Frontline Africa Advisory

The Weak State Undermines the Realisation of Human Rights

The Weak State Undermines the Realisation of Human Rights

On Sunday, the 21st of March, South Africa commemorated its annual Human Rights Day, with President Cyril Ramaphosa recalling the difficult terrain the country has traversed since the demise of apartheid and the ensuing advent of democracy resulting in Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first black President.

The 1994 watershed moment was a culmination of the struggle for freedom that started in the 1650s, waged by the Khoikhoi in the Cape against the Dutch, and intensified in the 20th century with the emergence of African nationalism, working class and popular resistance, as well as the armed struggle and mass mobilisation during the years 1960-1994. The egalitarian rights agenda was the overriding objective on which the struggle was foregrounded. 

Whereas South Africa’s Constitution and its Bill of Rights are hailed globally as among the most progressive in the world today, the success of the social democracy project has generally been limited. While political and civil liberties are largely entrenched in the country’s politico-constitutional order, the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights remains a struggle in which many South Africans are engaged.

Although successive ANC governments have developed so-called ‘pro-poor’ policies, social security remains weak at best, and at worst, unsustainable. Poverty, the eradication of which is a function of a capable state and a properly functioning economy, is still very much in the ascendant. Government’s efforts in the last 26 years notwithstanding, the number of black people trapped in poverty homelessness, unemployment, and lack of access to basic services remains high.

The outbreak of Covid-19 on our shores a year ago has, in many ways, amplified the tenacious indignity of the black majority, with many still not having access to clean water and sanitation; quality health care remaining a privilege enjoyed by a minority; and poor infrastructure still reinforcing apartheid spatial development patterns. Worse still, societal ills such as gender-based violence have crept in, taking advantage of society’s apparent slumber. 

Public education policies have recorded little success in resolving structural unemployment, owing to a mismatch between skills produced by the education system and the needs of the labour market.

For its part, government attributes the slow pace of change to stubbornly low economic growth rates, low foreign direct investment, a deteriorating fiscal position and the obstinance of the historical apartheid legacy.

That this year’s commemoration also took place at a time when academic programmes in nearly all higher education campuses have ground to a halt as students are demanding free education, while government is pleading bankruptcy, is deplorable. And, of course, students are justified in taking umbrage at the contrived bankruptcy whilst funds can be found easily for vanity projects such as the SAA bailout.

Apart from making a mockery of our freedom, state failure to provide free education speaks to the desensitisation of government to the plight of the poor who rightly see education as the only viable tool to escape the trap of poverty. It also speaks to a disconnect between government’s vision as articulated in the National Development Plan, and the practical measures that must be undertaken now in order to realise the vision of a prosperous society. That government can bail out an airline and plead poverty on funding education is the height of tone deafness to the cries of poor people.

The advancement of South Africa’s human rights cannot be divorced from the broader developmental agenda. After all, socio-economic rights are human rights. South Africa’s Constitution recognises as much. Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, in his 1999 globally acclaimed book Development as Freedom, argues that freedom is both the primary end and the principal means of development. Firstly, the only acceptable evaluation of human progress is, in the end and in essence, the enhancement of freedom. Secondly, the achievement of development is reliant on the free agency of the people. 

The construction of a capable developmental state is fundamental to the advancement of human rights in South Africa. The strategic orientation of such a state must be people-centred and people-driven development. Its organisational capacity must enable it to facilitate the realisation of inclusive development, and its technical competency must translate broad objectives into programmes and projects for effective implementation.

The President has made bold undertakings to capacitate and repurpose the state. His government has already approved the National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service, initiated efforts to bolster the criminal justice system to effectively tackle graft and mismanagement, and set in motion an economic recovery plan, among others measures to steer ship SA in the right direction.

His ambitious turn-around plans across sectors require a political super-structure that shares his vision, a capable bureaucracy and a sound fiscus. However, a developmental state will not be achieved through sloganeering or tawdry displays of political legerdemain, but is rather contingent on deliberate and wide-ranging reforms to enhance the state’s organisational and technical capacity, improve efficiency and effectiveness and ensure long-term fiscal sustainability in support of the national vision.

Written by Zamokwakhe Somhlaba

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