Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Winds of Change?

South Africa slouches toward the decentralized future.


South Africa has often captured the world’s attention, and today it does so again for two reasons. On the one hand, South Africa has become a case study for the now common phenomenon of prolonged government failure and capacity decay. On the other hand, it is a case study for how order can emerge organically from the dust of that collapse.

It is impossible to chronicle the full extent of the “de-development” in South Africa under the rule of the African National Congress (ANC). A few key examples must serve.


Police: In 2023, Minister of Police Bheki Cele confirmed that the South African Police Service (SAPS) dropped over 6.3 million phone calls from people in need over three years. This constitutes over 5,700 dropped calls per day. In 2021, when the country suffered its most destructive public looting and riots since 1994, with hundreds killed, the police service proved woefully unprepared and unable to contain the violence, forcing communities to take their security into their own hands, most within the parameters of the law. Many of the community-based security structures established during the 2021 riots have been made permanent.  

Electricity: For more than fifteen years, South Africa’s economy and households have been suffering rolling blackouts, or “loadshedding,” sometimes only getting a handful of hours of electricity per day. In 2022, the country experienced 200 days of power cuts, the worst year of rolling blackouts on record since the crisis started in 2008. The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was tasked way back in 2014 with overseeing a turnaround of the state-run power monopoly, Eskom. In 2023, almost a decade later, Eskom finally admitted defeat and announced that rolling blackouts will be a permanent fixture for at least the next two years. In the midst of this crisis, the ANC government remains committed to its racialist agenda, with Eskom planning to retrench a further 500 white maintenance workers to meet government-mandated race targets.

Corruption: Over nearly three decades, the ANC has proven itself incapable or unwilling to deal with corruption. Ramaphosa, who was inaugurated in 2018 with promises of reform, has instead become embroiled in a major corruption scandal himself, while general corruption has continued unabated. In 2021, the Special Investigating Unit described corruption as being on a scale they had “never seen before.” A 2021 report found that corruption in municipalities had increased by roughly 50 percent in recent years. A 2021 Afrobarometer poll found that 70 percent of respondents believe the government is performing “fairly badly” or “very badly” in fighting corruption and 71 percent believe corrupt officials “often” or “always” go unpunished.

Unemployment: South Africa’s unemployment rate hit a record high in 2021, a staggering 35.3 percent. Youth unemployment reached a shocking 66.5 percent. This unemployment crisis fuels the ANC government’s vast and growing state patronage system, where today more than 50 percent of the population has become dependent on some form of government welfare grant.

Infrastructure: South Africa’s railway network, by far the most extensive in Africa, is facing total collapse. According to a 2021 report, two-thirds of the overhead cables, covering more than 3,000 kilometers of tracks, have been stolen by criminal syndicates, as have kilometers of the tracks themselves. South Africa’s water system infrastructure is also in a state of collapse. Out of approximately 824 water treatment plants, only sixty produce clean water. Over 60 percent of sewage and wastewater treatment works have been classified as in a poor or critical state. Roads are in a state of crisis due to potholes and other damage.


The key thing to understand is that collapse does not happen overnight. It is less like a bomb going off and more like a slow-motion car crash. You don’t wake up one morning in a collapsed country. It happens incident by incident through a process of accumulation: a train being late, an elderly woman being mugged, a brief power cut, a vandalized grave. 

I have painted a bleak but candid picture of state failure due to government corruption, mismanagement, cadre deployment, and racially discriminatory policies. However, there are growing flickers of hope pushing back the looming darkness.

According to Professor Koos Malan, South Africa is currently experiencing the most comprehensive constitutional order rearrangement since the Union of South Africa was established in 1910. Malan likens the future of the country to a “desert of disorder,” within which will emerge “oases of order.”

In 2022, after heavy floods damaged or destroyed a wide array of infrastructure in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, residents from the Durban suburb of Shallcross decided not to wait in vain for the unresponsive government to provide assistance. They started organizing and successfully crowdfunded the repair of a damaged road in just five days. The same team also successfully repaired a bridge, which connects twelve suburbs, in less than a week. They have located ambulance, security, food aid, and disaster response services to respond to future emergencies. All the skills for these services have been locally insourced. They documented the process and made it public so that other communities could follow their example. 

Communities all across the country that have been ignored or let down by the government are mobilizing to fix potholes, take control of mismanaged sewerage plants, and establish neighborhood watches and community patrols. Farmers in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State have taken it upon themselves to repair collapsed roads, and communities close to the porous borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique are combatting the resulting lawlessness by getting organized.

In February 2012, the company Rural Maintenance took over the electricity management of the municipality servicing four towns in the Free State province. Residents now happily pay their power bills to Rural Maintenance, which produces some of the cheapest electricity in South Africa. Two solar farms in partnership with local farmers, with a third in the works, could soon have these towns free from the ANC government’s crippling rolling blackouts. 

In the field of community-based, decentralized, state-proof solutions, the civil rights organization AfriForum has pioneered the way by uniting over 310,000 paying members in such activities as neighborhood watches, filling potholes, building private institutions for tertiary education, and much more. (In a piece last year for the magazine im1776, “A Time to Dig Trenches,” I outlined in detail what AfriForum has achieved.) This year I produced a documentary, “Selfbestuur” (in Afrikaans with English subtitles), comprehensively unpacking the Solidarity Movement’s alternative model to centralism.

Three main conclusions present themselves. First, the ANC government has over decades built up a legacy of collapsing infrastructure, rampant crime, poor service delivery, rolling blackouts, and unaddressed systemic corruption. Second, citizens and communities have lost faith in the government after decades of empty promises and so increasingly opt to provide essential services themselves, within the confines of the law.

Last, it has become abundantly clear that if you need a solid case study for both the unabated collapse of an old paradigm and the decentralized, grassroots paradigm that arises in its wake, there is no better place to focus your attention than South Africa. Watch this space.


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