Source: Business Live

EXCLUSIVE | Kgalema Motlanthe’s warning: ‘anarchy’ in SA

SA of late feels as if it is lurching from one crisis to the next: Covid, unrest, xenophobia, natural disasters, a moribund economy … In the absence of effective governance, it raises the spectre of state failure. Even the country’s former president warns of ‘an environment characterised by anarchy’


Former president Kgalema Motlanthe falls back on the words of struggle poet Keorapetse Kgositsile when explaining the complexity of life in SA. “The present,” he says, quoting the anti-apartheid activist’s work, “is a dangerous place to live.”

The country “is going through a very difficult period”, says Motlanthe, who acted as SA’s third democratic president for eight high-octane months from September 2008, after Thabo Mbeki was ousted, until Jacob Zuma’s inauguration.

He’s not exaggerating. In early April, when the FM interviewed Motlanthe, vigilante group Operation Dudula and similarly xenophobic outfits were sweeping Gauteng, looking to drive foreign nationals — documented and undocumented alike — out of SA. 

Within days, floods would sweep through KwaZulu-Natal, killing more than 400 people — and exposing SA’s lack of preparedness for natural disasters linked to climate change. And this in a province still recovering from unrest and looting in July that cost an estimated R50bn and left more than 350 people dead. 

It’s a cost SA can little afford, given its moribund economy. That’s not just due to Covid: as the World Bank notes, SA’s economy grew by just 0.1% in 2019, after a decade of low growth. And while there’s been a slow uptick of late, that recovery has largely made no difference to the high rate of joblessness.

Unemployment is stubbornly high, at 46.2% if you include those who have given up even looking for work — the highest on record. And there’s little hope of any reversal of this trend.

For Motlanthe, this is symptomatic of widespread dysfunction in our government.

“We have total disregard for rules and laws and accountability. And half the time, it’s more brutal [when citizens take matters into their own hands], and … there’s no due process. And many, many mistakes are bound to happen in that regard.” 

Motlanthe’s diagnosis of  SA’s failures is important, since he has lately been seen  as the moral centre of the ANC. It’s not an uncomplicated mantle, however, because he was instrumental in the ascension of Zuma — whose ruinous policies sparked the slide — and served as his deputy for five years.

But in 2014 he underwent something of a Damascene conversion and resigned from government and parliament, leaving Cyril Ramaphosa to take on the position of deputy president.

So when Motlanthe speaks of the growing lawlessness in society, it can’t but be seen as an internal critique of how the government — and by extension, the ANC — has failed.

And it’s some critique. Motlanthe tells the FM that SA today is “an environment that is just characterised by anarchy … there’s no order to serve, to speak of, and that makes life much more difficult”. 

“Anarchy” is a powerful word, but it’s one that many South Africans would probably identify with. In fact, the growing sense of pervasive lawlessness is attested to by a recent Human Sciences Research Council study, which put public confidence in the police at just 27% — a record low.

Teetering on the edge of failure

There’s also no small irony in Motlanthe’s use of the word “anarchy” — and not just because he’s a stalwart of the ruling party.

In 2009, during his brief stint as president, he signed the bill that dismantled SA’s most effective policing unit, the Scorpions. It was a decision that cast the die for the collapse of SA’s law enforcement authorities, paving the way for state capture.

Analysts decried it as a venal decision, designed to shield compromised ANC leaders such as Zuma from prosecution. It was yet another in a series of examples of poor leadership by the governing party.

SA is now paying the price.

In February, in its annual risk report, the Institute of Risk Management SA (IRMSA) flagged “the lack of decisive, ethical and courageous leadership” in SA as a “key concern”.

IRMSA also warned that if there is “a continued breakdown of ethical and legal principles [in SA], unmanageable societal unrest and breakdown of the rule of law, complete economic collapse becomes almost inevitable”. 

It raises the spectre of SA sliding towards state failure.

Motlanthe himself only underscores this impression when he speaks of the collapse of services in municipalities — the interface through which most South Africans interact with their government.

“Any small town or village you go to doesn’t have potable water, roads. And yet you have people there, in the bureaucracy, who do not have the capability to spend the money,” he says.

Motlanthe believes the lack of capacity in the civil service is evident in the decay at lower levels of government, where authorities are failing to spend the money allocated to them. The result: conditional grants are being taken back by the National Treasury. Last month, for instance, the government took back R17bn granted to municipalities in the North West.

It means provinces such as the Eastern Cape, which are in desperate need of rural development, aren’t doing what they’re meant to do. 

Says Motlanthe: “I saw on television, a village with no bridge, and there’s a river there. When it is full, the only way people cross is through [climbing into] a drum and [being] floated, just to go to the shops, and the kids go to school.”

