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The public-private collision is the root cause of our national malaise of discontentment


Dr Seelan Naidoo is principal associate at Public Ethos Consulting. He holds a master's in Decision-making, Knowledge and Values from Stellenbosch University, and a PhD in Organisation Studies and Cultural Theory from the University of St Gallen. He is an associated researcher of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

South African discontent is a phenomenon that has existed throughout our long and tumultuous history. It has now become a full-blown crisis of the public interest.

We South Africans dwell in a malaise of discontentment about the state of our country. Of course, not everything is equally bad, and we are not all equally discontented. Nevertheless, there is so much to fret about quite legitimately. And this has congealed into overlapping varieties of public discontent. 

There is evidence-based discontent, informed discontent, everyday discontent, lived discontent, habitual discontent, ignorant discontent, resigned discontent, vitriolic discontent – there is discontent Left and Right.

Contrary to what a neo-apartheid apologist might suggest, this is not at all a uniquely post-1994 phenomenon. 

As a national social psychological condition, South African discontent is a continuity that runs through the longue durée of our otherwise tumultuous history. It is a paradoxical condition in that it is both appropriate to the current state of things and yet extremely debilitating to our collective prospects.

The actuality of this malaise severely curtails our national sense of possibility and must be thrown off, no matter how difficult that is to achieve. That is why it is important to work on understanding this pernicious phenomenon and its complex causality.

It is a malaise because it is so harmful to all of us, and because its historical causes and dynamics are confounding. 

What we can rule out, though, is that it is merely a social psychosis since it is not irrational for us to be discontented in these circumstances. The root causes of this malaise do not lie in the national psyche. 

Rather, it has more to do with actual states of affairs which produce and reproduce public discontentment. The first cause of this malaise lies in reality more than it does in the national imaginary.  

There certainly are other catalysts for our discontentment. Negative media content, vitriolic public commentary, and rabid party-political discourse all cast a pall. As unpleasant as these features of life in the new South Africa are, they too are symptomatic of something more basic.

In this article, I focus on the realities of public service provision as a way to try to uncover the deeper causality of our malaise. 

After all, everyone living in South Africa encounters public services in some way, and it is safe to say that there is a direct link between the quality of public service provision and collective dis/contentment in South Africa.

It is important to say at this point that I reject the idea that the malaise is entirely due to the poor state of public service provision. What I am saying is that the state of our public services is indicative of – it points to – the deeper causality of our malaise. 

And while I am making qualifications, it is also important to admit that to try to identify root causes is a fraught endeavour in a hypercomplex country with a long and stormy history that has gone from ancient commons, to fuelling station, to patchwork of colonies, to colonial union, to apartheid state, and now to a young democratic state.

Many other commentators have delved into the sectoral dimensions of public service provision and then into the technical minutiae of the pressing problems with electricity provision and load shedding, water provision and the impending water crisis, the worsening state of public transportation, inadequate public healthcare, troubled public education, among others. 

From these contributions, we know that – and sometimes in what ways – specific public services have fallen short.

However, these contributions do not tell us enough about why the dysfunction in public service provision is so widespread and so persistent. 

To get to the causes of our malaise, it is helpful to study the common features of our inconsistent and crumbling public services.

In doing so, I offer a response which avoids the overloaded bandwagons: “It is because of nine years of State Capture under Jacob Zuma”; “it is because our national government and local governments are riddled with corruption and ineptitude”; and even, “it is because of apartheid”. This decision is not because I disagree with any of these reasons. 

I take them all as valid, yet I also understand each of them as offering partial explanations for a malaise that underlies all of them. 

More importantly, I avoid them because they are retrospective descriptions that tend to explain and re-explain sectoral symptoms, but rarely yield the causal diagnosis that is urgently needed for thinking ahead.

An exception to narrow sectoral explanations is the work of Mariana Mazzucato (Professor of Economics at University College London) which deals with the broad relationship between the public and the private sectors. 

