Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
South Africa, if and when it fails as a state, will do so on its own terms, says the writer. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

THE member (of the Upper Jukskei Flyfishing Collective) could drag you over to the water cooler and lean on the cistern and force you to listen to every detail of his holidays and make you look at his selfie with the dead whale and we could hang out there for a while.

Or not.

We could, instead, get straight back to work, and that has to start with deciding what to do about our situation. Before we act, however, we should decide what, precisely, our situation is.

Let’s say the worst-case scenario is that the South African state has finally failed and that no matter what we think we can do to recover it will be in vain.

The Fund for Peace, according to Wikipedia, says failed states are characterised by four conditions: loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force; erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; the inability to provide public services; and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community. So, no, by that definition ours is not yet a failed state, although SA seems to be trending that way. As always, nothing is that simple.

Consider Zimbabwe. In the view of the refuseniks, that state failed in 1980 when the country was democratised, but that was because of their racist mind-set.

At some point, though, Zimbabwe’s economy imploded and it lost the ability to provide social services. It also lost the ability to interact meaningfully with most Western states and interacted with other states from a severely compromised position. The question is, has Zimbabwe reached its nadir, or is it still in the process of failing? At what point will Zimbabweans admit that their state has failed?

But that is Zimbabwe. The fact that it is a sub-Saharan African state that has overcome colonialism does not mean it is comparable with SA. Critics of the term failed or failing state appropriately reject any universal definition.

SA, if and when it fails as a state, will do so on its own terms.

The difficulty will not be deciding whether the state has failed (we’ll know), but when it has failed. The worst of which is that we’ll realise SA has failed as a state only in retrospect. In the meantime, we must tangentially approach the curve of our fate in the hope that we never find its nadir.

In the African National Congress (ANC) government, the lowest point would be on the day SA asks the International Monetary Fund for a bail-out. That day, says economist Chris Hart, will be within six years if we carry on as we are.

For an economist, forecasting an event is brave, and Hart may be right, but the fact that SA is "on the brink of a solvency crisis" may not be the defining cause. In the mind of the member, solvency, the cost of more debt and the collapse of production can be remedied, even by the ANC. Perhaps even within a week, as Pieter-Dirk Uys puts it.

The member thinks, instead, the juggernaut dragging the country into the abyss of failure is the bitter fact that all of our fates have become inextricably intertwined with that of the ANC. The South African state may not have failed yet, but the government has and the government has usurped the state.

It means that for as long as South Africans permit the ANC to conflate the party with the state, they are doomed to share its fate.

But then, this is only the first Monday of the new year at the water cooler.

Things could get worse.

• Blom is a freelance journalist. He likes to flyfish