It’s an indictment of the ANC, which has used cadre deployment in placing ANC loyalists, rather than the most competent people, in government jobs. 

Here, Motlanthe says the belief that the government has run down institutions that were managed efficiently in the past is justified. Now this dysfunction has spread to all levels of the state, he says.

Not a failed state just yet

As much as Motlanthe’s undiluted diagnosis is a bracing realisation of how close the country is to the brink, analysts such as University of the Free State politics professor Theo Neethling say it would be premature to describe it as a failed state. 

Rather, Neethling tells the FM, the country is characterised by pockets of excellence and pockets of ruin. “SA is difficult to cover in one blanket, because it has so many contrasts. Some people have been saying SA is a failed state, but this isn’t quite true.”

In his research, Neethling uses 14 variables to measure political risk in SA — and on this measure, things are markedly worse now than they were 17 years ago.

In his view, the biggest flashpoints include safety and security, governance and administrative competence, and social risk such as violent protests and xenophobic attacks. 

Violence itself is costing the country a staggering 19% of GDP, Neethling wrote on The Conversation Africa website late last year. The figure — the 16th highest in the world — is from the 2021 Global Peace Index, where SA is ranked a disappointing 126th of 163 countries.  

“If you look at SA as a whole, one point comes out time and again: the degeneration of the state,” he now tells the FM. “This is catching up with us.”

If you look at SA as a whole, one point comes out time and again: the degeneration of the state. This is catching up with us

Theo Neethling

It’s not all bad: SA still scores well on the macroeconomic front, he says. The Reserve Bank is functioning well to keep inflation under control, and our financial system remains strong. 

Other positives include the low risk of large-scale strikes paralysing business, given the relative weakness of trade unions, and the fact that the military doesn’t get involved in politics, as is the case in other parts of the continent.

The government is also performing well in its social assistance programmes, providing 18.4-million welfare grants every month — including for the elderly, indigent and orphaned.

As the University of the Western Cape’s Amiena Bayat told the Weekend Argus last year, this is “one of the most effective pro-poor programmes that has [kept], and continues to keep, vulnerable South Africans from falling deeper into poverty”.

The fact that the region has enjoyed relative peace also counts in SA’s favour. But Neethling is concerned about the insurgency in northern Mozambique and, at home in SA, “the xenophobic sentiments that run under the surface. This is ugly and can burst out at any time.”

Given the trajectory, it’s clear that there needs to be some intervention. 

In 2020, Eunomix CEO Claude Baissac predicted that SA could be a failed state by 2030 if there isn’t a “meaningful change in trajectory” — and that was before the Covid effect was factored in.

Using indicators such as security, governance, prosperity, welfare and fragility, Baissac wrote that researchers were 75% confident that SA, by 2030, would be on a par with where countries such as Nigeria, Israel, Bosnia, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Zimbabwe were in 2020.

It’s a prospect which nobody — particularly investors — will feel encouraged by.

The ignored ‘land question’

Motlanthe has his own ideas about how to go about fixing the country. A priority, he says, is for the government to deal with the “land question”. 

“Because the land question is a source of national grievance, for as long as you have not addressed that, the majority of the people will forever feel aggrieved that they’ve not been given an equal chance in life,” he says. “So that’s got to be addressed. It also plays a different role in saying that it will settle the spiritual hunger of many African people.”

Land is a politically loaded subject, because it has been used as a proxy by populist parties such as the EFF to demand an overhaul of the economic system, and the expropriation of assets belonging to white South Africans. 

The ANC, seeking to woo back voters from the EFF, even supported a motion in parliament to amend the constitution to insert a clause dealing explicitly with the  “expropriation of land”. This motion flopped. 

Motlanthe knows plenty about this subject. Five years ago, he led an independent, high-level panel mandated to assess the effectiveness of legislation passed by parliament since 1994. 

His panel found that, contrary to what ANC parliamentarians seem to believe, the constitution isn’t the problem when it comes to land reform. 

It said: “Government has not used the powers it already has to expropriate land for land reform purposes effectively, nor used the provisions in the constitution that allow compensation to be below market value.” 

Paying compensation wasn’t the biggest problem anyway; rather, “corruption by officials, the diversion of the land reform budgets to elites, lack of political will, and lack of training and capacity have proved more serious stumbling blocks”.

The ANC and EFF ignored that inconvenient finding in rushing to alter the constitution.

In the same way, the politicians ignored another inconvenient finding from Motlanthe’s panel: that the Ingonyama Trust, headed by the Zulu royal house, should be dissolved and the law that established it should be scrapped or changed.