For Mazzucato, the public and the private are distinct from each other, yet interrelated in complex ways. 

For example, she challenges the conventional view that innovation only happens in the private sector by demonstrating how it is often the other way around. Her point is significant because it asserts the innovation capability of the public sector against the claim that this is the exclusive preserve of the private sector.

This leads Mazzucato to a mutuality thesis that the public and the private can and should co-exist in a mutually progressive relationship. 

As a broad normative injunction – as something that ought to be the case – I find Mazzucato’s thesis quite compelling, and so have many others. 

For developed states like the UK, Germany, Switzerland and France, the public-private relation has historically been characterised by a high degree of the mutuality of these spheres of interest.

However, this is not and has never been the case in South Africa. 

Some of Mazzucato’s ideas, as progressive as they may be for the economic problems of the developed states, are not fitting to South Africa where the public-private relation, both historically and in positive terms, is a perpetual and intensifying collision of public and highly concentrated private interests.

The same can be said of many other African, South American and Latin American post-colonial states which have been shaped – and are still afflicted – in and by this ongoing collision. 

In such contexts, Mazzucato’s injunctions to shift from “market fixing” to “market shaping”, to become an “entrepreneurial state”, to “promote inclusive and sustainable growth”, and to “build state capabilities” come across as folksy good advice that is more or less contextually naïve for countries characterised by gross inequality, which actually deepens with growth, and by the severe weakening of democratic governance as the primary instrument of the public interest.

Mazzucato advises governments about what they should do by translating theories that have their origin in research on private sector organisations. 

Schumpeter’s notion of entrepreneurship, Teece’s capabilities framework, and the idea of organisational mission were all first formulated with the business firm in mind. 

Mazzucato’s translation of private interest theory into public interest practice is therefore doubly problematic – it must bridge the public-private divide and the yawning theory-practice gap. 

Moreover, the call to “re-think the social contract between the public and private sectors” presumes a contract-based relationship between them rather than the violence of a collision which is actually the case in South Africa.        

Mazzucato’s diagnosis of post-colonial states misses this phenomenon because it does not attend to neoliberalism as the global expression of late capitalism which is now shaping all states, but which has been a more long-standing and virulent feature of post-colonial states.

Amy Kapszynski, Professor of Law at Yale University, offers better insight to how the relation of the public and the private is inflected in the context of neoliberalism.

I define neoliberalism as a logic of governance that is oriented to increasing the power of market actors and diminishing public authority over those actors. 

Wendy Brown has this lovely term, “reformatting capitalism”. It’s a reformatting of capitalism broadly to not only increase the power of private actors – and therefore also their ability to extract profits – but also to disable democratic control over those actors.

I think of it that way, as opposed to, for example, a deregulatory move. 

All who live in South Africa are caught up in the collision between crumbling and often inept public service provision and a highly concentrated and often predatory private sector.  

Neoliberalism is in fact quite regulatory. It’s regulatory with a particular paradigm and purpose in mind. It’s important that we see the ways in which there’s an overt regulation of the economy – reorienting labour law, antitrust law, other kinds of law – to optimise for a profit-seeking impulse. (Amy Kapszynski, in The Syllabus).

Kapszynski is describing how neoliberalism plays out as a skewing of the relationship between the public and the private to the extent that the law itself gradually becomes skewed towards profit-seeking as the dominant pursuit of private interests. 

A “relationship” which, in South Africa, is more aptly described as a collision of the public and the private spheres of interest.

I trace a root cause of our national malaise to this collision which has tended to be overlooked because it is so temporally stretched out across our history. A backgrounded factor which has been at sway since long before the founding of South Africa as a state.

The first large-scale collision of the public and the private in this part of the world occurred in 1652 when an organised private interest landed at the southern tip of Africa. 

What first landed and stayed at the Cape of Good Hope was a company. It was not the Dutch state per se, not a conquering army, not the church – but a private corporate interest that immediately collided with a pre-existing public sphere. 

