No other entity mediates social relations as much as the state. The state is ubiquitous because of its unique nature, size and reach. As a social institution the State is contested by all social interests who use their power and position to influence it and consequently impact social relations. Interest groups compete to shape the State and in turn use the State as an instrument to attain particular ends.
The birth of democracy in 1994 marked the historic break with a colonial-apartheid State based on white minority rule and domination. A new State based on humane and progressive values of freedom, equality and justice came into being. The democratic State, with a government based on the will of the people, set itself the monumental task to transform South Africa into a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society as a strategic objective.
The post-apartheid State inherited a deeply divided society in terms of class, race, gender and other divides. The allocation of opportunity and services to the population were based on these socially engineered categories of social relations. Wealth or poverty were determined by class position, racial classification, gender, and the State determined who was qualified to be a South African citizen with full citizenship; and who was not.
The advent of democracy held much promise. From the onset, the democratic State was faced with the twin strategic tasks of simultaneously transforming both the State and society. The structure of the apartheid State and the way it manipulated and shaped social relations, meant that transforming society could not be achieved without transforming the State. Failure to transform the State would inevitably mean failure to transform society.
For eighteen months, leading up to November 2013, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) has undertaken a research project that sought to investigate the evolution of the South African state. The scope of the project included the impact on transformation of the State inherited in 1994 as well as the transformation efforts that have been undertaken since 1994.
In the recently released research report on the evolution of the post-apartheid State, the tasks of the State are defined as complex: ‘Among others, it (the State) is required to modernise the economy and ensure that economic growth and distribution of resources are inclusive. It is expected to have sufficient capacity to provide public goods and maintain public order. At a cultural level, it is expected progressively to reflect the values, norms and standards that a humane society should embrace. In addition, South Africa is also expected to take its rightful place in the global community of nations and help shape the destiny of humankind. For it to fulfil these responsibilities the state should not only have the requisite capacity; it must also enjoy popular legitimacy’.
It is one thing to struggle for freedom and yet another to use freedom to liberate a people. The political and economic reality of post-apartheid South Africa is not much different from that of post-colonial Africa. Twenty years is sufficient a time to honestly and critically reflect on the positive and negative experience and lessons of social transformation,.
Nearly twenty years after the advent of democracy, South Africans, especially those historically disadvantaged have reason to ask: how much has changeed to alter their living conditions for the better, so that they can claim to be truly free? These are the collective moral, social and political questions facing South African society as the nation prepares to celebrate twenty years of democracy and freedom.
Social transformation is a primary mandate of the democratic South African state and as such, it is not viewed as a lifeless institution occupied by grey suits and frontline officials, but as one that has the capacity and obligation to change lives. For example, twenty years down the line, the State has been shaped by women to reflect gender struggles and outcomes that may deliver a non-sexist society. Today South Africa ranks eighth on women political empowerment and seventeenth across all weighted indicators according to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report. This is no small feat given the short distance of 20 years and the inherited legacies of apartheid and colonialism.
The apartheid State was an instrument of coercion that used brute force and violence to solicit compliance from its subjects. On the contrary, the democratic State, although coercion is inherent, seeks to use relatively humane and ‘legitimate’ approaches to enforce compliance with laws. To the extent that a large majority see the State as legitimate, they defer to its laws rather than defy them. However, events such as the murder of Andries Tatane during service delivery protests in Ficksburg in 2011, vigilantism, violence against police and the Marikana massacre, put the legitimacy of the police and therefore the State in question. In all these instances the values, aspirations and legitimacy of the State coexist and clash. Others may even argue that with the recent so-called ‘militarisation’ of the police, we have regressed a few steps.
To the extent that social protest is used and seen as an alternative by the masses to voice their concerns the State and its institutions of public democratic participation are also called into question, if not openly undermined. However, social protest could also be interpreted as a sign of a vibrant democracy in which freedom and justice are being continuously redefined by the people on the ground acting as their own liberators.
Progress and positive changes in the lives of the people also bring new problems that require State intervention in the interest of stability and sustainability. For instance, an improved quality of life for a fraction of the black population who have entered the ranks of the middle class, has brought about an increase in unhealthy competition, resentment, social distance and general divergence. In this regard, the black population becomes differentiated as a social group and fissures arise.
For almost 20 years, two interrelated trends have been shaping the evolution of the democratic State. The first has been a political, ideological and cultural contestation among social groups to create a State in their image, a trend which is expected to continue into the future. The second relates to the material aspirations and expectations of the majority of Africans who still await total emancipation. The expectation of the democratic State is that its capacity to deliver and transform will expand, improve and strengthen. In respect to the latter, South Africa cannot afford to fail.
These are some of the themes and issues discussed in the research report on the evolution of the state released by MISTRA. The report also provides some forward-looking insights into possible trajectories for the more effective transformation of the State and the utility of a transformed State as an instrument of social change. The research project and the report should add value to the ongoing discourse about the future we choose, and specifically on the ‘end state’ we desire: one that is free, equal, and in which there is justice for all.
David Maimela is researcher at MISTRA in the Political Economy Faculty. MISTRA released its report on the Evolution of the State on 29th November 2013.