top of page


Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Exploring present trends and preferred futures for better governance in South Africa

Albert Einstein allegedly once said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

This article attempts to determine some proper questions about the future of governance in South Africa and examines three scenarios:

  1. The present reality of state capture,

  2. The probable future of increased citizen rescue of basic government functions, and

  3. A preferable future built around communal regenerative principles.

The following three questions are my attempt to properly probe the problem and will guide the exploration of these scenarios:

  • Has the prevalence of state capture necessitated the reimagining of new governing institutions to replace the 370+-year-old state-centric, Westphalian model?

  • Will citizen “rescue” approaches be sufficient to fill the gap by providing essential municipal services?

  • How can the challenges on the horizon be proactively addressed with communal regeneration?

Daniel Christian Wahl, who has written extensively on regenerative design, culture, and systems, serves as the source of my proposed framework. In his Regenerative Design Framework, he contrasts a degenerating system with a regenerating system by emphasizing six stages (see Figure 1) — conventional practice, green, sustainable, restorative, reconciliatory, and regenerative.

A few years later, Wahl reconfigured his framework to focus on designing regenerative cultures. His six stages exclude “reconciliatory,” but he added the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (see Figure 2) and enquires if they can serve as a bridge towards regeneration.

Image source: Designing Regenerative Cultures, 2016

Image source: Daniel Christian Wahl

While Wahl’s models are helpful frameworks for exploring the continuum between degeneration and regeneration, they do not fully capture the possibility of moving beyond the conventional into even more problematical areas of the spectrum. In my work with the South African Institute for International Affairs, I have modified Wahl’s framework to focus on governing systems. I dropped “green” but added exploitative and destructive to better capture where some nationstates find themselves today, but to also facilitate a continuum from worst-case to best-case scenarios. It is from this modified model that I frame my three questions.

Image source: Steven Lichty


What is state capture, you might ask? According to Elizabeth David-Barrett, it “is a type of systematic corruption whereby narrow interest groups take control of the institutions and processes that make public policy, excluding other parts of the public whose interests those institutions are supposed to serve.”

State capture was originally associated with the transition of states in the first decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. State capture can be further distinguished by the type of institution being captured (legislative, judiciary, executive, regulatory, public services, etc.) and the type of actors involved in attempting the capture (large corporations, interest groups, political or military leaders, etc.).[1] Hellman et al. contrast state capture with influence and administrative corruption. The latter represents petty forms of bribery connecting to the creation, implementation, and enforcement of rules, laws, and regulations. The former is when the rules of the game are shaped without paying public officials.

Two recent reports in South Africa illuminate the realities of state capture in the country. Last month, the Institute for Security Studies launched a scathing report that shows the socio-economic problems plaguing the country are caused by corruption and poor governance, and not immigrants. The report directly confronts the perpetuation of xenophobic violence as a quick fix to citizens’ frustration, when in fact, the anger and calls for change should be directed toward corrupt African National Congress party leaders. The fifth and final report of the Zondo Commission was released in June 2022. The three-year investigation was the most comprehensive corruption inquiry in South Africa’s history. The bottom line — state capture, in 2019 alone, eliminated a third of South Africa’s 4.9 trillion Rand GDP (~USD 340 billion). In other words, four months of labor and productivity of the average South African simply vanished. This cost does not even factor in the loss of trust, confidence, opportunity, and reputation.

These figures suggest South Africa’s state capture is squarely in an exploitative stage but appears heading further down the continuum toward a destructive "crossing the Rubicon" situation. Bleak? Maybe.

South Africa is a resilient nation-state and has reinvented itself on multiple occasions—1652, 1795, 1806, 1910, 1934, 1948, 1961, and most recently 1994. Conventional wisdom adheres to the genesis of the nation-state in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the carnage of Europe’s Thirty Year’s War. But recent scholarship is contesting this core tenant of international relations theory, suggesting that indigenous sovereignty aligns closer with regenerative political and cultural systems. This may answer the first question. The reimagining of indigenous sovereignty could replace the nearly four-century state-centric model. A close reflection on recent global challenges (Covid-19, climate change, migration, transboundary environmental degradation, etc.) reveals the ineffectiveness of state-centric models, let alone ones inflicted with debilitating state capture.


