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Our planet is getting sicker, our people poorer and more disillusioned, and our institutions more irrelevant. And it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

"State failure happens along a continuum: Dysfunctional institutions, popular protests, illegal and often violent strikes and the evident growing of young, urban dwellers, who face a lifetime of unemployment." - Prof David Welsh and Paul Hoffman

Our inability to bring the architects of state capture to justice. The lawlessness of the July 2021 riots. The blatant and seemingly consequenceless assassination of whistle-blowers. The collapse of our infrastructure. The deepening of poverty and inequality. And the relentless, seemingly unstoppable tsunami of rape, violence and assault that affects every other woman in our country.

It is a grim, but not inaccurate, assessment of the precipice on which South Africa currently teeters.

Except for one startling realisation: Hoffman and Welsh wrote these words almost a decade ago, in March of 2013.

Jacob Zuma was still serving his first term. There would be another six years of eye-watering looting and corruption to come. Ace Magashule had just started feathering his nest in relative obscurity as the Premier of the Free State. Busisiwe Mkhwebane had not yet corrupted the Public Protector’s office, and was still safely ensconced in South Africa’s embassy in China.

State failure occurs along a continuum.

If only we knew then what we know now. But we DO know now. And as Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, do better.”

We know that government alone will not be able to pull South Africa back from the brink. It cannot. At its very core, governments around the world, and certainly South Africa’s government, operate very much as a relic of the past.

Hierarchical and siloed, they are tethered to narrow, single-lane function, and preoccupied overwhelmingly with self-preservation and survival.

Our elections are not about putting the best, most capable, most visionary leaders in place. Quite the contrary. Elections have become, and will continue to be, horse trading, fear mongering and posture politicking.

The primary objective of government and of the political elite – in 2013 as in 2022 – is to win power, and stay in power. And the vast majority of people making themselves available for election are the very power-hungry narcissists we don’t want anywhere near our purse strings, or our social safety nets.

While our needs as a society are getting more complex, diverse and interconnected, our politics are becoming more superficial and focused on short-term Band-Aids rather than long-term systemic solves.

As a consequence, our planet is getting sicker, our people poorer and more disillusioned, and our institutions more irrelevant. And it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. As Angela Wilkinson, senior director of the World Energy Council, says: “You can go on like that for a long time, but when the system breaks, it’ll break big.”

It’s about to break big.

A decade after Welsh and Hoffmann’s grim assessment, state failure is now more of a threat than ever before. Our headlines bleed one catastrophic alarm bell after the other.

But failure is not inevitable. Because we know better. We know the devastating toll of leaving our fate in the hands of government, of taking a pedestrian approach to our country, our economy, and our future.

So how do we do better? How do we become active authors of a new storyline that pulls South Africa from the precipice, one determined, committed South African at a time?

By remembering who we are. And where we come from.

The privilege of struggle

Earlier this month, we commemorated the 1956 Women’s March, an event that remains, 65 years later, an international symbol of personal courage in the face of oppression and persecution.

And in September, we will celebrate the life of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, murdered in 1977 for his so-called radical belief that people were only free when they themselves became agents of change.

Lillian Ngoyi. Helen Joseph. Rahima Moosa. Sophia Williams-De Bruyn. Steve Biko. Men and women who refused to accept the status quo. And who were jolted into action because they could not bear to be silent, or compliant, or inactive, even at grave personal risk.

These, and countless more like them, are the authors of our story. Their DNA of audacious leadership is our DNA. It is the very genome of what it means to be South African.

Ours is a story of struggle, for sure. Of failures, and missteps, and agonising setbacks. And even despair. But it is also, ultimately, a story of overcoming. Of resilience in the face of the most desperate of odds. And a story of perseverance, even when all seemed lost.

Most of all, it is a story of grit.

It is human nature to try to avoid struggle. Parents vow to save their children from the difficulties they themselves faced when growing up. They work longer, and harder, and sacrifice more, so that the next generation will have it easier.

We cushion our children in luxury, even excess, as a buffer against the sharp edges of the world – not realising that doing so deprives them of the very tools they will need most, not only to succeed, but to become the leaders our country needs going forward.

We save them from hardship, but in doing so, deprive them of the privilege of struggle. And the gift of grit.

For the past six months, TPA has been maturing and writing about a new leadership model which we believe will best serve our country, and our organisations. A model that lifts up the importance of vision, passion, integrity, courage and authenticity as cornerstones of effective, empathetic leadership.

Grit is not simply endurance. It is deliberate and, above all, it is hard, focused, conscious work. The work of steady, resolute progress. Grit is our birthright. It is in our DNA. But it is not a gift we can claim. It is a gift we have to earn, every day, in how we show up and commit to doing the hard work that needs to be done to save our country.

No matter your political lens, South Africa faces what is arguably our darkest days since the advent of democracy. Every pillar of our society is either fundamentally broken, or terminally at risk.

Our health and education systems are failing millions of people every day. Our infrastructure is on the verge of collapse, with no short-term workable solutions being devised or implemented. Our confidence in government is virtually non-existent; our optimism for the future at an all-time low.

As many political and social commentators have quite rightly argued over the past few months, far from reaping the rewards of a once-promising Ramaphosa presidency, South Africa is, quite literally, on the precipice of an unfathomable abyss. We are, now as in 2013, facing the very real risk of becoming a failed state.

We cannot allow this to happen.

Those of us who love this country, and who have vowed to stay when many others are opting to leave, know that failure is not an option. And we know that success depends not on government – old or new – but on us.

We, the people of South Africa, tapping into the gifts of our struggle, have to commit to a new march; the march away from the precipice.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Let’s do the work that must be done.

© Natalie Maroun


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