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Some of our fiercest public debates are not over ideology but over perceptions of what is happening around us.
The crux issue, which raises ire, denunciations and counter-denunciations, is whether we are a failed state.
There are as many definitions of the failed state as there are contesting voices, but the concept boil downs to a few key ideas.
The country’s government can’t protect its citizens – neither from criminals within and incursions from across its borders.
The institutions that were constitutionally set in place as the structure of governance and service delivery are eroded and corrupted.
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Finally, the state loses its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens and it is increasingly excluded from international political structures and arrangements.
That’s a long, long way for any state to go before it fails. And an equally long way to recover from falling.
Within these parameters, we can argue until we’re blue in the face as to whether the usually cited examples like Yemen, Venezuela, Afghanistan and Haiti, as well as a distressingly large number of African states, are failed, failing, recovering from almost failing, or are a bit of all of the above.
As for SA, we rate in the middling ranks of fragility, according to the academics. We’re becoming steadily less stable but so far from the tipping point that there’s probably not too much to worry about.
The point is that “failed state” is an academic discourse about a supposedly measurable set of political, economic and social factors.
But that’s not how we live our personal lives. We live our lives in little worlds that we create with great ingenuity and usually at significant emotional or financial costs.
Our neighbour, Zimbabwe, is listed on several Fragile State Indexes as one of the worst failing dozen.
Yet while many impoverished professionals and workers are taking refuge elsewhere, there is simultaneously a small but significant counterflow of wealthy entrepreneurs who see great opportunities and a fantastic lifestyle in that country.
Similarly, South Africans take their most critical decisions based on a personal trajectory.
Discovery CEO Adrian Gore recently berated South Africans for not comprehending that the “narrative around the country is much worse than the reality” and that we should shake off a “pessimistic, declinist mindset” that is “very detrimental”. Gore is absolutely right, in some ways.
Gore lives at the apex of a parallel state – a nation where the state’s failures don’t matter because everything can be bought in, bigger and better, from the private sector – that contains, based on financial industry estimates, probably fewer than 100 000 families.
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The flight from SA is not by the rich, who can afford to stay. Nor by the poor, who have no option but to stay.
It’s by the squeezed middle. Take the growing flight of medical professionals. This is the group whose erosion will most swiftly puncture the “positivity” bubble and spur the exit of other groups who would otherwise hang in.
After all, when you need a doctor, you need him or her located as close by as possible.
It’s only the corporate crème de la crème who can have their surgery done in London and leading ANC politicians who can have their poison muti spells negated in Moscow.
According to statistics released in parliament recently, in 2019, South Africa, with a population of 58.6 million, had a doctor to patient ratio of 1: 1 266. Currently, with a population of 60.1 million, that ratio is 1: 3 198.
That translates to a drop from about 46 294 doctors in practice in 2019, to only 19 772 in 2022. The debate about whether this country can be accurately defined as a failed state doesn’t much matter.
Increasing numbers of ordinary people are deciding that for them, it just isn’t working any longer