BY J.J. MESSNER
Over the past decade, the Rainbow Nation has also traversed much of the color spectrum on the Fragile States Index (FSI) map. Though our color palette is simply representative of a country’s score – green to blue for the most stable, yellow to deep red for the most fragile – the changing colors of South Africa on that map during the past decade has served as a stark visual demonstration of the country’s rapid decline. From the bright green of (relative) Stability in 2007 through to the yellow-orange of the Warning category in 2017 – as the country faces social, economic, and political turmoil.
It is important to contextualize just how far South Africa has declined over the past decade. In 2007, the FSI ranked South Africa at 132nd on a score of 57.4; in 2017, South Africa has rocketed up the rankings to 96th position, on a score of 72.3. Of all 178 countries that FSI assesses, South Africa is the sixth most worsened country over the past decade. To be even clearer, with the exception of Senegal, South Africa is the most worsened country not in active conflict or civil war.
South Africa’s decline on the FSI has been driven by a number of different indicators. Over the long term, the Economic Decline indicator, in worsening from 2.8 in 2007 to 7.1 in 2017, has reflected the severe economic challenges facing the country. What should worry South Africa the most is that the Group Grievance, State Legitimacy, and Security Apparatus indicators have recently spiked, along with a renewed worsening of the Factionalized Elites indicator. This suggests that both the country’s leadership as well as the population as a whole are dangerously fragmenting, and rapidly so.
There are a number of drivers behind South Africa’s performance, but they are all largely related to economic challenges, societal divisions, and fractured leadership. What they all have in common is an underlying interest in preservation of the status quo and diversion of attention away from the actual drivers of the country’s woes.
First and foremost is South Africa’s poor economic performance, as borne out in the FSI economic indicator scores. Though technically the largest economy on the continent, with enormous resources, and at a time when a market as large as South Africa’s should be booming, the country is managing growth around 1%. With a sluggish economy and an official unemployment rate of around 25% (that is thought to be unofficially closer to 50% for sections of the population), economically-fueled tensions will only likely increase. Rather than taking steps to boost the economy, President Zuma recently fired the widely respected Finance Minister Pravan Gordhan, and has begun to promise radical economic transformation, including land distribution, that worryingly echoes the past experience of Zimbabwe.
Exacerbating the economic troubles are the pervasive racial divides within South Africa, wherein stark economic disparities persist between the white and black populations, as the wealth and opportunity gap of uneven economic development has widened for many of South Africa’s poorest. This has been made worse by poor public service delivery, wherein those South Africans with the means to do so procure private alternatives to otherwise public services (from education to security), while those without the same means go without those services. Racial scapegoating has also served as a means for blaming the economy’s ills on “rich white capitalists” rather than on governmental mismanagement of the economy or failure to provide basic services.
But ultimately, South Africa is facing a crisis of leadership. Recently, there has been a sharp uptick in vocal opposition towards President Jacob Zuma particularly for his handling of the economy. But the rot has set in much deeper. Much of what the Factionalized Elites score is detecting is a zero-sum approach to dealing with opposition and critics of the African National Congress’ (ANC) leadership. Rather than addressing the country’s economic woes, crumbling education system, or the persistent racial divides, the Zuma government has instead been consumed by factional infighting – and that is apart from Zuma’s pursuit of policies that have benefitted his allies, or even himself personally. When there is a recognition of the country’s challenges, the ANC has remained largely united, choosing party unity over any attempt at fixing the country’s ills, and instead resorting to xenophobic attacks and scapegoating against foreigners in an attempt to divert attention from the domestic causes of the country’s rapid decay.
As the memory of the courageous freedom fighters of the apartheid era becomes increasingly distant for a new generation of South Africans, expectations of what government needs to provide – in terms of jobs, opportunity, and public services – will rise, unencumbered by the nostalgia of the fight for freedom. This tension has already been borne out by the recent protests and rioting at universities throughout South Africa, as students have become increasingly frustrated at an education system that leaves them ill-prepared for well-paying professions, again exacerbating the opportunity and wealth gap within the country as those with means will still continue to be well placed to seek private alternatives and thus be better placed to qualify for highly skilled – and better paid – work. But as has been witnessed in countless other countries, large swathes of frustrated youth who feel bereft of opportunity can lead to highly volatile socio-political conditions.
South Africa was once a great hope for the continent, and its decline over the past decade should cause alarm both within the country and also regionally. For Africa as a whole to continue to develop, it will rely on regional economic powerhouses, like South Africa. Equally, it provided an inspiration for a continent, of democratic and pluralist governance. As the country’s economy stagnates, inequality grows, and politicians continue to bicker and scapegoat rather than address the country’s underlying problems, the prognosis for South Africa will remain worrisome.