That first collision reverberates throughout the ensuing 370-year history of our still loosely bound nation-state. It has been 370 years of an unrelenting collision of the public and private.

At its founding, the Cape of Good Hope was administered as a victualing outpost of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC) in very much the same way that a contemporary multinational corporation might administer a fuelling station for a fleet of long-distance cargo ships. 

It was founded as nothing more than a minor site of corporate extraction that was nevertheless disastrous for the ancient public sphere that existed there for the most part as a symbiosis of humans in a natural commons.

When Willem Adriaan van der Stel, the third “governor” of the Cape of Good Hope, was recalled from his post in 1709, it was on instructions of the VOC. Everything that he had stolen, taken, bought, built and traded was at the behest of the company. 

What occasioned his unceremonious recall had little to do with the public sphere at the Cape – after all, his was not a public role but a managerial and entrepreneurial one. Rather, it was because the pursuit of his private interests had unsettled the private interests of the burghers in ways that threatened the VOC’s interests. Interests which, though also private, were tied to the more powerful public interests of the Dutch colonial state which was wary of inflaming tensions with the French colonial state at that time.

Van der Stel’s extraordinary recall to Holland was sparked by a contest of private interests, but it was settled in the dynamic mutuality of the Dutch public and private spheres. In the 18th-century Dutch State, the public-private relationship was most certainly symbiotic. However, what it reproduced in all its colonies was a perpetual collision of the public and the private.

This intensified in South Africa when diamonds and then gold were discovered inland in 1876 and 1886. Kimberley and Johannesburg were born of this collision which still deeply marks those cities both topographically and demographically. 

Barnato and Rhodes, De Beers and Anglo American, the Randlords, and the new captains of private enterprise ran amok in traditional public spheres that were understood by them as there for the taking.

The apartheid era poses a wrinkle for the collision thesis that I am describing as a continuity. 

The National Party came into power in 1948 and is infamous for enlarging a racialised public sphere, including the development of national public services which were then also provided on a racialised basis. 

Apartheid institutionalised the splitting of the South African public sphere into pseudo-publics ordered by race. 

Alongside the development of the public sector, the National Party government also massively supported the growth of an Afrikaner private sector. In this, apartheid was characterised by a narrow politico-economic symbiosis of white public and private interests.

However, on a national scale, this concentrated nexus of white and Volk interests was still involved in a horrendous collision with a Black public sphere which it sought to curtail through suppression. 

By its racial logic, the National Party also actively suppressed the Black private sector. 

Thus, apartheid can also be understood as the institutionalisation of the historical collision of the public and the private which it had inherited from the colonial union.  

Hard evidence of the collision of the public and the private is available in the litany of cases of collusion, price gouging and other corporate malpractices brought before the Competition Tribunal. 

The collision of the public and the private is legible in every aspect of South African history since 1652. And it is at the root of our present state of affairs. 

It is a collision in which the public interest has and continues to crumble in a collision with highly concentrated private interests. 

All who live in South Africa are caught up in the collision between crumbling and often inept public service provision and a highly concentrated and often predatory private sector.  

This is visible in the state of public transport provision. 

The growth of private trucking has occurred with the demise and at the expense of the public railway system. The growth of private courier companies has occurred with and at the demise of the public post office. The huge growth of the privately owned taxi industry has occurred with the demise and at the expense of public commuter transport. These examples are not coincidental. 

In each case, a public service is crumbling in a direct collision with business and individual interests for whom anti-competitive behaviour, collusion, corruption and even the outright sabotage of public services have all been part of the modus operandi.

The collision can be seen in the state of public water provision. 

The huge growth of highly concentrated agricultural exports since 1994 has occurred with the demise and at the expense of public water resources and provision. 

The growth of agricultural exports has led, for example, to the wholesale export each year of hundreds of millions of litres of water from the Cape, a severely water-stressed region, in the form of fruit, wines and bottled water (would you believe) to the ends of the Earth. 

South Africa is now one of the top five exporters of wine in the world. 

