The one thing keeping South Africa from becoming a failed state

 ·14 Jun 2023

While South Africa may tick many boxes that economists and analysts ascribe to failed states, the country still has a core of “moral individuals” who will help keep things in check – even if things deteriorate further.

This is according to Efficient Group economist Francois Stofberg, who says South Africa’s government has effectively failed to bring equitable progress to the country, so individuals will have to step up as they have done so many times in the past.

South Africa, the failed state?

Economists, analysts, business leaders and more have warned that South Africa is heading towards becoming a failed state if it hasn’t already become one.

Stofberg said that, by many measures, South Africa has already hit the mark.

“A state consists of four elements: citizens, territory, government, and sovereignty,” he said.

“The government exercises power and authority on behalf of the state by formulating the will of the state into laws, and then implementing and enforcing those laws.

“Therefore, even though they are distinguishable, the idea is that if the government fails, the state fails too,” he said.

A failed state is a state that has lost its effective ability to govern its people – much like the position that South Africa is currently in, the economist said.

“A failed state maintains legal sovereignty but experiences a breakdown in political power, law enforcement, and civil society, leading to a state of anarchy. Some might say that South Africa ticks this box too.”

However, Stofberg said that failed states exist as a spectrum, and even Zimbabwe and Venezuela are not examples of extreme cases like Syria or Somalia.

For an objective measure of whether a state has failed or not, many turn to the Fragile States Index (FSI), which considers key elements of a country, like cohesion, politics, economics, social well-being, and the level of external intervention.

“The FSI shows that, while South Africa has been on a decline over recent years, we are still far from being a failed state – that is, being a country with a ‘very high alert’,” he said.

Currently, South Africa ranks as the 79th most fragile country out of 179 – and is still better off than some of peer nations, such as Brazil, India, and Turkey.

Peering into the abyss

However, even if South Africa isn’t a failed state by FSI standards, it doesn’t mean the country is in the clear. But there are fundamentals in play that help stave off government’s failures.

Stofberg previously outlined five key pillars that are holding South Africa from “falling into the abyss”, including the country’s love of democracy, freedom of speech, an independent central bank, the rule of law and strong financial markets.

The economist added, however, that underpinning each of these – keeping the country moving forward despite the government’s abject failures – is what he calls the “moral individual”.

“At the heart of these five forces lies the ‘moral individual’. An individual who takes responsibility, who takes ownership of their own life, who is accountable and resilient. But also an individual who understands their responsibility towards the community,” he said.

The economist stressed that although these moral individuals are few, a remnant of them remains in South Africa.

“For this reason, even if our government should deteriorate further, as we expect it will, the remnant of moral individuals will ultimately produce constructive progress,” he said.

“In many rich countries, governments ensure that the mentioned five forces, among others, move an economy towards equitable progress. But, because the South African government has failed, the moral individual must, once again, step up, as they have done so many times before.”

Stofberg said that the only option for the government to stem its decline is for it to “fundamentally change” – and this will only happen with new people in power.

“Our current ruling party has been in power for too long; we have become too bureaucratic, too slow, and too fixed in our ways. We need a new growth mindset, but, most importantly, we need accountable action. We need strong leadership and moral individuals in government,” he said.

Read: South Africa not becoming the ‘next Zimbabwe’: economist

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