Thinking about State Failure (III)

RW Johnson writes on civil society's response, and the rise of Solidarity and AfriForum

I have argued that under ANC tutelage the South African state is failing. It is failing to maintain law and order, it is failing to maintain the country’s infrastructure and it is on a roller coaster ride towards a debt crisis.

Of course, Jacob Zuma famously declared that the ANC will rule “until Jesus comes back” but this claim was based on the simple-minded assumption that racial identity voting will be sufficient to keep the ANC in power. It ignores the fact that already the ANC commands the support of far less of the electorate than it did in 1994-1999 and the inevitable further shrinkage of its vote as per capita incomes shrink and unemployment and poverty grow.

More fundamentally, of course, such a view takes no account of the hammer blow that would be constituted by an IMF bail-out nor the probable split in the ANC that that would cause. It also discounts too easily the sheer desperation which state failure generates. Few imagined, for example, that the DA could ever take power in Nelson Mandela Bay – Port Elizabeth had been the crucible of the ANC - but the ANC had ransacked the city and run it into the ground to a point which made even ANC loyalists desperate for change.

Now imagine that the state’s failure to maintain water infrastructure causes that city to run out of water and causes the closure of all the car plants in that area. This could easily happen: currently the city’s dams are only 17.5% full. (And it’s already happened in Makhanda (Grahamstown), not far away.) The social and economic consequences of such a failure would be colossal. And that is only one example of state failure. Many others threaten. We know, for example, that the state has failed properly to maintain most of the bridges over the highways in Jo’burg, that the state’s failure to control illegal mining has seen Jo’burg honeycombed with potential sinkholes and that Jo’burg’s roads are in an advanced state of delapidation. It is just a matter of time before our biggest city encounters disaster of some kind.

Moreover, the ANC is anyway being gradually forced along a road which either leads to an IMF bailout or to the ANC having of its own accord to carry out large growth-enhancing reforms. These are the only alternatives to a future of worse and worse economic failure. Either way, the ANC will become a different party, shorn of many of its policies and, probably, some of its ideology.

The movement away from the state

The ANC’s loss of support and state failure, though clearly connected, are, however, two different things. Irrespective of the ANC’s support level people have already noticed the government’s inability to implement almost anything. Government credibility is very low and cynicism pervasive. In such a situation power tends to slip towards wherever there is capability and decision.

This is likely to happen first at municipal level where the collapse of municipal government will force residents to take the initiative. This follows precedent elsewhere in Africa – e.g. in Kenya where in many towns residents long since clubbed together to provide themselves with services which the broken down municipalities no longer provide. Already AfriForum has stepped in to assist this process in some South African towns.

A stampede away from reliance on the state has been under way for some time. Many residents have invested in solar panels and boreholes in order to be no longer dependent on the state for electricity and water and those who can rely on private health, security, education and transport. Moreover, as the state gets weaker it is less capable of collecting revenue. Illegal water and electricity connections multiply and only 25% of TV-owners now pay the license fee. Already the collection of traffic fines has broken down in many jurisdictions. In general taxpayers regard their payment of taxes and charges as optional: it depends on what you can get away with. The recent lockdown regulations have led many to explore how to avoid paying tax on tobacco and alcohol.

Meanwhile more and more groups are taking the law into their own hands – gangsters, taxi associations, so-called military veterans, community groups and even the Defence Force itself. Simultaneously the judiciary is under attack and the authority of the courts is increasingly defied. This too breeds a general disrespect for the law and the authority of government.

As this ethic becomes more entrenched people will become more assertive in seeking out the state’s lacunae. For example, President Ramaphosa has frequently declared that independent power production must take place, and that cities and companies can generate their own power. In practice, however, Gwede Mantashe blocks any such changes. How long before a company or a city announces that they are going to take the President at his word? Moreover, with so many groups in society frustrated and annoyed by government’s failings, there is the prospect of a domino effect, with one act of defiance being followed by another and another.

This raises several questions. First, while the state is losing power and the fiscal squeeze means that it is bound to lose more, how does that square with the fact that the one thing the ANC elite is determined about is that it must be in charge? This conundrum has already been solved elsewhere in Africa. In effect one finds a Potemkin government which can do or decide very little. Ministers can be persuaded to settle for this reduced position provided they retain their pay, perks, bodyguards and what we might term their extra-mural sources of income.

