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State versus private sector: whose job is it anyway to run SA?


Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

When a state is deaf to its citizens and some start bypassing government services, it is poor people who suffer.

A video of former president Thabo Mbeki addressing the national conference of the South African Association of Public Administration and Management has been circulating recently. In it he warns of the dangers of the state relegating its responsibilities to the private sector.

Mbeki points to the continuing hollowing out and incapacitation of the state. He says people who are able to afford services meant to be supplied by the government are increasingly turning to private actors for healthcare, education, schooling, security, water and even electricity.

“In years to come, South Africa will become a case study of how private initiative succeeds where states fail. In political science, this is characterised as a counterrevolution, and a counterrevolution is not innocent, but in our case, a direct threat to our democratic state and the welfare and well­being of millions of our people,” Mbeki said, quoting the CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Dr John Endres.

What is important to glean from Mbeki’s address is that the more people stop demanding that the state provides its ser­vices, the more the state will be left to its own devices and become further emboldened not to function with the wellbeing of its citizens in mind.

Also, private actors are not democratic or mandated with ensuring the wellbeing of citizens. They exist to further their ambitions, which are profit- not people-driven.

Some people may not see anything wrong with bypassing a dysfunctional government remiss in its duty to provide services, but as Mbeki alludes, this is to the benefit of a minority. What becomes of those not able to pay for these private services?

Read more on Daily Maverick: The double-edged sword of privatisation is poised to cut deep into the heart of a failing SA state

Mbeki points to the Shock Doctrine by Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein, who says in her book that the main characteristics of a system that erases the boundaries between Big Government and Big Business “are huge transfers of public wealth to private hands, often accompanied by exploding debt, an ever-widening chasm between the dazzling rich and the disposable poor and an aggressive nationalism that justifies bottomless spending on security.

“For those inside the bubble of extreme wealth created by such an arrangement, there can be no more profitable way to organise a society. But because of the obvious drawbacks for the vast majority of the population left outside the bubble, other features of the corporatist state tend to include aggressive surveillance (once again, with government and large corporations trading favours and contracts), mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often, though not always, torture.”

Although a measure of taking matters into our own hands may be necessary, the warning sounded by Mbeki, Endres and Klein should be taken seriously. We have already seen people taking matters into their own hands with acts of vigilantism as a result of the state’s incapability to address crime.

So what is to be done when the state is increasingly deaf to the needs of its citizens? I suspect the answer lies somewhere between leveraging the existing systems for public participation and monitoring the state, and not simply turning to a short-sighted parallel system of pseudo-governance. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front oage


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • B M says:

    This may very well be the case already. `the more the state will be left to its own devices and become further emboldened not to function with the wellbeing of its citizens in mind.`: It seems sometimes that this is already the state of affairs in South Africa.

    It also appears that the very wealthy are often the very wealthy because they take initiative where it is to be taken. There are no wealthy victims.

    I would venture that it is not the responsibility of the private sector to change this characteristic; It is a trait of success. And success usually survives.

    It is, probably, futile to expect government change its spots. Not when the spots are a well-developed infection that requires a full course of antibiotics. And the leaders are not swallowing the pills.

    So that leaves us. We must change. We must expect government to do its job. We must ensure that government changes its behaviour. How? Zukiswa offers a glimpse in the final stanza. Through local political activity in your local community. Through examples like the “Gift of the Givers”. Through local discourse with your neighbours and communities; build awareness of the imperative for *us* to become the leaders this country needs so dearly. And most assuredly, vote wisely when the responsibility comes next year.

    It may seem insignificant now, small efforts like this. And it may seem like too much effort. Perhaps it is. But most all successful enterprises start small and insignificant.

