As a South African I get aroused, as many of my compatriots do, at the mention of our country in any international media outlet, whether the news is good or bad [See Twitter]. We love the sound of our own name, and it goes without saying that there is some sense in how we speak about our democratic experiment that we believe this country to be an exception to the Dark Continent narrative of Africa (a view that has been overturned in recent years). We are a miracle, after avoiding the violent regime change which impeded the development of many newly liberated African states. I think this article is apt in a time where there have been too many incidents that have made us question whether the South African member is as large as what Brand South Africa says it is. From disappointing economic indicators to trouble in parliament and good governance issues our confidence has taken a knock. South Africa can still get it up at the mention of those two geographically astute words, but now more than ever it is perhaps worth asking, in a four part series, “How Great is South Africa?”

I should begin by saying that for starters, throw out the notion that there is a South African “nation”. I will begin by first differentiating a nation from a state in my very lay understanding of the two political terms, and then we would hopefully, if I still have your attention, arrive at the nation-state. If we are able to define the makings of a nation-state we may be able to objectively decide whether South Africa is one of the greats. In this part I only want to setup the parameters of our assessment.

Charles Tilly looked at the formation of European States in defining the Predatory State

My understanding of the literature is that the state could very loosely be defined as the centralised authority which is given a monopoly over violence. Charles Tilly’s observation found that European states participated in four key activities of the predatory state which were:

  1. war-making against foreign rivals,
  2. state-making which was violence against internal rivals,
  3. protection of citizens from their own enemies and
  4. extraction of the means to carry out the first tasks (taxation, conscription etc.).

This is the instructive, “predatory state” definition. Basically the state is there to provide security. This definition has expanded over time to include social security, the idea that if discontent will lead to violent revolt from the plebeians, then the state can avoid having to use violence later in crushing insurrection  by exacting distributive measures.

We could find a more modern take on the functions of the state from the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), the “starter-pack” state should be able to:

  1. Ensure sufficient resources are directed to productive sectors
  2. Provide support in acquiring new technology
  3. Establish legislation in the form of contract law (social pacts) and criminal
  4. Enforce legislation
  5. Fund, deliver and regulate services and social programmes

In this basic state, it is expected that this entity would create the political legitimacy, resource mobilisation capacity (infrastructure) and draw up legislation aimed at regulating the mobilisation of resources by striking a balance between productive-sectors and welfare-enhancing sectors. I would like to posit that the security state is a profound description of the state, as government’s provide services in situations where self-interested private individuals would struggle to self-regulate. The chaos that may ensue could result in conflicts that would make the task of security more difficult. In the next part of the series we will go into the Security factor of our state, and whether our state has been able to discharge its duties to protect from both internal and foreign threats to its client effectively.

The nation concept is centered around identity and, from my experience and research, is often confused with the “state” or the “nation-state”. An example of when the two are often obfuscated is when many people regard Britain or the UK to be a nation, while that is in fact not the case. Britain is really a state mainly made up of the English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh nations. The Empire attempted to implant the idea of a British national in its subjects because nation-building makes it easier for the state to dispense its duties without worrying of divisive animosities amongst its clients. Nation building is indeed done by some form of state to develop this national identity – again, this could be considered a broader aim of its goal as a security-provider (merging the nation eliminates internal strife). I’d like to argue that South Africa is still trying to develop this common narrative, our constitution effectively defines us as a nation-state.

The nation-state is a sovereign state, made legitimate through a regime or a governing law – in South Africa we have a constitution which describes us as exactly that. The founding document of our democracy defines the Republic, based on the following values:

  • Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.
  • Non-racialism and non-sexism.
  • Supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law
  • Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.
Constitution of South Africa provides the country political legitimacy of the nation-state
Constitution of South Africa provides the country political legitimacy of the nation-state

If we (South Africans) do not agree with any other description of a sovereign state, by virtue of considering ourselves clients of this particular state we should at the very least accept the constitutional attempt at defining the makings of our republic. After we look at the main factors that make up the Security-Provider state, we will go into our performance as a constitutional democratic nation-state.

I don’t want to have a long contiguous article. In this piece I have set up the criteria for assessment of “How Great South Africa” is, I’m not going to go into how friendly our people are, or wildlife etc. These are all very relative things which we talk about when the hood’s smoking and we’d rather talk over the engine of our democracy coughing and choking until it stops (whether it gets better or finally lets up doesn’t matter because we have such friendly people, and the big five and the protea). My promise to you reader, is three more parts (following this first part where we’ve agreed on the rules of the game, this is not a body count where you’re going to call her an 8 because she is such a nice girl)

In Part Two we will look at matters relating to Security, following that Part Three will look at the Strength of our Democracy as defined in the constitution, and we will finally wrap it up in Part Four Where we decide whether or not there is anything great to this miracle on the tip of Earth’s penis (look at a map of Africa and tell me you don’t see it).

I’d like to think this satire, so I’m going to take any disagreements on the chin, and with the belief that this isn’t viewed as my absolutely unshakeable view. I’ll try keep tongue out of cheek as to not annoy tumblrers who’ve straggled onto my blog. Do make comments below on the piece, I’m a Finance student and the last thing I want to do is impinge of the science of politics.

Here’s a video from a channel everyone knows I track on YouTube daily, Testube News, in their Strength of Nations series they did an episode on South African Power, have a look and subscribe:

Part II is Now Available

5 responses to “Part I: The National Quagmire”

  1. m Avatar

    Interesting. However, what is “great” in this context? What are the fundamentals that define a “great” nation? Are we measuring a 21 year old “nation-state” against 150+ year old nation-states? Looking forward to the next instalment!

    1. thabipoopedi Avatar

      The external, predatory state definition as observed in the formation of European states – shouldn’t care for age. It is instructive, and “great” would be defined by whether we above and beyond are able to protect our national interests from internal and external threats. The constitutional functions of the state would take into account that we have a young nation, that may not have enough time to tweak (in the form of amendments) our expectations of our new democracy.

      What would determine if we are “Great” will be the final part of the series, that is if we have outdone either the universal or internal expectation of the state. I’m going to avoid talking to potential; given the old chestnut of how in the 60’s Ghana and South Korea had the same GDP but over time things can move in any direction

  2. […] the same day I published the first part of a series I’m toiling on on whether South Africa is truly a great country. I received a […]

  3. […] posted my reply in the comments section of the post. The idea behind what I believe is “great” is […]

  4. […] the first edition to the our “Is South Africa Great?” series we unpacked the makings of the basic state, we agreed that what would then define whether or […]