As we move up and to the right on the continuum, we see that in some instances, municipal citizens are taking matters into their own hands and “rescuing” services traditionally in the domain of the local government. Will these efforts be sufficient though to fill the gap by providing these essential municipal services? Before responding, let’s first get a bit of background on the context of South African municipalities and then see some examples of rescues in process.

A study by South Africa’s Bureau for Economic Research (BER) highlights eight challenging areas for good governance within municipalities: lack of skills; migration; a lack of spending; supply chain management; municipal audits; revenue management; irregular, fruitless and unauthorized expenditure; and repairs and maintenance. The BER states that 8% should be the norm for expenditures on maintenance and repair and anything less than this leads to the deterioration of infrastructure, yet typical expenditures range from 4% in large metro areas and around 2% for smaller cities and municipalities.

It is no surprise then when we find normal citizens stepping in to rescue essential services and repair their own infrastructure. In Kgetlengrivier, a local municipality in North West Province, prevailed in a court case that saw a local resident’s association take control of the water and sewage systems and successfully restore these essential services. The state was then ordered to pay the association for essentially doing the work of the municipality. Similar stories are found in Delmas, Uitenhage, and Senekal municipalities.

Image source: FB/SMCF Concerned citizens in Kgetlengrivier assume control of the city’s water and sewage services Image source: Cate Blanche

Unemployed laborers volunteering their time to improve roads in Senekal Image source: FB/SMCF

Normally, a failed municipality is put under the administrative control of the province, but the courts have already had to address ineffective provincial support and oversight in municipalities like Emfuleni, Emalahleni, Thaba Chweu, and Makana. This suggests not only state capture, but provincial and municipal capture as well. Judicial intervention may provide short-term solutions. Marius Pieterse, a law professor at the University of Witwatersrand, asks if this is sufficient reason to ignore constitutional mechanisms for addressing failed provincial and municipal governments.

Setting aside the legal and constitutional concerns of citizen rescue, can local residents via associations and committees fulfil all the responsibilities of public service delivery? A typical municipality in South Africa is responsible for electricity delivery, sewage/sanitation/garbage, fire/police services, roads, parks/recreation, libraries, health services, local tourism, fresh food markets, land use, etc. How can citizens possibly tackle all these responsibilities? Can digital government platforms offer a solution?

CitizenLab thinks so. Inspired by a digital nomad adventure in Southeast Asia, a group of three young co-founders launched the Lab in Belgium in 2016 and quickly expanded it to the Netherlands in 2017 and France in 2018. The organization aims to provide a digital platform to leverage community engagement and make public decision-making more accountable, inclusive, responsive, and participatory. The case studies presented by CitizenLab highlight impressive initiatives related to strategy/budgeting, infrastructure, planning, environment and sustainability. Clients include more than ten countries, cities (e.g., Seattle, Philadelphia, Leuven, and Stirling) and smaller municipalities.

According to Wietse Van Ransbeeck, cofounder and CEO of CitizenLab, they aim to create a digital agora[2] to tackle complex issues such as climate change and migration. As South Africa faces climate disruption, increases in freak natural disasters, xenophobic unrest and violence, and massive power outages, a captured state is hardly capable of leading the country into a flourishing future. Can a digital agora contend with state capture? Is digital democracy capable of wrestling with deep systemic issues related to colonialism, apartheid, and subsequent historical and communal trauma?