  • Bhekinkosi Madela says:

    Again, do away with identity politics and vote for the best guy on the ballot. For starters, that’s the party that demonstrably delineates state from party. In the meantime, support Section 27 and the likeminded civil rights peers.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Sorry, not good enough.
    Author can’t simply pen a dangling last paragraph and not attempt to grapple with the serious condition outlined in the preceding nine paragraphs.
    Absolutely unusable.
    SA is going through precipitous uncharted waters, were some 3,5million civil servants are providing zip, uninterested and callus services costing hundreds of billions of Rand – and citizens having to sort themselves out on their after tax meager incomes.
    And then some:
    We must donate to civil society organizations that do better-governance initiatives as a day job – Section 27 watchdogs, charities like GotG, FMF, IRR, even Solidarity.
    They are there when we need them.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Interesting (and annoying) that Mbeki pontifucates away but takes no responsibility at all. The deployment of incompetent cadres happened on his watch. Remember Tony Yengeni? The obsession with an Africanist agenda, the AIDS denialism, the refusal to accept Exkom in crisis? In years to come? Its already happened!

  • susan7murray says:

    The outsourcing of core government functions that SHOULD be delivered by government functionality to poorly run businesses has been happening for the past couple of decades through tenderpreneurship via corrupt means. Hence the degradation of services. Government should ideally provide quality public services ITSELF (they spend more than enough on the wage bill to do so). At least privatising and handing over public service provision overtly would hopefully be to businesses which provide functional services in order to make profits, rather than dysfunctional services because profit came from under the table money that had nothing to do with fulfilling the necessary services.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Mbeki, that washed up has been AIDS denialist who some credit with 400k preventable deaths? I’m disinclined to take much of anything he says seriously. I doubt very much that SA could be worse off in the complete absence of the state that he did so much to help create. The stark reality is that most services that his organised crime gang insist on keeping ‘commanding control’ over are petering out and will either be supplied by the private sector or not all. You deserve what you vote for, especially if you do it the same 5 times in a row so I struggle to raise much sympathy for the poor.

  • “Also, private actors are not democratic or mandated with ensuring the wellbeing of citizens. They exist to further their ambitions, which are profit- not people-driven.”

    This assumption is entirely the basis for the dysfunction of this country. The ambitions of government actors, while technically mandated with the wellbeing of the citizens, are not people-driven in the slightest. It is precisely because they are mandated and not profit (or materially outcome) driven that they lead inexorably to anti-altruistic behavior, because there is no authentic feedback mechanism (supply/demand) to balance the system. Capitalistic systems can be malformed to create asymmetrical benefits, but at least the motivation and ambition is outsourced to a mechanical system of real incentives. Goodwill is not a functional incentive, which is not to say individuals don’t value and practice it, but that it fails as a motivating mechanic for the organization, management, distribution and control of a nation, especially when diluted by myriad layers of bureaucracy, obfuscation, acquisitiveness manifest as venality, inexperience and ineptitude.

  • grocashflo says:

    A state run by business people and community leaders will function much better than political pirates and lazy bureaucrats. The caveat is greed, There is no reason why a CEO or director should earn R 50 mil or more p.a. and the worker R50 k p.a. We should learn from the Scandinavian countries where there is a limit on the wage gap. This ensures sustainability in the long run and avoids destructive labour actions.


    Sadly Mbeki is right. The expanding gap between the wealthy and corrupt politicians vs the ever increasing poor creates tensions that ultimately lead to revolution and coup de’ etat where democracy is rejected and dictators take over with the support of the desperate poor hoping for something better

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    I feel that this article offers a false choice, between a caring state and an uncaring private sector. In my opinion, neither the state nor the private sector are likely to care sufficiently about the poor, but there is an excellent reason why you should prefer the private sector, that when the private sector is in control of the economy it may be held to account through law by the state, but when the state holds all the cards there is nothing holding them to account… the wolf is also the shepherd. (How many senior politicians are in jail for state capture?) This seperation of power, keeping the state smaller and less powerful, is necessary so that “power to the people” does not become power over people, power to the state. In response to the lament of what is to be done when the state is deaf to its citizens, the answer should be obvious in a democracy… vote for another party.

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