abandoned buildings with inclined wall in countryside

What is a “failed state”? Let’s look at some definitions, characterisitcs, and examples of “failed states”, and then discuss whether South Africa could be considered to be failing!

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  • Corruption (n) – illegal, bad, or dishonest behaviour, especially by people in positions of power.
    • Political corruption is widespread throughout the country.
  • Authority (n) – the moral or legal right or ability to control.
    • He has no authority over his students.
  • Goods (n) – items that satisfy human wants and provide utility.
    • Air is an example of free goods that are available to all people.
  • Fragile (adj) – easily destroyed, ended, or made to fail.
    • The assassination could end the fragile peace agreement that was signed last month.
  • Instability (n) – uncertainty caused by the possibility of a sudden change in the present situation.
    • The instability of the euro continues.
  • To exacerbate (v) – to make something that is already bad even worse.
    • This attack will exacerbate the already tense relations between the two communities.
  • Blackout (n) – when there is no light or power because of an electricity failure.
    • Power lines were blown down and we had a blackout of several hours.
  • Incompetent (adj) – not having the ability to do something as it should be done.
    • He has described the government as corrupt and incompetent.

South Africa is Failing…

Last week, most major news publications published articles claiming that South Africa is at risk of becoming a “failed state.”

The country is currently experiencing an economic crisis and power cuts lasting up to 10 hours a day. There is an incredible amount of corruption in the country and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

But is South Africa really “failing”?

I’ve been meaning to record an episode on “failed states” for a few months, and these reports concerning South Africa becoming a “failed state” are the perfect excuse to finally record this episode.

I’m going to discuss the defintion of a “failed state”, talk about the history and a few examples, analyse some criticisms of the concept, before ending with a short discussion about South Africa!

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What is a Failed State?

The concept of a “failed state” is controversial. There is no single, wide-spread, and accepted defintion because “failure” is a subjective and relative concept. What may seem like “failure” to one person may be a “success” to another person.

It has also been used to justify invasions and political interventions which has led to criticism of the concept.

However, there are some features of a failed state that are usually included. A state (or country) can be considered failed when the government is no longer able to fulfil its basic roles and functions. Governments are supposed to be responsible, at least in part, for the armed forces, laws, economy, education, and justice. If it cannot provide or control these things anymore, we can describe it as failed.

Britannica encyclopaedia states that a failed state “fails” in two key basic functions of a state. First, it no longer can control or use its authority over its people and land, and second it cannot protect its national borders.

A more academic defintion comes from Professor Charles T. Call. He says a failed state has 3 “gaps”: gaps in capacity, security, and legitmacy. A gap in capacity means they can’t provide basic goods (like energy or food) to the people. A gap in security means the country can no longer effectivley protect or defend itself. And a gap in legitimacy means that a large number of powerful people in the country no longer respect basic rules and laws.

Failed states tend to be characterised by violence and corruption. Unemployment will be incredibly high, poverty widespread, and basic services like education and the justice system will no longer be working. Often this will be seen in higher rates of illiteracy and illnesses. And infrastructure, things like public buildings and roads, will start to fall into a poor condition.

Key institutions like the judiciary (legal system), the government, the civil service, and the military will no longer have power or independence. For example, the decisions of the country’s courts may no longer have any meaning because they are not trusted or there is no functioning police force or prison system.

State Fragility Index

One example of a measure of how close (or far) a state is to failing is the State Fragility Index published by the Fund for Peace. This index, along with other similar rankings, attempts to “quantify” the level of state failure.

They look at a state’s level of development and weaknesses in different categories. For instance, they look at social measurements such as “access to clean water” or the “number of refugees”; political measurements including “human rights and the rule of law”; economic calculations of growth; and cohesion measurements including divisions between different groups in a society.

As of 2022, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria are ranked as the top 3 most fragile states. On the other end of the spectrum, Finland is the least fragile state.

How does a State “Fail”?

State failure occurs when a government is unable to effectively govern its people, maintain law and order, and ensure the well-being of its citizens. There are several reasons why a state may reach this point of failure.

Political instability, corruption, weak institutions, and autocratic rule can undermine the functioning of a government. For example, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, countries with high levels of corruption often experience political instability and are more likely to be classified as failed states.

Economic mismanagement can lead to economic decline and widespread poverty. Unemployment and unequal distribution of resources further exacerbate social tensions, ultimately destabilizing the state.

Social and ethnic divisions also play a significant role in state failure. These can fuel resentment and contribute to social unrest. Lack of social cohesion can lead to conflicts and even civil war. Historical examples, such as the ethnic divisions in Rwanda that culminated in the 1994 genocide, illustrate how social divisions can result in state failure.

Historical legacies, including the drawing of borders during colonialism, have created internal divisions and conflicts that persist to this day. Geopolitical rivalries and interference by external powers can exacerbate existing tensions and undermine governance. The involvement of external actors in supporting armed groups or destabilizing governments can further hinder a state’s ability to maintain stability.

Environmental challenges pose yet another threat to states. Poor environmental management, inadequate disaster response mechanisms, and overexploitation of natural resources can lead to economic downturns and social unrest. The impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events, further compound these challenges. For instance, the severe droughts in Somalia in recent years have exacerbated food insecurity and displacement, contributing to the state’s instability.

