BOOK REVIEW: What’s Gone Wrong? On the Brink of a Failed State. – Alex Boraine. 2014. Jonathan Ball Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-86842-553-2
Review by Marius Oosthuizen, Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).
A political analysis of the state of South Africa’s democratic institutions, public sector corruption, the character of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) and a call to active citizenship.
In this book, Alex Boraine sets out to answer the question, of why South Africa seems to be sliding towards a precipice, and risks becoming a failed state? He admits his own anxiety, over the state of South Africa, and makes an impassioned plea for active citizenship to put South Africa on a better path. He evokes the concern depicted in Alan Paton’s poetic cry, asking “what’s gone wrong in the beloved country?” As a former minister of parliament (MP) for the Progressive Party in 1974, alongside Fredrick van Zyl Slabbert, Boraine assesses South Africa’s current trajectory from the point of view of an experienced parliamentarian, a democrat and passionate South African. He attempts to answer his question by arguing, that a “lust for power” has corrupted the ANC, the movement whose character was forged in the struggle against Apartheid. Boraine suggests that this struggle culture lies at the root of the institutional weaknesses of parliament and the judiciary, and that civil society has not adequately responded to this new reality. Weaving together commentary on the institutional weaknesses of SA’s young democracy, the abuses of power in government in particular, and the lack of cohesion and solidarity in civil society, Boraine sketches a grim picture of South Africa’s prospects.
The book addresses citizens from all walks of life, particularly those with an appetite for activism. Boraine writes plainly and clearly, articulating in basic terms the intended role of various institutions and organs of state, reflecting sharply on their current efficiencies and weaknesses. By taking the reader on a survey of day-to-day experiences inside these institutions, Boraine primes one for urgent action. He reflects on the conditions of the ANC in exile, rife with corruption and suspicion in their ranks, when the quasi-Communist notion of “seizure of power” seemed to have gripped the movement ideologically. He ponders to what extent those characteristics are played out by the party machinery today. He takes the reader into parliament, outlining the poor habits and non-committal attitude of many MPs, especially those representing the ANC, and reveals the weakness of the political opposition under current conditions, as well as the vast chasm between the “People’s Parliament” contemplated by the Task Team on Oversight and Accountability (p. 59), and the office bearers of today.
The judiciary, in spite of their professional standards and entrenched strength in upholding the rule of law, is described by Boraine as inaccessible to ordinary South Africans, in many cases failing to uphold the supremacy of the constitution due to political interference and politically motivated appointment of judges. This, he suggests, is evidenced by direct attacks by politicians on the Constitutional Court and its findings. Borain questions the commitment of the ANC and President Zuma in particular, to the ideals of constitutional democracy, showing that a majoritarian approach is often taken, perhaps as a result of their large representation in parliament in particular.
Citing the findings of the Auditor General and the courts on incidences of tenderpreneurship, corruption, maladministration, nepotism and unhealthy dealings between elites in government and business, Boraine describes a dire picture of ‘entitlement’ gone wild, reminiscent of former Sunday Times editor, Ken Ownen’s, description of the National Party elites, with their “snouts in the trough and their backsides in the nation”. In reaction to aggressive treatment by the media, Boraine says, these avaricious elites are threatening media freedom in ways similar to what the Nationalists did in the 1980s. He briefly suggests what may be the makings of a solution to stamp out corruption, describing a “…well resourced … anti-corruption institute or commission … backed by the executive but totally independent…” (p. 104).
Turning to civil society, Boraine reminds the reader of the conditions that led to the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and points to the makings of similar bands of “vigorous” civil formations, that he argues, need to join hands as a counter balance to the hegemony of political and vested interests. In doing so, Boraine points to the unexpected collapse of IDASA and the need to revitalize the support and mandate of civil society in general. In his view, the central focus of such a movement should be around the dismal state of delivery of basic services and education, suggested to be the points at which state failure are most obvious and at which the most severe deprivation is inflicted on the poor.
In broad strokes, Boraine outlines the current structural strains of party politics, harshly criticizing current leaders for “fail[ing] to provide a vision for a just, peaceful and economically secure South Africa”. Instead, he argues that the tripartite alliance is racked with factionalism, ideological polarization and a “lust for power.” (p. 127) He laments, “not only a lack of vision”, but “…also a deficit of leadership which threatens the peaceful and sustainable future of South Africa.” He tentatively makes predictions for the upcoming national elections but conservatively suggests more of the same.
Boraine succeeds in diagnosing some of the deep fissures in the facade of South African democracy at present, raising the alarm for a movement beyond “armchair criticism”, to civil action and a strong commitment to the values and mandates enshrined in the constitution.
In my assessment Boraine has brilliantly, yet with partiality, described only one side of the mountain of challenges before South Africa. His treatment of the political landscape, the character and impoverished ethos of political elites, and the weaknesses of South Africa’s young democratic institutions, is thought-provoking and informative. However, he fails to sufficiently describe the social and economic context within which these ails thrive. The poverty, poor socialization and spatial hazards that still trap millions of South African’s in despair, which, along with deep-seated political loyalties and fears, create an atmosphere conducive to the abuse of power, he does not address. Boraine pays too little attention to the economic constraints currently inherent in the South African economy structurally, ignoring the legacy relationships of the nation’s economy to commodities, the global economic system, which hampers transformation efforts and prolong the narratives of the “disenfranchised” and their “liberators”. These conditions, I contend, build the permissive bridge from public service to self-enrichment, as seen in the misappropriation of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment and other regulatory attempts at redress.
The book left me in agreement with Boraine, that something is drastically wrong in South Africa, but that the failures of the state are simply one symptom of a disease that permeates the public, private and civil spheres. This seems true irrespective of where in the social strata one looks. South Africa is a broken home because South Africans are broken people. The materialism of South Africa’s upwardly mobile on the one end, our violence and brutality on the other, and our indifference across the board, may just be our downfall. However, the same belief in South African resilience, which informs Boraine’s plea for action, reminds me that all is not lost in the beloved country and that now is the time for the work of reconstruction to be undertaken.
I would recommend this book to South Africans who find themselves on various sides of our national debates, who have an interest in not only understanding South Africa, but bettering it.
Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty and program manager for the Future of Business in South Africa Project, at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He teaches on leadership, strategy, and ethics and holds a Masters in Strategic Foresight from Regent University in Virginia Beach, USA.
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