In this collision, the public right to the secure and reliable supply of clean water is trumped by the private interests of agricultural businesses and businessmen who not only get the water for free, but also have assumed the rights to draw the bulk of it before the public gets access to the remainder, if at all in some rural areas. 

The public pays for the farmers’ massive water usage and abusage. Yet, despite years of significant profit growth, the agricultural sector is languishing in terms of job growth and the conditions of work for many of its lowest-paid workers remain poor. 

Moreover, as a direct result of the growth of food exports to the USA, EU and Asia, there have been unprecedented food price increases in South Africa to the extent that public food security has declined. 

Any sober analysis will show that the growth of agricultural exports by concentrated private interests actually detracts from the public interest when all the externalities are taken into account.  

The collision of the public and the private realms can be seen in the state of public education. 

The growth of private schools over the past 25 years, which can cherry-pick their “customers” based on willingness to pay, has come at the demise and expense of public schooling which must be open to all comers, including those who cannot pay the fees. 

And so, the load on the public education system increases, conditions deteriorate, become untenable, and dysfunction sets in. The quality of public schooling has crumbled in this collision with private schooling and, perversely, private schooling has also declined in quality as the national bar got lowered.   

Corruption in the use of public resources provides ample evidence of the collision of the public and the private. 

By definition, this kind of corruption involves the pursuit of private interests with public money and influence. The corruption of public service provision has its eager tango partner in the private sector. Therefore, corruption is the result of the collision of public and private interests.

This collision can be seen playing out right now in electricity provision, one of the last outposts of predominantly public provision. 

Eskom has been brought to its knees in its collision with private interests both local and foreign, both politically and economically ensconced. As is apparent in the Zondo Commission reports on State Capture, it was crooked corporations and private sector “service providers” in cahoots with corrupt politicians and public servants – all acting in their private interests – that have brought Eskom to where it is now through fraud of every conceivable kind and through acts of outright sabotage. 

Eskom is a public utility that is crumbling in a collision with the private sphere. On the other side of this saga, eager entrepreneurs not only await but also seek to bring about the opportunity to feed on the “unbundled” carcass of yet another failed public utility.

Hard evidence of the collision of the public and the private is available in the litany of cases of collusion, price gouging and other corporate malpractices brought before the Competition Tribunal. 

The South African private sector is very highly concentrated so it is no surprise that corporate malpractice against the public interest is so rife here. 

However, it is a source of dismay that the wholesale and retail prices of basic food products, which the Competition Commission has recently found, were so callously inflated by the South African business sector in a demonstration of what Robert Reich rightly calls corporate “greedflation”.

Is it any wonder that we are the most unequal country in the world where 90% of the wealth is owned or controlled by 10% of the predominantly white population? 

Is it any wonder that employment is so racially skewed with less than 8% unemployment among white South Africans and over 50% among Black South Africans? 

Is it any wonder that there is vanishingly little room for a sustainable small business sector when the entire economic scene is dominated by private sector oligarchies?

Thomas Picketty describes the driver of neoliberal economic systems as an “inequality regime” that is rooted in “ideology and politics” and which justifies and sustains the “structure of inequality in a given society”. 

Similarly, Joseph Stiglitz associates increasing inequality as “a problem of modern neoliberal capitalism which can also be linked to the erosion of democracy”.

It is evident that the most persistent and virulent form of such an inequality regime is to be found in South Africa where it is shored up by concentrated private sector interests and backed up with private power over the mainstream media, a plethora of well-funded lobbies, and the conservative political parties which they tend to support.

The wreckage of the ongoing collision of the public and private spheres of interest in South Africa is everywhere one cares to look. This collision reproduces economic concentration in a vicious circle with increasing racial inequality that is getting worse in the context of globalised neoliberalism.

These are the root causes of the long South African malaise which has now become a full-blown crisis of the public interest. 

A crisis which can only be transcended politically with the courage and renewed will to build a true social democracy over the coming decades. DM


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