Examples of Failed States


The Middle Eastern country Yemen is often cited as a failed state due to a combination of political, economic, and social challenges. The ongoing civil war between Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government has resulted in widespread political instability and a breakdown of governance. The conflict has caused immense suffering, with a humanitarian crisis characterized by high levels of poverty, food insecurity, and displacement.

Weak institutions, corruption, and lack of effective governance further contribute to the state’s failure. Yemen also faces economic mismanagement, exacerbated by the war’s impact on infrastructure, trade, and basic services. The combination of these factors has led to the classification of Yemen as one of the world’s most prominent failed states.



Somalia is perhaps the most famous example of a “failed state”. Decades of political instability, clan-based conflicts, and weak institutions have hindered the state’s ability to provide basic services and maintain law and order. Additionally, Somalia faces widespread poverty, limited economic opportunities, and high levels of corruption, leading to significant social and economic challenges.

The presence of extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab further exacerbates security concerns and undermines stability. Despite efforts towards political reconstruction and stabilization, Somalia continues to grapple with the complex web of factors that have contributed to its classification as a failed state.

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How about South Africa?

Now we have looked at the concept of a failed state, what about South Africa?

South Africa usually isn’t included with the group of “failed states.” We think of Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan… not a country that hosted the FIFA World Cup about a decade ago.

Despite this, a group of CEOs from major South African companies are concerned that South Africa is on the path to failing. The current main concern is to do with the regular blackouts to the South African electricity grid. Already in 2023, South Africa has had more blackouts than the entirety of 2022.

In fact, businesses are beginning to prepare for a complete collapse of national electric supply. CEOs warned that the country may not be able to guarantee essential goods. People with financial resources are moving away from using public services – paying privately for medical care, schools, security, and even installing their own electric generators and solar panels. There is a real concern that South Africa’s government may not be able to fulfil their responsibilities.


Estimates suggest that in 2022, blackouts reduced the country’s GDP by over 7%. It will be worse this year. South Africa is now one of the most unreliable power grids in the region.

At the same time, South Africa is struggling with massive crime. Billions of dollars of cables are regularly stolen from industries and rail companies; infrastructure projects are interrupted by organised crime; the country has an alarming rate of money laundering; corruption is everywhere; and the global Financial Action Task Force has decided to put South Africa’s banks under greater scrutiny.

South Africa has recently struggled with incompetent leaders. Previous President Zuma was both incompetent and corrupt. Current President Ramaphosa may be a little less corrupt, but he may be even more incompetent. None of their policies have done anything to fix the problems.

One of the signs that South Africa’s government is not working fully is clear when we look at the people working in government departments. If you were to visit South Africa’s national prosecution office, you may be surprised to find corporate lawyers from private law firms working there. If you were to walk over to the department of industry, you may notice employees from private banks in the office.

The government is so incompetent that private companies have made the decision to send their own employees to work in government departments, and they pay the salaries themselves.

If you remember back to the defintion of a failed state, one of the characteristics was that the public don’t trust the government anymore. In South Africa, while 62% of people trust business, only 20% trust government.

So, is South Africa a failed state? Not yet. But with a failing electricity grid, crime, corruption, an incompetent government, and more… the country needs to change things to make sure it doesn’t “fail”.


Final Thought

Here is today’s final thought. While South Africa is currently facing significant challenges such as an economic crisis, power cuts, corruption, and high unemployment rates, it is not yet considered a failed state. Failed states are characterized by a complete breakdown of government functions, widespread violence, and the inability to provide basic services to their citizens.

However, South Africa’s issues, particularly the failing electricity grid and governance concerns, highlight the urgent need for change to avoid the risk of further decline. The country must address these pressing issues and work towards effective governance, economic stability, and social cohesion to ensure a brighter future.

What do you think? Is South Africa a “failed state”? How “fragile” is your country?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

One thought on “237. What is a Failed State? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. A couple of weeks ago, I heard of the situation in South Africa. This country is portrayed as being managed by an extremely corrupt government. It’s incompetent leaders are just promising things that they will never realize in the future.
    Notably, there are over 10 hours of power outages per day because of the aging and stealing of electrical infrastructures, and there is less investment coming after it as well. One of my tutors living there is planning to move back to Britain, from where her ancestors came to South Africa as colonials. She sets up solar panels and UPS devices with large capacities in case blackouts occur.
    As I can see, as long as the conundrum of electricity maintains or even exacerbates, ultimately, it can severely damage the national economy and evaporate their GDP…
    Other than that, other negative phenomena such as drug dealers peddling stuff to even the elderly in public venues, and large-scale activities of mafia and organized crimes, among others, are somewhat undermining the stability of society and tearing apart the cohesion of the nation day by day.
    In a nutshell, it seems that civilians share a mainstream consensus that they believe the government is not credible and barely see the future of their own country somehow. Hopefully, later on, after the current government cabinet steps down as leaders, a rigorous cabinet that the people endorse steps in, and leads the people out of the dilemma and to the restoration of this nation.

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