What kind of state are we in?

ANTHONY BUTLER: In search of a state that failed even to exist

First published in BL PREMIUM

22 JULY 2021

We know we’re in a bit of a state, but what kind of state are we in?

Before 1994 South Africans lived in a pariah state. Soon experts warned the new SA might become a one-party state. Then the ANC decided we were a developmental state. National planning commissioners later proposed a capable state.

Last year matters got worse. The Eunomix consultancy warned of SA’s precipitous decline into a “failed state” by 2030. This concept has been widely embraced in the aftermath of last week’s tragic events, which have entertainingly been described by President Cyril Ramaphosa as a planned insurrection. Opposition leader John Steenhuisen claimed co-ordinated looting could “accelerate SA’s descent to a failed state”.

The realities of a weak tax system, porous borders, corruption and large scale criminality are real enough, but the label “failed state” is misleading. The “modern state” that is purportedly in danger of failing has never existed here. It is an idea — a fantasy — drawn from continental Europe and exported, imposed or emulated around the world across the 20th century.

Our ideas about the state mostly come from late 19th century Germans: little wonder, then, that they capture the German state better than they capture ours. Karl Marx famously popularised the idea that the capitalist state cannot help but maximise relentless profit-making by property owners. Try telling SA’s business people that this is what their “capitalist state” does.

An even cleverer German, Max Weber, defined the state as “a compulsory association which organises domination”. Such a state claims “a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence” in a territory. Visitors to Germany today can observe just such control over a territory, with effective taxation and mechanisms for the control of crime.

Such ideas do not capture — and have never captured — the realities in SA or most of the global South. Where Business Day readers live and work ADT and its equivalents possess a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Elsewhere, “community policing” and vigilante groups hold sway.

Control of the territory? People move into and out of the country quite freely, and so-called “traditional leaders” exercise power with little regard to the supreme law that purportedly governs the state.

Debates about state failure can be a distraction from the more fruitful debates in which South Africans might engage. Three dimensions of the nation’s predicament are especially obscured by the failed state narrative.

First, we cannot have both a developmental state and a welfare state. Either we invest in the future, or we continue to devote a growing share of available resources to consumption, most particularly in an irreversible growth in our social protection systems.

Second, citizens and political leaders must decide whether an amended version of Western-derived constitutional democracy will work here. Anticolonial sentiment and decolonial analysis have been used to justify both apartheid-era traditional leadership and the hazardous institutional prescriptions of the Chinese party-state. Is either of these really what SA needs?

Finally, we have to embrace or reject what DA policy head Gwen Ngwenya illuminatingly calls the private “parallel state”. The wealthy work online, or in fortified business parks and office blocks. They shop in suburban malls from which poor citizens are excluded by poverty and private security forces.

Gated “privatopias”, surrounded by electrified fences, allow increasing numbers of residents to enjoy private health-care, gyms, shops and restaurants. Predominantly white in the past, these communities are increasingly multiracial.

Is the privatisation of apartheid more acceptable when apartness is defined by class rather than by race?

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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