South Africa: Is it becoming a mafia nation?

A report published in September 2022 by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (Gitoc) asserts that South Africa has become an increasingly transnational hub of organized crime.

The report paints a picture of organized networks within and without the state that permit, facilitate, and exploit chances for private profit. Or, they use coercive means to get an unfair economic advantage in the public and private sectors. Some purposefully sabotage vital infrastructure in order to profit from this.

Expanding are the spheres of public life where criminals exploit or intimidate their way to power. In recent years, large-scale crime has permeated healthcare, education, and government agencies. The cost of speaking out against misconduct is enormous.

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This is in addition to the dozens of political assassinations of local activists and politicians for political benefit or out of pure vengeance against anyone who dare to denounce corruption.

There is no doubt that a burgeoning ecosystem of organized crime is dominating the country’s government and public life. And, due to the frequency with which political actors or state institutions are implicated, some critics even wonder if South Africa is becoming a “mafia state.”

The term “mafia state” alludes to the interconnectedness of organized crime networks and governments. In his renowned 2012 piece, Mafia States, Moises Naim, a Venezuelan journalist and author, stated:

In a mafia state, high government officials become fundamental members of criminal enterprises, if not their leaders, and the protection and promotion of their operations become public priority.

There is no single criterion for labeling a state as a mafia state. The best way to conceptualize the idea is as a spectrum. In the most extreme instances, high-ranking politicians take direct control of organized crime enterprises. Other features include coordination between organized crime and powerful government people, money laundering to conceal illicit profits, and the use of violence and intimidation to protect those involved.

The Gitoc study refrains from referring to South Africa as a “mafia state.” It does reveal, however, that there is a proliferation of criminal networks that encompass not only criminal “kingpins” and persons with political connections, but also average citizens. For various historical reasons, they become a part of this “value chain.” However, South Africa may soon reach a point where the relationship between crime and politics is maintained due to the opposition of certain actors.

The existence of criminal elements within the state does not indicate that the entire state has transformed into a criminal enterprise. However, it is true that numerous governmental institutions have been attacked by criminals with the assistance of insiders.

South Africans are aggressively resisting the criminalization of the state. The majority of fraud, corruption, and nepotism allegations emanate from principled whistleblowers within state systems. Others originate from relatively open media, civic society, and politics. A portion of the misconduct has been uncovered through executive-led investigations. This applies to the Zondo Commission, which investigated state takeover.

It is difficult for regular folks to evaluate how the state is responding to these difficulties due to ineffective communication tactics. A case in point is the government’s decision to deploy the military to bolster security at a number of power plants. It remains to be seen if the deployment will be able to halt the acts of sabotage that ESKOM’s senior management cites as a significant element in the escalating energy crisis.

As with the riots in July 2021, which were caused by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court, cabinet ministers have made contradictory public statements regarding crime-affected essential sectors and services.

There is a formal sector (“first economy”) and an informal sector (“second economy”) in the South African economy. This is what economists call a dual economy. This should be supplemented with a “third economy” consisting of the criminal economic activities indicated above that have infiltrated the formal and informal sectors.

In South Africa, the overlap between the legal and illegal economies is complex. Despite appearances, even large international corporations may engage in criminal actions surreptitiously. On the other side, criminals frequently exploit vulnerable people in areas where the state has failed to satisfy fundamental needs: they offer employment, chances, and income, a phenomena observed not only in South Africa, but throughout the African continent.

Better policing and security tactics are part of the reset South Africa needs to detangle its political and criminal networks. The state must be able to establish its power in the benefit of the majority of law-abiding persons who desire to live honorable lives in an atmosphere of certainty.

If the crime-politics connection is maintained purposely by the participation of powerful state players, it will be far more difficult to dissolve.

The expenditures made to combat crime will be ineffective. In the criminal justice sector, the specter of corrupt, compliant, or compromised individuals will make the future more insecure. The prevalence of violence and threats against those who oppose organized crime will increase.

The reports of the Zondo Commission, the Special Investigating Unit, whistleblowers, investigative journalists, academics, think tanks, and civil society organizations all contribute to demonstrating how to arrest the slide towards a criminal state. The criminal justice system must prosecute criminals and not permit impunity.

But more important than fighting crime is addressing the tough questions about how regular people become embroiled in organized crime and why the nation’s democracy is becoming more polarized.

If deteriorating socioeconomic conditions remain, it is quite probable that organized criminals would continue to exploit social contradictions and that organized crime markets will increase.

The stakes are elevated. Everyone should make preventing South Africa from becoming a “mafia state” a primary concern. Prior to the 2024 national general elections, this will be a major matter of concern for voters.


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