Secondly, with government occupying less social and political space, what forces will move in to fill the gaps?

Western Cape autonomy

A much-mooted suggestion is that of an autonomous or even independent Western Cape, though many practical difficulties lie in the path of such a development. These start with the fact that the weakness and corruption of provincial government elsewhere in the country means that there is no general demand for a federal devolution of power, merely a Western Cape-specific demand. Inevitably this makes the demand separatist.

The ANC is bitterly opposed not only to separatism but even to a greater degree of federalism, claiming it is apartheid-inspired. The DA, which rules the Western Cape, is determined to avoid such accusations or any illegal assertion of provincial power. This leaves the two parties in agreement that they should simply ignore demands for a more autonomous Cape. This de facto pact is likely to last unless there is a forceful expression of popular support for an autonomous (or independent) Western Cape, either in an election or a referendum. Since neither the ANC nor the DA have any thought of facilitating such an event, whether matters proceed further will depend on whether a third party actor (one of the Cape independence groups or the Freedom Front +) can seize the initiative.

However, the shrinkage of central state power is likely to push the Western Cape to take over more functions. Both the province and Cape Town would like to generate their own electric power and the Western Cape water crisis of 2017-18 made it clear that neither the city nor the province can afford to rely on the central government for its water security.

No one is in doubt that if a second such water crisis occurs voters will overwhelmingly hold the city and province responsible. The constitution may say that water is a national competence but the voters of the Western Cape have already given up on the national government where water is concerned. Similarly, it is clear that if the province or city want a working railway they will have to take over its operation.

However, this gradual accumulation of functions can only continue if the province is able to generate its own tax revenue. In practise that could only occur if the province could take over some of the tax revenue which currently goes to the central state. This remains the crux of the matter.

However, whatever happens with the Western Cape is unlikely to provide a model for the rest of the country. True, from time to time the Zulu King revives the cry for an independent KwaZulu-Natal but the viability of such a project has always depended on the alliance seen during the Natal Indaba between the provincial business community and Zulu traditionalists. The King is unable to inspire such a broad coalition. Nonetheless, the province’s history, together with its possession of a long coastline and the country’s two biggest ports, always means that autonomy is an option.

The liberal tradition

In a sense the Western Cape situation is merely a special case of the more general situation created by the growth of the liberal tradition in post-1994 South Africa. That tradition is institutionally centred around the DA but also includes NGOs such as the SA Institute of Race Relations and the Helen Suzman Foundation and has many sympathizers within the mainstream Christian churches and the Jewish community.

Contrary to the expectations of many, this tradition blossomed in the era of universal suffrage. For the first time in the country’s history liberalism escaped from its tiny ghetto on the fringes and became the chief opposition force, commanding nearly a quarter of the national vote. The towns that it captured were in general run in plunder-free fashion and thus stood in such sharp contrast to ANC governance as to constitute an effective counter-society. Visitors to the Western Cape repeatedly remarked that they felt they had entered a different – and far better run - country.

The strength of this liberal current was based on a growing multi-racial coalition which increased its position at every election between 1994 and 2016, thus creating a formidable enthusiasm and momentum. Remarkably, it faltered and fell back not because of any action by its opponents but solely through unforced errors of its own. As in tennis, though, when one sees a leading player cede game after game thanks to double faults, the reason invariably lies in a psychological frailty of some kind, a failure of self-belief.

Whether liberalism can regain its momentum remains to be seen. Certainly, its crise de confiance could not have come at a worse time for, faced with growing state failure and the weakening of the ANC, the scene was set for dramatic further DA gains and thus the effective growth of a liberal state-within-a-state.

Of course, many civil society activists would claim that the gap left by the receding state would be filled by civil society groups. This is rather wishful: most NGOs are weak, depend on a handful of activists and, of course, have no democratic basis. Moreover, the most powerful voluntary associations in society – the churches and the trade unions – have both lost a good deal of ground. There is, however, one outstanding exception – the expanding network of institutions around the Solidarity Movement.

Solidarity and AfriForum

The Solidarity movement has spawned a whole series of related institutions, all resting on the Afrikaans tradition of self-help. Solidarity boasts of the involvement of 500,000 families in its work – a large proportion of the entire Afrikaans community. AfriForum, its “civil rights organization”, has some 235,000 members.

