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  • Ivor Chipkin

SA's Chief Problem is the State, Not the Economy

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

South Africa’s malaise lies chiefly in the fact that the state is in crisis.

We know some of the historical reasons that have led to this.

For most of the twentieth century and especially from the 1950s, South African governments and especially the National Party sought to break the territory up into separate countries and manage the people of South Africa according to segregated and unequal administrations. Overcoming the power of the various elite groups and classes that profited from these arrangements is an ongoing challenge. Indeed, the Zuma years represented a major reversal in this regard as national institutions were weakened in the face of provincial and local power-brokers. As Joel Hellman has argued about the former Soviet Union, the democratic transition was stalled, not by the losers, but the winners of the political transition who acquired vested interests in the status quo.

The South African economy developed and industrialised by elaborating difference and unevenness in the organization of the state. Mahmood Mamdani famously called the colonial state ‘bifurcated’ to refer to the way that it was split according to white and black zones, and between spaces of civil rights and custom. South African radical scholarship went further noting that these racially segregated zones also distinguished sites where capital was generated from homeland areas from where people were sent to be converted into units of labour. Until the 1970’s, profitability in the core of the economy depended on maintaining this relationship.

There is a further distinction to be drawn. South Africa was split according to zones governed and controlled by modern, bureaucratic institutions and areas where there was only nominal administration and where political authority effectively drifted into the hands of government satraps, political and criminal organisations or local business enterprises.

Taken together, South Africa was a space of uneven sovereignty. It remains so and this is at the heart of contemporary state weakness.

Sovereignty is traditionally defined in term of the monopoly of violence, so that a state is sovereign to the extent that in any situation it has the means to impose its control by force if need be. Combined with fiscal monopoly, writes Vadim Volkov, the monopoly of force makes possible the central function of the state: the pacification of the territory.

What does such pacification refer to?

Governments that command organized force receive tribute for offering protection to businesses and subjects of economy and trade. This is what taxes are, a form a tribute paid in return for security. In this regard the state is a protection racket, which is sovereign when it is able to impose the rules and the costs of, amongst other things, economic transactions on broader society. The problem arises when it cannot and when there are other organisations that are able to dictate the terms of business and the costs of protection. This was the case with medieval European states, and it is the situation today in many post-Soviet republics as well as African countries since independence.

In South Africa today, the state is not sovereign, even if there is no major force for secession or no major party that rivals the state militarily. Nonetheless, in numerous spaces and areas, the state is not the only protection racket around. It cannot guarantee a secure environment for commerce or trade and it cannot referee the rules of the game. Everywhere, there are other contenders, many able to apply better or more organized force in their local environments.

Consider, for example, the everyday task of driving. The activity of maneuvering a vehicle on the roads is ostensibly regulated according to traffic laws and bylaws, which, for example, require different kinds of licences for driving a car or a truck or a bus. Rules define speed limits, they govern what to do at robots, they specify when over-taking is allowed and when it is not. Traffic police are charged with enforcing them. If the state has sovereignty on the roads it creates a secure space where we can drive and where the likelihood of someone crashing into us is greatly reduced.

In South Africa, municipal traffic departments or provincial road agencies do not have sovereignty. There are many other players that effectively determine their own rules of the road. Taxi associations, moreover, are able to exercise considerable organized force, often more so than traffic officers.

If we lift our gaze from the street, we can see similar dynamics within government, in state-owned-enterprises, in businesses and across South African society. Local and provincial politicians frequently ignore policy frameworks or spending regulations. Local police often serve more as militias than as custodians of law and order. Cartels and mafias determine what goods are sold by whom and at what prices.

What we have come to call ‘state capture’ reflected this situation of weakening sovereignty. Self-interested and criminally-minded groups were able to insinuate themselves into key parts of government and into State-Owned Enterprises to subvert the normal rules of business. Sometimes they did it for purposes of self-enrichment. Sometimes they did it to further political ambitions or causes. Either way, they were protected by the Office of the President, forces in the intelligence agencies and in the police, as well as in the NPA.

The South African state is in crisis because it is not sovereign. It does not have exclusive authority to define the rules of economic and civic engagement and to enforce them. What will it take to restore sovereignty on the roads and to bring economic activities under the rules of the law and the constitution? At the most basic level, economic development needs professional police with sufficient force to impose the rules of South Africa’s democracy on spaces of production, trade and commerce. We need independent courts and a prosecution service to make sure there are consequences for not complying. We need to stop making excuses for illegal and unconstitutional behaviour.

Sovereignty also makes democracy meaningful. If the rules that parliament makes are the rules that are enforced on the street or in boardrooms, then it is worth debating their content. If they are not, then the public domain exists in name only.

Overcoming the legacy of Apartheid, of colonialism and of the recent period of state capture requires that government establishes and re-establishes its sovereignty to create safe spaces for trade, business and daily life. The state must become the exclusive protection racket in South Africa.

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