Today, Motlanthe is more adamant than ever that land is vital — it can be leveraged as an asset, used as collateral for finance or, on a more basic level, help people grow food for themselves or to sell. 


While many see SA as being on the brink of utter disaster, some analysts say the country is characterised by pockets of excellence and pockets of ruin.

“The continued postponement of addressing the land question leads to land hunger in urban areas, taking the form of demand for accommodation, and hence you have these sprawling informal settlements,” he says.

These are largely squalid environments, where no children should be growing up, he adds.

And in rural areas, there’s hardly any infrastructure to help communities properly exploit the land, which leads to more people migrating to urban centres. To undo this, says Motlanthe, the government needs to consciously develop the countryside. 

“One way of doing that is to get the municipalities in the small rural towns really properly established, with proper administration,” he says.

But, again, to do this, you need to fix the broken municipalities by ensuring a culture of accountability — something to which Motlanthe’s party has paid lip service, but in its actions has done exactly the opposite.

He cites the example of Joburg in the early 2000s, where the administration invested heavily in Soweto, tarred roads, and restored wetlands and parks. This, he said, had a “catalytic impact” on infrastructure in townships.

“If you have solid local government administration, you can then, on the basis of that, create the local economy, so the money must circulate there,” he says.

The fact is, there is already plenty of money going through rural areas thanks to social welfare grants. While having a society reliant on grants could never be a point of pride, it does mean there’s money circulating in those areas.

“In some villages, a few million rands comes through as social grants. And in three days’ time, the same amount is gone out to the nearest town,” he says.  “So, developmentally, if we’re thinking that way, it should be possible to create an environment in rural areas to close the gap between rural and urban.”

That, he says, would help stem the flood of people to cities.

Cadre deployment and a capable state

Of course, to do any of this, you’d have to have the right people in charge. And this is manifestly not the case right now. 

At last count, only 27 of SA’s 257 municipalities received clean audits. Which isn’t surprising, given the SA Local Government Association finding that 62% of councillors don’t even have  sufficient computer skills to pass municipal budgets.

Motlanthe says the first step to fixing the problem is to change how senior bureaucrats are appointed, ensuring there is meaningful transparency in the process. 

Right now, public posts are advertised “and that’s the beginning and end of the transparency in the process. [After] those adverts are [responded to] by applicants, the process is not transparent”, he says.

For example, directors-general are appointed by the president, who delegates that authority to ministers. “And so the minister who has a vacancy [in his or her department], simply invites two other colleagues, and the three of them together with the director-general from a different department constitute the [interview] panel.” 

The minister whose department has a vacancy might have a predetermined view of who he or she wants in the position. “So, the interviewing process is neither transparent nor vigorous, or rigorous. And hence, there is no objective test as to whether the applicant who may be highly qualified is also fit for purpose.” 

Motlanthe’s proposal is that the president should delegate this appointment authority to the Public Service Commission, with the understanding that it puts together a team of experts from the relevant area to conduct interviews and make recommendations. 

Also, he adds, directors-general shouldn’t be employed on a short-term contract of five years, but should be permanent employees — as is the case with “permanent secretaries” in other countries. “That way, you will have a stable state,” he says. 

“At a conceptual level, we make a distinction between the state and government. Government is the face of the state for a time  … but the state is a more permanent entity in that way; the state will have institutional memory and capability [while] governments come and go.”

Unless there’s any real change in the way civil servants are appointed, Motlanthe says any noise around reform is “just talk”.

“We will not create capability in a situation when a new minister, on day one of arriving at the department … is already bringing [in] senior managers.” That “revolving door” of the bureaucracy is “destabilising the state”, he adds.

Senior managers believe their positions are “contingent on the term of the minister. So if there’s a reshuffle, they already feel uncertain about the future, and therefore look for alternative employment.” 

Most fundamentally, he believes officials must be appointed on merit. 

“If you have a professional bureaucracy, when an election happens, then [civil servants] take the manifestos of each and every party contesting elections, and they translate each one of them into a five-year programme of action and colour-code them, keep them under lock and key and wait for the results to be declared.

“If Party A wins the elections, they pull out the manifesto. That’s what professional bureaucracies do. And so the party can on day one hit the ground running, and implement programmes.”

But SA, he says, operates in an entirely different way. “And I’m finding that, increasingly, the language of the political party … permeates the culture of the institution that is all politicised and … ideological in the things that it likes.”

It’s not an epiphany that the ANC  has blurred the lines between party and state, to the extent that the party’s factional battles have weakened the government. But it is notable that this has been flagged by a party elder who has Ramaphosa’s ear.  

Perhaps, if Ramaphosa took on Motlanthe’s ideas on reforming the civil service, this would be  a good starting point help quell the spectre of state failure and anarchy.