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25 August 2021 | Story Nitha Ramnath and Andre Damons

Despite some experts arguing that South Africa is a failing state that could not protect its citizens and property during the July unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, it was the ordinary people who came together and started the rebuilding process. It is the citizens, and not politicians, who are the key to the success of the country.  

This was the overall message from the four panellists at the University of the Free State (UFS) Thought-Leader webinar on Tuesday (24 August 2021). The webinar with the theme Is South Africa falling apart – where to from here? was the fourth in the series that forms part of the Free State Literature Festival’s online initiative, VrySpraak-digitaal.

The panel comprised Prof Bonang Mohale, UFS Chancellor and Chairman of Bidvest Group Limited; Ms Nikiwe Bikitsha, board member of the Nelson Mandela Foundation; Ms Qaanitah Hunter, political editor of News24; and Prof Anthony Turton, Affiliated Professor in the UFS Centre for Environmental Management.

South Africa is a failing state
Prof Turton said what happened in July was a collision of drivers rumbling around the national economy and in our society. He explained that once we understand what these five drivers are, we can start making predictions about the future with a relative degree of confidence and understanding about what policy changes we need to make in order to enable a better future.

According to Prof Turton, these drivers are state failure, and resource closure. South Africa has a fundamentally water-constrained economy. Climate change is fundamental to the country and is impacting our water security and the relentless march towards the fiscal cliff that will be the ultimate game changer. The last driver is the systematic marginalisation of the private sector and the reduction of the private sector in this developmental state model to one with the sole purpose of generating taxes.

“State failure is when a unit of government fails to interpret signals from its operational environment about things that are about to change, and then turning those signals into a coherent response that is adequately resourced. We saw this play out in the water and energy sectors, and we now see it play out in the security cluster. In all cases, the state has failed to identify the drivers of change and therefore anticipating the degree of risk that had to be mitigated. Policy and other responses were therefore inappropriate or inadequate.”

“I would argue that South Africa is a failing state, and all things being equal, this is a profoundly disturbing set of circumstances. I am optimistic, because what I have seen in July when the forces collided, was the destruction of the myth about the impotence of the South African civil society. On the contrary, we have a vibrant civil society, and attempts to reignite racial divisions and to disrupt the supply chain have failed. We have managed to rebuild the supply chain in a very short period, notwithstanding the massive looting and violence that have taken place,” said Prof Turton.

According to him, South Africans have now reset the conversation and the national agenda, where politicians are becoming less relevant and the propensity of looking at government for all of our solutions as citizens, is outdated. “I think this has changed, because government is unable to supply those solutions. Civil society has stepped into the vacuum left by the failing state and has shown that it can do what needs to be done.”

Prof Turton said a new approach is needed and is already emerging in the form of an entity called the Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI).

Burn the house with South Africans inside
Hunter said South Africa did not expect the protection of our state to be shook to its core – the result of a thread of lawlessness perpetuated by a former statesman for more than two decades. For the past two decades, former president Jacob Zuma has flirted with the rule of law; the same democracy he fought for, he now flouts, using fear tactics in defiance of the Constitutional Court and creating the impression that the law should not apply to him, while skirting accountability on every front.

“Jacob Zuma never believed he would go to prison – he made a mockery of the criminal justice system.” According to Hunter, the recent protests were not only orchestrated by a central command, but it was also a classic case of the former statesman taking advantage of the fault lines in society and weaponising this for his own interest, together with the internal factions within the ruling ANC.  

“The security cluster was broken in an effort to serve Jacob Zuma, and this was evident in the July unrest. The unrest has seen the clash of politics, people taking advantage of the broken political system, criminality at play, and the failure of the state to keep its people safe and secure,” said Hunter.

Prof Mohale agreed that the security cluster and intelligence services, which are mandated to protect South Africans, stood back helplessly.

“Instead of investing in intelligence in South Africa, money was looted. This is only one part of irrefutable evidence that the state has been failing for a long time, and the recent unrest was deliberately intended to cause maximum damage,” said Prof Mohale.

Both Hunter and Prof Mohale agreed that the ruling party was willing to burn down the house with all South Africans inside to settle their internal scores.

We belong to each other, not to a political party
However, the resilience of South Africans shocked the perpetrators of the unrest, demonstrating that amid the losses, South Africans are committed to the success of South Africa.

“We must move beyond organised politics for the future of South Africa, and this was evident in the role played by communities during the unrest. South African politicians squandered the goodwill that South Africa had,” said Hunter.

Bikitsha focused her presentation on two quotes – one from an article in the New Frame that stated, “South Africa is not a viable society for a large proportion of the people who live here, and if history is a reliable guide to the future, something will have to give.” The second is from the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, who delivered the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture last year: “We belong to each other.”

“The question around South Africa’s recovery presupposes that the state in which South Africa was before the uprising, was an ideal one. As the New Frame suggests, this society has been in disarray, too many people are destitute, and too many people are in despair and live in a marginal society. A country that despises, punishes, and kills women. Many people have never worked and probably never will. So, to me the question about recovery does not arise. The more appropriate question that we seek to ponder is, how do we make this a viable country for the majority?”

According to her, the response to what has been described as an orchestrated attack of political opportunism or criminality, is a genuine attempt by all South Africans to make this a viable society for all, as envisaged by the constitution.

In order to make this society a viable one for all, South Africa needs to act with urgency and determination to interrupt the intergenerational cycle of poverty and inequality.

She concluded by saying that the voices of ordinary people should be elevated and prioritised. “We belong to each other, we do not belong to a political party, we belong to this country. An example of this is what we saw when the community responded by taking ownership of their environment and saying, we belong together; and that, I think, should be the centre of our democracy.”


LISTEN: Is South Africa falling apart – where to from here?


• The recording of the webinar can be found at   

Passcode: V@Ub1g6D

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