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Cynics need only visit our shores to wash away notions of a failed state, says Max du Preez.
The joke is on Alan Dershowitz. This American jurist and commentator called South Africa a “failed” and “lawless” country on CNN recently, and now much of the world gets daily reports from hundreds of reporters attending the Oscar Pistorius trial and can see for themselves that Dershowitz was talking nonsense.
Ironically, Dershowitz made his remarks during an interview with talk-show host Piers Morgan about the trial that was then about to start.
I tried to look at the Pistorius trial through foreign eyes by monitoring CNN, BBC, Sky, Al Jazeera and the websites of newspapers in the US, Canada, the UK and Europe.
The audiences of these media outlets have seen a functional, sophisticated judicial system at work. Many Americans must feel a little jealous, because the judicial system in their country is not always functioning well. That’s why we get regular reports of white men who have murdered blacks getting off scot-free; of people who have spent years in jail just to be freed because of new DNA evidence; of people (mostly black) who have been executed unfairly.
Dershowitz also said South Africa had “deep, deep racial divisions”. That may be true to some extent. But when he said it, I felt like reminding him that there are more African-Americans in jail than in college or universities; that one in three African-Americans spends time in prison.
The hordes of foreign journalists attending the Pistorius trial will testify to the fact that they stay in excellent hotels; eat at brilliant restaurants; find our banking and telecommunication systems better than most in the world; don’t feel unsafe when they go about their business; and that the road infrastructure in Gauteng is very good.
I’m sorry to say this, but I blame futurologist and scenario mapper Clem Sunter a little for the failed-state talk we hear so much of. Sunter is a smart man and a good communicator, but why would he spend his time and energy measuring whether we are about to become like Somalia, Syria or Afghanistan?
Why would anyone of sane mind even say the words “failed state” and “South Africa” in one sentence? It is completely inappropriate and sends an alarmist message.
The last time I heard Sunter speak, he said there was a 25 percent probability of South Africa becoming a failed state. He said the failed-state scenario was no longer a wild-card possibility lurking in the shadows: it was now a genuine threat. As he said, would you board a plane if you were told there was a 25 percent chance you would die?
If you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find reasons to say states like Russia, Brazil, Greece, Nigeria, Venezuela, Argentina, Turkey, Poland, Italy, Israel, Romania, Hungary, Argentina, Kenya, Croatia, Indonesia and Spain should also be on a list of countries with some probability of becoming failing states – many of them much higher up on the list than South Africa. A failed state is classically defined as a state with a failed judiciary; an inability to provide public services or enforce its own laws; a state with military interference in politics; a state that has lost the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders; a state where citizens’ basic human rights are perpetually at risk.
Most countries in the world, excluding only Germany, Austria, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Ireland and Switzerland, experience one or more of these problems and many of them in a far more serious way than we do. South Africa is as open a society as any of the Western democracies. Our media are free, independent and diverse. We don’t have a culture of military intervention in civilian politics. We don’t have religious fundamentalism or conflict.
We don’t have a threat of terrorism. We don’t have tribal or regional wars. Our constitution guarantees the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms, and it is jealously guarded over by the respected Constitutional Court.
We have strong institutions like the public protector, the auditor-general and the Independent Electoral Commission.
Our civil society and business community are vibrant and strong. Our economy is fundamentally sound and well managed.
Our challenges stem mostly from our history of oppression, division and under-development. We tackled these challenges head-on in 1994 with our political settlement and in 1996 with our Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We have faltered seriously since then through weak governance and business apathy, but we’ll send a strong message as voters when we go to the polls on May 7, and we’ll get back on track.
Failed state, my foot. Come see for yourself, Mr Dershowitz.
* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.