collapse of key state entities, and frequent power outages) amplified by the pandemic.
We are now hearing less about the ideological aspirations and more about the dangers of becoming a failing state.
One of the characteristics of a failing/failed state is its inability to effectively perform functions such as meeting the needs of its citizenry through public services. The latter can lead to another characteristic: escalating conflict because of the state’s ineffectiveness. The service delivery protests, July riots and the current protest against undocumented foreign nationals are examples of contributors that could undermine state stability.
Therefore, it was refreshing to hear a senior government official speak out against the trail South Africa is on – one that will culminate in a failed state.
When Dondo Mogajane, the Director-General at National Treasury, purposefully and harshly criticised, among others, the lack of accountability, the egotism of public servants, and the inability to implement programmes successfully, his words were neither staid nor playing to the gallery. On the contrary, his reprimand should be grappled with by those (citizens like myself, business, political leaders and other influential members/organisations of society) who wish to see successful economic development in South Africa – state-led or not.
In adding to what Mogajane said, I would remind political leaders of the opposition and ruling parties, in national and local government, and in metros and small municipalities, that countries that have experienced successful economic transformation emphasised meritocratic bureaucracy and the rule of law. Furthermore, as we have seen with Japan then and China now, pragmatism prevailed over ideology.
In both cases, the government knew when to let non-state actors into the economy, reforming policies to adapt to the changes brought on by marketisation and ensuring social stability.
Another possible way the country may evolve and avoid being a failed state is if political stability and economic growth become the standard value uniting the ANC, the opposition and the population. However, the prospect of such a common goal is minuscule, because the self-interest of the politicians will prevent them from making it a reality.
Instead, a potentially dynamic South African economy is uniformly harmed and reduced to the spectre of chaos, much to the detriment of its people.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for the future is not a happy one. How can it be when politicians insist that the inexorable march of South Africa to being/becoming a failing/failed state continues?