South Africa


Defending and re-empowering public services against privatisation is also defending democracy

Illustrative image | Sources: Getty Images / Guillem Sartorio | EPA/NIC BOTHMA

The more we lose control of our essential services, underfunded and privatised as they are, while the wealthiest organise a parallel system of health and education, the more the middle and working classes lose confidence in the state.

Rosa Pavanelli is General Secretary of the global union federation Public Services International. Magdalena Sepúlveda is Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Let’s face it: the impact of the pandemic is now cruelly different depending on where you live and how much money you have. In Europe, the United States, China and a handful of wealthy countries, restaurants and bars are overflowing, gyms are reopening, and people are beginning to socialise without fear. For those countries that have monopolised most of the vaccines against Covid-19, there is hope that the page has been turned on the pandemic once and for all.

Elsewhere, in countries like India and whole continents such as Africa and Latin America, the virus — and its variants — continue to rage, with their trail of deaths, hospitalisations, unemployment and poverty. These two starkly opposed realities are united by one thing: the steady rumbling of calls for austerity that are making themselves heard across the world.

In London, Mexico City or Cape Town, the arguments are the same: after the crisis abates, the measures that were taken to (sometimes barely) support those most affected will need to be reversed. This means following the familiar path of dramatic cuts to hospitals and social protection benefits and salary freezes for public sector workers. It also implies the marketisation and commercialisation of water, health and education services, including the commodification of care and the exploitation of women’s labour.

It seems that this pandemic has not taught us anything. Have we already forgotten the images from Lombardy? The heart of Italian finance and fashion boasted of having the most efficient health care system in the country because it was the most privatised. It was even used in advertising: “Be healthy, come to Lombardy”, said one brochure. By March 2020, however, the region, one of the richest in the world, was overwhelmed, with a mortality rate of 5.7%, more than double the national average (2.4%). Neighbouring Veneto, which had maintained a public healthcare system, pulled through much better.

Have we also forgotten that in the United States, the virus killed proportionally more low-income people because, being deprived of health insurance, they could not get to a hospital that would treat them in time? And what about what happened in the impoverished suburbs of Santiago, Chile, another paragon of privatisation, where 90% of the victims of the pandemic died at home, never having been able to afford to see a doctor. Have we forgotten the 115,000 health and care workers and many others who died of Covid-19 while serving their communities?

This is not acceptable. Just as it is not acceptable to see that many governments, such as Philadelphia’s, are now considering privatising public water services. As if the pandemic has not demonstrated the need for universal access to water with entire communities being denied the ability to wash their hands to protect themselves from the virus.

And what about education? The increasing reliance on private schools around the world, encouraged by the World Bank and the IMF, is one of the reasons why hundreds of millions of children have been out of school since the pandemic began. 

Fiscal consolidation in the form of cutting public services budgets and handing over control to the private sector is not inevitable. To compensate for the huge sums disbursed during the crisis and to finance the recovery, governments must look to where the money is: in the accounts of multinationals and the richest people. The big technology companies, which saw their profits soar during the pandemic, must finally pay their fair share of taxes. This is not a radical move: it is what the Biden administration has recently announced.

Driven by Washington, the G7 countries have just recognised the extent of tax evasion by declaring themselves in favour of a minimum global tax on the foreign profits of multinationals of at least 15%. This is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough to generate significant revenues for both countries in the global North and the global South. It is crucial that governments mobilise unilaterally to tax their multinationals at much more ambitious levels, following the example of the United States, which is opting for a 21% rate.

This will not happen without public pressure. As we celebrate United Nations Public Service Day on 23 June, people must continue to mobilise to demand more resources for public workers, for the recognition of the value they generate in our societies, providing services that the market is simply unable to deliver. These are services underpinned and driven by the public interest and managed democratically, allowing everyone to live in dignity, not according to their ability to pay, but because it is their right.

An example of this mobilisation is the global movement that launched the Care Manifesto calling for rebuilding the social organisation of care as a necessary measure to tackle gender inequality. It is through these mechanisms of solidarity that we can build more resilient and just societies which are better able to respond in times of crisis such as the one we are presently experiencing.

This is also a political issue. The more we lose control of our essential services, underfunded and privatised as they are, while the wealthiest organise a parallel system of health and education, the more the middle and working classes lose confidence in the state.

This breakdown of the social fabric, of which public services are the beating heart, goes a long way in explaining the rise of populist and authoritarian movements and parties. Choosing to put private schools or clinics in competition with one another, rather than guaranteeing quality public services for all, is to take the risk of further fuelling the resurgence of totalitarian regimes we are witnessing across the globe.

Defending public services is defending democracy. DM


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All Comments 4

  • Sadly BEE policies are not democratic and have created the parallel system of health and education that you criticize in this article. Until all South Africans, no matter their skin colour, can participate in the economy equally, you will continue to get the disparity we now face in this country.
    Public services and State owned enterprises are not social or vote buying enterprises, they are, as you have pointed out, the life blood of a country. Until the right people with experience and expertise are employed in public services and SOE’s a parallel system will continue until the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” will be too wide to control.

  • In the interests of respecting the opinions of others, I tried hard to understand the points made in this op-ed piece but the authors make poor arguments for their claims. On what evidence or reasoning do they blame reliance on private schools for hundreds of millions of children being out of school during the pandemic? It would be more accurate to blame trade unions. How does competition between private clinics fuel a resurgence of totalitarian regimes? Perhaps the failure of populist socialist policies has driven people to populist fascist alternatives? Why is this article getting any airtime on Daily Maverick?

    • Well said. Heaven forbid the facts get in the way of a political argument. Privately run businesses are simply more efficient than public sector enterprises. The State has over 700 SOE’s virtually all of which are a drain on the fiscus. The political process must be followed, but delivery needs more checks and balances that for the private sector is the norm. The municipalities tasked with delivering services – roads, sewage treatment, water etc etc have shown themselves to be woefully inefficient at delivery. The public sector has demonstrated it refuses to be held accountable for results. The ravages of years of mismanagement, overlaid with the evil of corruption are not going to be fixed any time soon. People do not trust the ANC to deliver because hey have given good reason not to be trusted.

  • How is it possible to write such an article without mentioning the reality and real reasons for lack of service delivery control and the subsequent turn towards finding private solutions due to 20 years of government failure and corruption. Privatization is not the main problem here, not even close.

    What happened to balanced articles and opinions that don’t just ignore any inconvenient facts? And yes, I am aware that this is an op-ed, but I do expect a little more than this.