The rise of private parallelism

Khaye Nkwanyana says the trend is dangerous for our unequal society

The ascendency of private parallelism to the state sphere of influence is dangerous for our unequal society

Last month I met three comrades who are long time acquaintances in Midrand, two of whom have children who were part of the matric class of 2016. I was shocked to learn that whilst their children had been accepted into two public universities for enrolment in 2017, as parents they had decided to rather send them to private higher education institutions.

Their rationale for this option relates to what they called the “chaos” in our universities following the advent of #FeesMustFall. They expressed fear that declining standards of quality in our higher education institutions was unavoidable should it be made free, as government will not be able to sustain injecting the ever increasing and inflationary linked resources beyond the current inadequate state subsidies.

I am told that this perception in the middle class and the rich, has traction. The long term implications of this is the rising of private universities and colleges from Europe opening their campuses here to offer alternative “quality” education against what would be a discredited “public” higher education.

Already, Mancosa, Regent and many private Colleges are now popular. For me, this is the most dangerous development and as a country we need to defend public higher education as a dominant feature. The labour market must continue to have trust in its graduates for hiring.

It would be a sad day when we reach a point where public higher education is seen by the markets and society as for those who are too poor to go to private higher education institutions and therefore are unattractive hires.

Already, this phenomenon is playing itself out in the Basic Education sphere. Many parents send their children to private schools for good education; the second layer of the middle class can only send them to former model C schools; whilst the rest remain with township and rural schools.

Such choices are difficult in higher education because our public universities (whilst unequal in their rankings) are still far stronger than private institutions. The chose is rather between Fort Hare University and University of Cape Town or University of Zululand and University of Pretoria.

The recent brouhaha occasioned by the appointment of Advocate Gerrie Nel by AfriForum to head its new private prosecution unit got me thinking deep about the growing parallelism that is underway in this country.

The new private prosecution arm of AfriForum will be underpinned by a private forensic department headed by the high profile investigator Paul O’Sullivan. Forensic work falls under SAPS and forms an important component for gathering elusive evidence to empower NPA prosecutors in complicate cases in the courts. The perception of the NPA as politically muzzled and selective in its prosecutions is the trump card for those who support AfriForum.

Simply put, our own weaknesses and conduct - including turf wars that are waged at leadership level (both police and NPA) resulting in repeated turnover at the top- has eroded the public trust.

A few years ago the then Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa spearheaded a bill that was meant to regulate the proliferation of private security companies, some not of South African origin, who operate and own dangerous arms. Through their licenses they procure and import serious and dangerous artilleries into the country and are acting as quasi-police force counterpoising the existing police service because of high end citizens who hire them for these purposes. Some of them have quasi-intelligence services capabilities parallel to our state intelligence. Some private security companies are said to be implicated in murder cases today; that’s where hit squads are hidden (security/bodyguards during the day and hit squads during the night).

The major weakness that justifies the proliferation of these private armies is our lack of success in fighting crime. Upmarket suburbs are boom gated by security companies hired by residents against crime. Even public institutions are guarded by these companies. There is a general acceptance that police alone cannot be everywhere and hence private policing is justified.

I would not be surprised if I was to learn in the near future of the intention to establish private prisons, with better correctional services and rehabilitation systems for those who can afford it, as an alternative to the current crime reproducing institutions controlled by criminal gangs. The current jails are a citadels and universities for minor offenders to emerge as more inspired to commit serious crimes.

Whilst the private sector (or any non-state provider) is crucial in any country to cover the gaps where government and the state cannot reach there are fundamental strategic areas of function where government must be the only player and a provider.

I submit that the private providers act on the basis of the existing lacuna where the state is either failing or not providing at all. In the above areas in SA, where the state should ordinarily be a lone player, private organisations are stepping in because of state failure.

Politically speaking, this ascendant parallelism represents a danger. Since we have no control of private providers loyal to the ideals of the imagined future South Africa that we seek to build, the state can find itself being besieged and throttled to its last breath.

It is unfortunate that instead of setting our sights on these flickering hazard lights before us the progressive forces are busy in our combative self-fight of petty internal politics. Whilst waters are infiltrating the house in our revolution, we are busy squabbling about who must be an ANC and country’s president.

Khaye Nkwanyana is the SACP Provincial Executive member in KZN and Interim Chair for Bessie Head Institute