Members of the Senekal/Matwabeng Community Forum (SMCF) works to improve public infrastructure Image source: FB/SMCF

Ars Electronica engaging with a CitizenLab team to explore art and technology Image source: CitizenLab

Important questions, but let us first find a tentative answer to the second question posed at the beginning of this article — will citizen “rescue” approaches be sufficient to fill the gap by providing essential municipal services? Citizens may be able to maintain municipal services in the short-term via crowdsourcing, volunteers, and the use of platforms like CitizenLab, but in the long-term, fundamental transformation is going to need to happen at a deeper level, or what Wahl would call regenerative cultures or systems.

John Scott-Railton speaking to the U.S. House of Representative’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Image source: CitizenLab


The final scenario on the continuum is represented by communal regeneration. This scenario has progressed through a restorative stage, one that goes beyond citizen rescue, and results in the renewal and repair of the exploitation and destruction caused by the degenerative system of state capture. But South Africa, and other countries plagued by state capture, will need a sustainable system beyond restoration.

Community engagement sessions with local citizens in Germany Image source: CitizenLab

Wahl characterizes this system, not as a global problem-solving endeavour, but as one embodying local and regional regeneration and ongoing collective learning, collaboration, and capacitybuilding processes with people everywhere. For Wahl, a regenerative human culture is “healthy, resilient and adaptable…it cares for the planet and it cares for life in the awareness that this is the most effective way to create a thriving future for all of humanity.”

Gary Snyder calls this reinhabitation, or seeing through a more systemic lens the complexity and intimate connections between the social activities of urban spaces with the surrounding natural environments. Biomimicry is the more scientific term to describe this approach, or as Janine Benyus states, “Life creates conditions conducive to life.”

In short, regenerative development aspires to augment the whole system for all its stakeholders rather than capitalizing only on individual parameters for the few to the detriment of the many and “goes beyond not just doing no harm by regenerating healthy ecosystems functions, top-soils, forests and waterways, while also regenerating social cohesion and global solidarity and nurturing thriving communities and regional economies in global collaboration.”

Monika Bielskyte, one of my favorite futurists, best exemplifies this communal regeneration with her concept of Protopia Futures, which in short is an audacious answer to the third question—how can the challenges on the horizon be proactively addressed with communal regeneration?

Bielskyte contends that “Cartesian dualism distorts any true understanding of human community and our complex interdependence with all life on Earth. The narratives of ‘colonizing progress’ and individualism have blocked us from more expansive scientific inquiries and innovative discoveries.” Utopian and dystopian ideals are a natural consequence of this dualistic thinking, i.e., just two sides of the same neo-religious coin. While utopias are often seen as an antidote to Dystopias, they can materialize by “prodigiously leapfrogging all of the most urgent inequities of the present. Consequently, they are mostly closed to critical inquiry. Utopian imaginings pertain to communicating a peaceful and magically post-austerity world, yet somehow the peace of such a future is always peace without justice.”

I highly recommend reading Bielskyte’s Protopia Futures Framework, which is her alternative to the binaries of utopias and dystopias. Protopia is defined as “a continuous dialogue, more a verb than a noun, a process rather than a destination, never finite, always iterative, meant to be questioned, adjusted, and expanded” and not “be solely bound to the realm of theoretical imagination.

It is also very much about the methodology of creating (and recovering) blueprints for action.” Protopian futures aim to apply seven principles to challenge the inevitability of coercive futures by creating spaces for “active imagining, resourcing in the present and moving towards collaborative visions of liberation.”



​We consider mere “tolerance” a failure and actively resist the violence of sexism, misogyny, racism, colourism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, classism, and any other forms of exclusionary categorization and discrimination.


​Our narratives are narratives of communities coming together rather than glorifications of individual “hero journeys” of magical saviors. Community is the hero of our futures.


​Our futures are embodied and interdependent. We revel in expanded sensory experiences and consciously make vital space for neurodiverse and disability inclusive expressions of intimacy, care, and radical tenderness.


With recognition of destructive feedback loops already in motion, we consider sustainability solutions entirely insufficient and aim for regenerative practices in every aspect of our civilizational construct. We prioritize biological over mechanical technologies as the only truly viable long-term strategy. We grow, not just build.