Solidarity’s family of institutions includes Maroela Media, one of the largest press agencies in the country, providing free news; the Pretoria FM radio station; the FAK cultural organization; the Sol-Tech vocational college; Solidarity Helping Hand; Solidarity’s university, Akademia, the Support Centre for Schools; the Study Fund Centre, offering interest-free study loans; S-Leer, its adult education branch; Forum Films, making films for cinema and TV; Kanton Properties, a property investment company; the Solidarity Legal Fund, Building Fund and History Fund; Saai, an organization of family farmers; Kraal Publishers; Wolkskool (online schooling); the Verseker, Campus and De Kock Trusts and various other associated institutions such as the Small Business Institute.

This undoubtedly represents a formidable feat of organization, particularly since its organizers boast that this entire body of institutions has been built on millions of tiny donations – they get no help from government or from large corporations. The first R100 million spent on Sol-Tech, for example, came from a mass of small contributions, of which the largest was R10.

Akademia’s new campus, costing over R1 billion, has also been paid for by voluntary contributions. This has been possible only because Solidarity has harnessed the enthusiasm, and dedication of an entire community. When one hears how the campus of Sol-Tech was completed on time and below budget one glimpses a very different world than that of government public works, with its kickbacks, cost over-runs and procurement rackets. This is the Calvinist world of the Afrikaner Protestant ethic

The rise and lengthy dominance of the old National Party was built around a similar family of institutions, ranging from the Afrikaner Broederbond to the Afrikaans universities and the Dutch Reformed Church. In the end these bodies took over the entire state so that all state bodies from the Post Office to the railways, the SABC and the SADF incorporated the same values. The extraordinary success of this framework in achieving the collective upward mobility of an entire community was memorably analysed in Heribert Adam and Hermann Giliomee’s Ethnic Power Mobilized (1979). However, the rapid eclipse and disappearance of the National Party after 1994 saw this entire structure fall apart.

The achievement of Flip Buys, Kallie Kriel and the other Solidarity leaders has been to reconstruct this whole new family of institutions, not only without the supportive help of the state institutions which the National Party once controlled but without the assistance of the Afrikaans universities, the Dutch Reformed Church or many other of the Establishment institutions which once governed Afrikaans life.

State within a state

Most interesting from our point of view is that what is termed the Greater Solidarity Movement is quite explicitly building a state within a state. Its aim is to “enable the Afrikaners to survive in Africa”, not through isolation in an Orania but thanks to “self-government”. It sees its challenge as how to provide state services without a state’s revenue:

“The ANC could not govern the country before the Covid-19 crisis, could not do so during the crisis

and will be even less capable of doing so after the crisis. The state is failing and self-government is the only answer. For this reason we are going to expand these monuments of hope into a comprehensive cultural infrastructure that will enable Afrikaners to be permanently free, safe and prosperous .... We have been asking the ANC for long enough to govern us well. They do not want to, nor can they govern well. For that reason we are going to start managing ourselves...He who does not provide for his own future will receive the morsels of a future others leave for him. We expect more from ourselves. We are free citizens, not obliging subjects.”

As will be seen, not only is the Solidarity Movement incomparably stronger than any other part of civil society but it is also far more assertive and ambitious. That said, the movement is keen to turn its back on the apartheid past. It wants to “bring about a South Africa where all will be free and equal before the law and will be treated with dignity and fairness”. It stresses “self-reliance” as the answer to “state decay” and emphasises “Christian democratic values” and a free market economy. It is particularly concerned with minority rights and has taken up a great variety of legal cases. While the Afrikaans community is closest to its heart it has also offered legal assistance to members of other racial groups.

The Solidarity movement has had links with liberal organizations but it has also collided with them. The two traditions are an organizational contrast: the liberal current is dominated by the DA with only a few and relatively weak NGOs, whereas Solidarity is the opposite. It has no formal political function although most of its activists belong to the Freedom Front +. Yet the FF+ is small and weak compared to the burgeoning institutional presence of the Solidarity movement.

The Solidarity movement incurs hostility from those who see it as merely a re-incarnation of the Afrikaner nationalist movement. Indeed, the absurd point has been reached where, for example, Solidarity’s anger over farm murders is viewed as somehow reactionary. Sometimes there are even attempts to “prove” that farm murders aren’t so bad.

