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What South Africa can learn from the crisis

The national project to build a South Africa that meets the needs of its citizens and functions according to a rules-based system, all underpinned by a progressive constitution, suffered a major setback over the past two weeks. With the entire country now in introspection mode, there is the emergence of a vast array of opinions on what caused the ongoing crisis, reflections on the performance of the security agencies, and the perennial question: What is to be done?

When a crisis of the intensity of the scope we are witnessing erupts, the immediate responses are usually shaped by the extent to which events occur outside our established mental model of how protest, resistance and war looks like; by the agility of our institutions, and by the resilience of the state-society complex to shocks that are unexpected. 

The purpose of the country’s national security apparatus is to prepare the state and society both materially and mentally for these shocks that might be unexpected both in content and timing. It is evident that, in respect of the latter, and as admitted by the various security cluster ministers, the institutions had failed to properly characterise the threat, communicate its emergence in sufficient detail and respond with the necessary agility, intelligence and force to its manifestation. We have here the classic case of a systemic failure that goes well beyond an intelligence lapse.

In the midst of such a crisis there often is, as we have seen from the media over the past two weeks, calls for the application of extraordinary powers to suppress the violence, the apportioning of blame and the inevitable call for heads to roll. Although this might serve some sort of cathartic purpose in the light of the traumatic events, I would caution against both the urge to purge and the call for severity in punishment. 

The most damaging example of a similar crisis and an overblown, ill-considered and instinctive response in contemporary times is the United States’s response to the traumatic events of 11 September 2001. Having been dealt a material and psychological blow of almost unprecedented scope and character, the US elite felt the need to respond swiftly, aggressively and without due deliberation of the second- and third-order effects of their actions.

It was a matter of blood needing to be spilled, institutions having to be razed to the ground and the construction of new entities that would somehow magically be the answer to all the ills of the previous regime. Twenty years of disastrous wars and defeat, expending of significant financial resources and the loss of political and diplomatic clout is the sum total of achievement for this rash and emotive response to a systemic crisis.

South Africa is not the US, and does not have the societal or financial resilience to engage in ill-conceived adventure in response to the current crisis. We are a fragile state that has been diminished in influence and cohesion over the past 10 years, dealing simultaneously with an institutional restructuring of our civilian intelligence agencies, building capacity in our law-enforcement structures and rebuilding the faith of the citizenry in the state and the ANC, a primary instrument of national cohesion.

What then is to be done, since doing nothing offers no solution and will place us in the same position we found ourselves in two weeks ago: poorly prepared, disjointed and slow to respond.

In respect of the current crisis it is critical that it be properly analysed and characterised. Although it might be early to come to a definitive characterisation, some elements of the violence and its contextual reality are evident and provide the basis for a proper characterisation.

The weakness of state institutions and their lack of agility to respond to politico-security crises reflects both the lack of strategic orientation and the concomitant development of doctrine and capability; the failure to build the right capabilities that are able to respond to the new types of political and informational warfare that have now become commonplace globally and have finally reached our shores; and the lack of integration in the security cluster. 

The insurrectionists and anti-constitutionalists have certainly assessed the capability and readiness of the security institutions, and implemented their plan confidently, conscious of the challenges facing these institutions. The state of our security institutions, therefore, become an element of the threat itself.

The involvement of large number of ordinary citizens in the violence and looting is the surest sign that our developmental model needs to be fundamentally reconsidered in order to build a state that can lift people out of poverty, create dignified lives and provide a sense of ownership of the state and constitution, to counter the alienation and hopelessness that has become prevalent in our townships. The levels of poverty and inequality in our society provide a ready-made mass of human fodder for those who seek to weaponise the people against their own state and constitution.

Paradoxically, as we witness the devastating effects of the slow collapse of the ANC and its ability to assert a cohesive function in the society, more commentators are calling for the collapse of the ANC or its definitive split into multiple entities. Speeding up this collapse through the supposed inevitability of factional breakaways or expulsions does not magically resolve the inherent contradictions that have turned the ANC into a fractured entity, but likely gives new, more violent forms to these fractures. In the absence of a capable state, this is a recipe for disaster.

Some immediate measures that could be implemented include:

  • The finalisation of the national security strategy in which the minister of state security has been engaged for some time, including substantive engagement with communities and interest groups in the process of re-conceptualising. 
  • A review of the entire national security architecture, in the light of the new national security strategy, a radically new global context and the current crisis. We can no longer assume that the institutions must remain as they are, with slight tinkering at the edges to create “efficiencies”.
  • The immediate establishment of a short-term integrated intelligence-prosecutorial-reaction capability where intelligence and response/prevention integrates seamlessly. The work done in countering and defeating urban terrorism in the early 2000s offers a successful and sustainable model to consider.
  • Initiating a process to learn the necessary analytic and sense-making lessons from the current crisis: how does it change our view of warfare, politics and the intersection of criminality, organised crime, corruption and anti-constitutionalism?

While we might be instinctively geared towards baying for blood and the rolling of heads, the need to build capabilities that can confront the inevitable and likely more aggressive return of the current phenomenon demands that we must instead deliberate, learn and build.

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David Africa
David Africa is the executive director of the African Centre for Security and Intelligence Praxis (Acsip), a progressive South African think-and-do-tank specialising in national security and intelligence. He has worked in South African intelligence, at the United Nations and for humanitarian organisations

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