DAVID LEWIS: Spare a thought for those the state has failed
For the poor the state of the government is a little worse than merely annoying
Recently there has been much public debate — not least in the pages of this newspaper — over whether SA is accurately described as a “failed state”, or at least as one that is in the process of failing. You may be reassured to know that the punditry agree, with a greater or lesser degree of stridency, that the state has not (yet) failed.
The straw men hauled out of the closet to reject the view that the SA state has failed or is failing are those states that, all agree, have failed most comprehensively — Somalia, for example, or the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen. Indeed, notwithstanding that each of these states remain members of the UN, they do not meet the classic Weberian definition of a functional state — one that maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders — and are thus deemed to have failed.
Yet while the SA state may well be adjudged to function on a variety of other metrics, it is close to failing on Max Weber’s narrow definition of a functioning state. I’ll return to this later. I firmly believe that to a significant extent it is the beholder’s eye that has to be factored into the judgment as to whether the state has failed.
Consider this description of a failed state: one that “suffers from crumbling infrastructures, faltering utility supplies and educational and health facilities, and deteriorating basic human development indicators, such as infant mortality and literacy rates. Failed states create an environment of flourishing corruption and negative growth rates, where honest economic activity cannot flourish.”
Does this sound familiar? If you live, as I do, in the middle-class suburbs, you may well experience “crumbling infrastructures” and “faltering utility supplies”, but if your solar panels and boreholes are not already in place you’re probably in line to acquire them, and you’ll be able to partly overcome the deficits in public services. By the same token, you will not have to worry about your child dying at or shortly after birth, because you will not be using the public health system.
However, if you cannot afford to self-privatise these services, God knows you may just experience all your woes as a series of failures of the state. And if, when driving to work, you think of that big hole in the middle of Jan Smuts Avenue as a mere irritating shortcoming of the local state, then try driving your low-slung BMW on a typical township road — the crumbling road infrastructure may transform itself from “shortcoming” to “state failure” rather rapidly.
Try gaining access to these palaces of justice if you have no money. You may just conclude that the state has failed to provide justice.
The same argument could be applied to the more abstract services provided by the state. Take access to justice. I do not underestimate for one minute the critical importance of our independent courts. But try gaining access to these palaces of justice if you have no money. You may just conclude that the state has failed to provide justice.
And, yes, thanks partly to our admirable Independent Electoral Commission, we do manage to hold regular elections. But try telling the families of the hundreds of town councillors or would-be councillors who have been assassinated by their rivals that they, and free and fair elections, have not been failed by the state.
Nor does this argument only apply to those who cannot afford to extract their daily lives from the exigencies of public service. A wealthy business person may be able to overcome the failings of the state in her personal life. But try running a factory or mine or restaurant in the midst of up to 11 hours of blackouts a day and you too may believe that you have been failed by the state.
Then there’s the policing problem. I know of three households in my immediate neighbourhood that have experienced home invasions in the past two months, one of which resulted in murder. I may be entitled to complain about a rising rate of violent crime but, thanks partly to a fairly decent local police service bolstered by the cover provided by the proliferation of private security guards in my neighbourhood, I should probably not conclude that the state has failed.
But try living in the war zones of the Cape Flats or Diepsloot or Eldorado Park, or in most of the townships whose residents cannot afford private security, and then tell me the state has not failed to protect the lives and property of the majority of its residents, the most fundamental duty of a functional state. Or try running a business beleaguered by highly organised criminal syndicates in trucking or construction or mining or electricity or public transport provision, and tell me the state has maintained its monopoly of the use of force.
It’s a familiar story of gross inequality. For those who have, the state is annoyingly inept; for those who do not have, the state of the state is a little worse than merely annoying. The real tragedy is that while one may have expected public provision to mitigate the unequal access to private resources, the state has failed to do so.
So next time we sit in our suburban residences, with our solar panels, our guards at the gate, our JoJo tanks brimming, and our ailing parent in a private hospital and smugly assure ourselves that the state is not failing, spare a thought for those millions of fellow South Africans for whom the state has already failed.
• Lewis, a former trade unionist, academic, policymaker, regulator and company board member, was a co-founder and director of Corruption Watch.
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