Solidarity/AfriForum did itself few favours with its recent video, Disrupted Land. Critics were outraged by passages in which the history of apartheid was noticeably soft-soaped (Verwoerd, it turns out, can be forgiven much because he was “a philosopher”). This provoked a bitter denunciation from Gareth van Onselen and caused the SA Institute of Race Relations to break off relations with AfriForum. All this could have been avoided if AfriForum had stuck to its declared belief that all must be free and equal before the law and treated with dignity and fairness. Such sentiments necessarily involve a condemnation of apartheid, after all.

In a sense, though, this explosion of indignation misses the point. Apartheid ended effectively in 1990, a generation ago. Since then memories have dimmed and meanwhile the foreground has been taken up by all the frustrations, crimes and injustices of ANC rule. Understandably, many Afrikaans people are conscious of how unfairly their own language, schools and culture have been treated, how truly dreadful the farm murders are, and how many Afrikaners with real skills and qualifications have been forced into emigration so that their jobs can be taken by people who often lack their skills and qualifications. The burden of the present is heavy enough, in other words. Then, however, history has to be confronted and everyone knows that apartheid is the mark of Cain.

So at this point the film wheels out some middle aged aunties to soft-soap apartheid. The real point about this is what these women are saying, in effect is “we aren’t bad people, we know everyone condemns apartheid but we didn’t mean any harm, or not much anyway”.

This happens because if you are trying to build a political or social movement it is vital that those who join it feel that their cause is righteous. You can’t very well build a successful movement by stressing that in the previous generation your side got everything politically and morally wrong. So we all know why those aunties are reasoning as they do. It’s human enough.

Yet, of course, it’s also fatally not good enough. The Solidarity movement has had the sense to embrace equality, fairness and the rule of law and to make it clear that it has no wish to return to apartheid. So it needs to mean that and repeat it at every juncture. However human a bit of self-excusing is, it simply won’t do. It’s true that apartheid was not the Holocaust and that its designation as a crime against humanity is contested but it was wrong and often cruel and it damaged many lives. Its bad reputation was fully deserved and cannot be glossed over.

What does seem clear is that as the state weakens further the Solidarity movement will loom larger in the space thus vacated. The fact that the movement has seen state failure for what it is and openly embraced this alternative role for itself contrasts strongly with the DA’s determination to play a narrowly legalistic role whatever the changing circumstances.

Moreover, the Solidarity movement may have tired of the situation in which its huge audience involves itself in the host of Solidarity institutions for most of the time but then votes DA when elections come. If it now decides to push its members towards the Freedom Front +, the results could be striking.

Meanwhile, if Solidarity intervenes on the ground to prop up ailing municipalities it could well generate a tail of non-Afrikaans support for, as we remarked before, in a situation like ours power tends to slip towards wherever there is capacity and decision. Given South Africa’s history it is difficult to feel surprised that when the going gets tough political Afrikanerdom re-enters the scene.

The first contest between these two currents seems likely to come in the next local elections when the Freedom Front + promises to campaign for an independent Western Cape. However, this could be merely a sideshow. If the ANC elite senses that its state power is slipping it will be deeply provoked by the sight of the old enemy – die Boere – stepping in to play a larger role.

What also ups the ante is that the state is now so fragile. For example, faced with an IMF bail-out the ANC might tear itself apart or just implode. Or if the ANC introduced NHI – as it threatens to do – most of the country’s doctors and a large proportion of its professional and business classes would emigrate. There would be huge losses of jobs and capital and the health system would collapse.

Moreover the ANC is now irremediably factionalized and yet the country can tolerate rule by only one of those factions. This used not to be so. When the Mbeki and Zuma factions fought the country could live with either result – there was even some relief when the paranoid and Aids-denialist Mbeki left the scene. Now, however, no matter how ineffectual and hopeless Ramaphosa may be, the country would not easily survive any alternative to him.

If, for example, the RET faction plus Malema deposed Ramaphosa – or even merely succeeded him – there would be utter panic among the minorities and the business community at the thought of rule by Magashule, Malema and their ilk. There would be huge losses of capital and skills to emigration and the state might founder.

Equally, such an outcome might trigger an attempted UDI in the Western Cape as people sought by any means to remove themselves from rule by looters and minority-haters. Solidarity, too, would probably not take such an outcome lying down. Again, the state could founder. We live on much narrower margins now. Thinking about state failure is something we have to do.

R.W. Johnson