Letter from Johannesburg

ImageSouth Africa is a country of almost 50m people, rebuilding itself.  It has serious challenges with crime, and corruption, but it is doing much better than any other country in Africa.  Like so many African countries, it is extremely rich in natural resources; as we flew into Johannesburg, the South African in the seat beside me pointed out the point in the high veld where at least 80% of the world’s platinum is buried.  The uranium is further south, and gold and diamonds are everywhere.

For all that, my security briefings were frequent and stark.  Johannesburg is not a safe city.  Don’t drive anywhere.  Don’t go for a walk.  And so on and so forth.  Nairobi – coming later this week – was admittedly reported as being more dangerous, but South Africa has its issues.  One of my colleagues was “held up” as he describes it last year – thieves with guns and cable ties broke into his house, tied him and his partner up, and pushed the nose of the gun into the backs of their heads demanding money and valuables.  It lasted for an hour, and it’s not unusual.  Thankfully neither of them were hurt.

In 2010, South Africa successfully hosted the Soccer World Cup.  It was a significant investment for the country, but an important statement to the world – the New South Africa has arrived!  The Rugby World Cup in 1995 was more of a symbolic statement, coming so soon after the ending of Apartheid, and didn’t have the same caché as hosting the soccer equivalent (it was, after all, only the third time the Rugby World Cup was held at all!).

There are internal and external factors in calculating legitimacy.  For South Africa, its crime rate, and by extension the capacity of the government to secure its citizens, impacts negatively.  Similarly, corruption, and the extent to which it impacts on individual freedom to trade, establish businesses, and generally engage in commerce, is a negative.  These are both internal factors.  The extent to which the infrastructure of the state is recognised as legitimate by the international community – locally, regionally, and globally – is important.  States need both.  Syria’s Al-Assad maintains a tenuous grip on legitimacy internally – it would appear that a significant minority oppose him within Syria, but he retains control over the military.  Externally, he retains strong support from Russia and China in particular, which is sufficient to maintain a non-interventionist policy in the UN, a position that frankly suits the US in all likelihood.  Hilary Clinton declared recently that Al-Assad had lost his legitimacy.  But of course he hasn’t – not yet, in any case.

Back here in South Africa, there are large swathes of the population who are disenfranchised, who by extension offer no support for the legitimacy of the state (which does nothing for them anyway).  Queuing for passport control this morning with hundreds of passengers who had flown in from Europe, I noticed that the vast, vast majority of those queuing with South African passports were white.  Generally speaking, the wealth remains very unequally distributed.  But the state itself retains its integrity, it remains better than what went before.  Still, twenty years on, there are voters now in South Africa who were born after the end of apartheid, and who will be demanding more.

What is “An Economy of Legitmacy”

Legitimacy is a fabled, ethereal thing. It is not exclusively democratic (monarchs enjoy legitimacy too, as to dictators), it’s not confined to the nation state (local government, NGOs, corporations, and international organisations also enjoy it), and it most certainly not constant. Legitimacy ebbs and flows, as a measure of the confidence of a people in its government, and also, increasingly, as a measure of the international community’s acceptance of a government as the legitimate representatives of a nation state. It is a relative thing – different people will see their government as more or less legitimate due to their personal beliefs and politics. Representative democracy tries to address minority opinion, but the basic liberal democratic structure suffers still from what Tocqueville calledthe tyranny of the majority‘. Different international actors will infuse a government with legitimacy in its representations on the international stage. So Russia will continue to recognise and support Assad’s Syria, while Britain expels her diplomats. Legitimacy then is currency, a ‘good’ for the personas of international relations, nations states. It should be measurable (I’m hoping to find some research showing how it can be measured, or else do the work myself), and it should be comparable. There should be investments that can be made in order to build legitimacy, such as in institutions. Wars may increase or reduce legitimacy. All of these pieces need to be modelled.

What do Syria and the British Monarchy have in Common? Legitimacy Crises!

The coincidence of the Syrian crisis with the Jubilee Celebrations in the UK for the 50th anniversary of their Queen’s accession to the throne may appear at first instance to be entirely separate news items in a pretty busy news schedule.  But underneath each story is a crisis of legitimacy, and attempts by key protagonists – Bashir Al-Assad in the first instance, and Queen Elizabeth in the second – to maintain their weakining legitimacy.  Henry Kissinger waded into the Syria crisis with a strongly worded criticism of US policy in the crisis. With an argument rooted all the way back in The Treaty of Westphalia, Kissinger railed against the default interventionism that has characterised the Arab Spring as breaking with centuries of – essentially – respect for national sovereignty.  Of course one could argue that the proxy wars of the Cold War and more recent interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan – and even in Yemen, Somalia, and Kosovo – pre-dated the Arab Spring and clearly established an option of pragmatic interventionism, moral hazard be damned.

The integrity of the state, the sanctity of its sovereignty, and quite literally the neck of Syria’s leader, are all on the line.  A question arises about where the state itself gets its legitimacy.  While Assad held recent elections, it appears pretty clear that those elections did little to legitimise his position.  The opposition and self-proclaimed oppressed people within Syria are looking to the International Community to intervene and protect their human rights.  Now, when we legitimise a political institution, we offer up our freedom to that institution so that it will secure our individual rights and freedoms.  If the oppressed peoples of Syria are looking to the international community to secure their rights, and if interventionalism (humanitarian or otherwise) has become a default position, are we witnessing a transition of sovereignty and / or legitimacy to “The International Community”?

Meanwhile, closer to home, the sun is stubbornly refusing to make an appearance in London for the pomp of the Jubilee.  Quite literally, it is raining on their parade.  As if the British weather wasn’t enough, Poly Toynbee decided to have a pop at the Royal Family, as she is wont to do.  Her assault is more wide ranging than that – she attacks that fading vision of Britishness, a decrepit and anachronistic national identity that bears no resemblance to who the British actually are.  Perhaps the legitimacy of the State is not undermined by the extraordinary edifice that is the Monarchy; it is more tourist attraction / museum piece than something that geniunely represents Britain.  But its position is increasingly detached from the State, and one suspects that the next accession could well be strained.