Where are we?

In the first edition to our “Is South Africa Great?” series we unpacked the makings of the basic state, we agreed that what would then define whether or not South Africa had the makings of a great nation-state would be its performance in those areas. Our analysis came down to two definitions of the state, as a provider of security (which broadly encapsulates both social welfare and defence capabilities) and the constitutional democracy ( as defined in our constitution).

In this second episode we’ll dissect the state of security in South Africa. We will merge both Charles Tilly’s notion of a state and the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) basic state. The power of the state to carry out its mandate is very relevant to how great at being a state ours is.

Let the Pissing Contest Begin

All in all, the states ability to defend and secure its peoples and its borders from both internal and external threats. If we were to integrate both Tilly and the UNRISD’s activities of the state we could form the security state definition, I’ve identified three common threads:

Defence Capability (State’s ability to defend against foreign and internal rivals through a capable military and political agreements; the latter seeks to legitimise the authority of the states amongst the international community and its subject)

Rule of Law as a principle, ensures the protection of its subjects including foreigners through legislation, human and property rights and law enforcement.

Economic Capacity. Whether or not a state is able to extract the means to make war and provide protection to its subjects, there has to be something to collect in the first place. Economic vitality has become increasingly important in a more integrated world economy as countries will be less likely to attack a nation with which it trades heavily with. Furthermore, growth in the state’s tax base would increase funding for public programmes.

How does south africa stack up?

Now for our piece de resistance. The Republic of South Africa.

Many still consider South Africa, at the very least, a regional power. The country is however in a very obscure middle passage; I won’t be quick to posit whether it is a country on the rise or facing a downward spiral. The rest of the world and the continent still considers Africa’s most industrialised economy as a significant cog in many of their plans to enter a continent recovering from the hangover that came with weak institutions and looting by ruling elites. Below is an infographic depicting where the fifth most populous country in Africa stands:

Infographic of SA Power

If you’re rather the erudite fellow who read all the Game of Thrones books so far (or at least the jackass who reads plot summaries on Wikipedia)  and hate the TV version for leaving out bits you’d like to think were fun, then here’s my breakdown of the graphic for your sagacious pleasure:

(Otherwise skip to The End of the Article for sloth is also my favourite sin)


The 2014 Defence Review said that the military was in “critical decline“. This document proved to be a competent analysis on state defence. Years of under spending and a lack of long-term strategic planning has brought the South African Defence Force (SANDF) to the brink. Incidence of terrorism seem to be moving southward as other governments become more adept at dealing with insurgency and terrorism within their own borders. It is becoming increasingly apparent that defending our borders and protecting South Africans doesn’t begin at the Limpopo River.

The military has been a victim of a stable Southern African region, inefficient use of resources in other public programmes has led to cuts in defence spending as a reaction to political pressure.

The nature of combat is quickly changing, the state security apparatus has been slow to transform, and if the recent revelations by the leaked SSA Cables are anything to go by, the security of this country has been hampered by political meddling.

Its not all bad, the Global Firepower Survey ranked South Africa as the third strongest power on the continent after Egypt and Algeria. While slowing population growth is going to mean a smaller cohort of people able to serve the military, the changing technological landscape means the armies of the future will be leaner. The only snag is that they will also be smarter, operating the equipment would need a strong emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The Institute for Security Studies  (ISS) named South Africa one of five regional powers on the continent ( a list which included Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria and Ethiopia). The ISS report continued to say that South Africa’s influence was expected to decline as other African countries begin to stabilise and actively participate in the international community. It felt that the southernmost nation was punching above its weight in that much of its influence was conferred through a worldview that it was a proxy state for the entire continent; being one of few governments in the past with political legitimacy. Our place in the G20, BRICS and the UN Security Council is really as good as our influence on the continent. Diplomacy has been our best policy.

The country isn’t under any immediate threat. However, if we aren’t investing in our defence we should look towards closing more bilateral defence pacts with much stronger nations.

Law & Order

I once discussed the idea of the “civil society bubble” we are in, being fortunate enough to be middle class citizens. At some level the country runs like any developed country in the world. The bias towards one end of the wealth spectrum is enough to give South Africa a high ranking on many  good governance indices in Africa.

Signs that it isn’t always the case when you move towards the opposite end of the spectrum is evident in high instances of crime, increase in civil unrest and corruption. Law and Order doesn’t only extend to citizens but every individual within the bounds of the realm. Recent xenophobic attacks, on mostly poor African immigrants has been a telling account of how state’s enforcement of legislation has not been responsive enough. Rome did well to take notice of the mob.


To get straight to the point: Africa’s most industrialised economy isn’t growing fast enough. Majority of the tax revenue originates from personal income tax, which is an unsustainable position; coupled with high unemployment and inequality this may jeopardise the state’s ability to exact the means of carrying out its functions.

There’s enough literature on the economy of South Africa, so I won’t go into much depth. The focus would be how its economic performance may effect its overall performance as a great state; if you’ve powered through the article to this point you have some idea of how.  Poor output may very well lead to lower tax revenue, which would put pressure on public spending. Slow growth would often affect lower income individuals more severely and in the absence of adequate state intervention lead to a breakdown in civil compliance. Slippery slope much? But it only takes looking at history to see how many times states collapsed as a result of too many empty stomachs.

the end of the article

So how does South Africa stack up as a safe and secure state? It really is a toss up. Looking at some of the data one may be led to believe that the country is really overachieving; overachieving like a car still chugging on despite the fuel light’s furious flickering. All the resources to get it to the next petrol station are available, it is well within our sights – but will we fall short?

I’ll see you in the next installment

2 responses to “Part II: Moer en Soek”

  1. […] to you in the first post and you could look forward to the next installations of the series. Part II: Security; Part III: Democracy; and Part IV: The […]

  2. […] Part II is Now Available […]