We appreciate the importance of spiritual practices from the dawn of humanity and their role in human culture-making. We therefore quest for spiritual practices that acknowledge ancestral wisdom, whilst also expanding rather than stifling scientific inquiry.


From the interwoven journeys of our Ancestors to the future living fabrics of our cities, we celebrate the role of creativity beyond the elitism of disciplines previously labelled as “artistic.”


We must depart from colonial/neo-colonial individualist cultures of exploitation and greed, and endeavour to nurture cultures of equity, contribution, and planetary mutuality. We envision the values of a material degrowth society.

Bielskyte lays out a powerful and visionary description of communal regeneration. If we take these Protopia principles and overlay them with the realities found in the municipalities where citizen rescue has played a factor, we can see emergent attributes arising when citizens engage in repairing and renovating their local municipalities. I will not elaborate on each principle, but when different races and socio-economic backgrounds across South Africa are coming together to rescue their community they are demonstrating Principles 1 and 2. The work in Delmas and Senekal entails revitalising parks, community spaces, and train stations, demonstrating how volunteers, local associations, and churches can model Principles 4 and 5. To my knowledge, there is no formal research conducted on the deeper changes happening in these cities and municipalities. I surmise though that an ethnographic study would reveal elements of Principles 6 and 7 are arising from the camaraderie and spirit of Ubuntu (Zulu philosophy of “I am because we are”) found when communities come together to address their socio-economic and political challenges.


Einstein uses the term “widening our circles of compassion” to reference the healthy evolution of consciousness that can integrate capacities for reason with alternative ways of knowing, including empathetic understanding. This is a necessary process in the movement from

This process also perfectly illustrates Buckminster Fuller’s advice that you do not fight an existing system, but instead create an alternative system that makes the old one obsolete. According to Joanna Macy, this requires both hospice workers (citizens rescuing society from a dying state) and midwives (citizens birthing communal regeneration). She posits we must care for a “dying system while simultaneously cocreating a life-sustaining human presence on Earth.” Or as bell hooks eloquently once said, “To be truly visionary we have to root our imaginations in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.”

I’d like to conclude with highlighting an important component of participatory futures (and an implicit element of Protopia futures). A challenge for more inclusive citizen rescue and eventual communal regeneration is unlocking the future consciousness of marginalized communities. The media reports on citizen rescue suggest a range of volunteers, but many South Africans may not be in a position to serve. Poverty, adverse community experiences, and various types of trauma (intergenerational, historical, individual, communal, etc.) are common phenomena in the Global South, but increasingly so in Western countries.

Trauma and related adversities can hinder the growth of the seeds needed to plant communal regeneration values and principles. Neurobiological studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) show that past and future thinking are processed in the same parts of the brain. If an individual has experienced a traumatized past, this is the birthing ground for futures thinking. Bleak again? Yes, but my MPhil research explores trauma-informed futures and examines the nexus of community-led traumahealing interventions with increased futures consciousness. Our brain’s neuroplasticity enables the reconciliation of past traumas and can give us hope for building better futures.

As the futures community in general strives to be more inclusive and aims to expand futures literacy programs, it will be important to consider the socio-economic, historical, and political context of participants of these trainings. As we see greater trends around the world of state capture and democratic decline, citizen rescue may become more paramount, but also hindered by latent trauma among marginalized populations. The ideal future of communal regeneration represents a vision of mental and physical well-being of all community members.


  1. Lugon-Moulin, A. (n.d.) “Understanding State Capture” Freedom from Fear.

  2. An agora refers to the central public space in ancient Greek city-states and represented a system to address the social, economic, and political needs of the polis.


Steven Lichty

Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Steven Lichty (he/him) is a managing partner and cofounder of REAL Consulting Group. His doctoral research in political science explored religious pedagogies of political socialisation. He is an APF Emerging Fellow and recently completed his MPhil in Futures Studies from Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa. He can be reached at

34 views0 comments


bottom of page