The rise of the private parallel state

Gwen Ngwenya says we have, in reality, passed the point of state collapse

It is still possible in South Africa to receive a globally competitive basic education, to travel reliably to and from work and places of leisure, to call on armed response when in danger, and to be seen quickly by a health practitioner. That is, if you live in the private parallel state.

This last week Zelda la Grange, formerly Private Secretary to Nelson Mandela, received public indignation over a tweet where she said,

“Dear @Discovery_SA I pay R67 200 medical insurance per year. If govt can only obtain an x amount of vaccines, what are you doing to safeguard your clients? What is your plan?”

She was accused of classicism, white privilege, and buying her way to the front of the queue. The backlash was surprising; fueled as it was by hypocrisy. Look around you, in every area essential to life people of all ‘races’ are buying themselves to the front of the queue. Specifically, South Africans are regularly buying themselves out from state dependence and into a fast-moving private lane.

Most South Africans experience the private parallel state to some degree or another. It is true that the more money you have the more you can opt out of the official state, but many South Africans across income groups have called on a private doctor or treatment, have used privately owned or operated transport, have sought protection from a private security officer. And would do so again- the only consideration being affordability not solidarity.

It may be an uncomfortable truth but most South Africans, most humans, are just like Zelda la Grange. When given a choice many will not simply face their fate along with their forsaken brethren, they will and are already brokering themselves a better deal. As they do with private healthcare, private security, private education, and private transport.

That is what happens in a failed state, when the official state cannot provide security, education, healthcare, or mobility- a parallel state develops.

StatSA’s latest General Household Survey (GHS) reports that while 16.4% of South Africans have private medical insurance, 27,1% indicate that they would first go to a private doctor or facility if they were to fall ill. This is indicative of what we know, that more people access private healthcare than have insurance.

That figure too may downplay just how many people use the private healthcare sector, the 2014 National Income Dynamics Study, revealed that when asked of the location of their last consultation 41.5% of the survey respondents indicated the private healthcare sector.

The National Household Travel Survey conducted in 2013 showed that 38.4% of workers used private transport (38,4%), compared to 39.1% who used public transport. It is important to note that public transport refers to transport that is available to use by the general public, it does not refer to ownership or operation.

Of all public transport trips made in South Africa, 68% are made by taxi, 20% bus and 13% by train. Across all income quintiles there are more users of taxis than any other mode of public transport. People use the privately owned and run taxi industry because it is more reliable than state provided public transport. Essentially more South Africans use privately owned and operated transport (including own transport and taxis) than they do publicly funded transport.

The education of one’s children is no different. The results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shocked the country when they showed that 78% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning, not just in English but in any language. Curro, is an example of the dramatic increase in private schooling. Reports suggest that since 2014 Curro has grown its number of schools from 79 to 164, and that the number of students have doubled to 57 173 over the same period, a compound growth rate of 16% a year.

It can be argued that before all else, the primary responsibility of the state is to keep the public safe and secure. Increasingly South Africans do not look to the South African police service to keep them safe or to assist them when they have been victims of crime.

In all crime categories surveyed in the Victims of Crime Survey more than 40% of respondents indicated that they did not report to the police when victim to crime. Some categories were much higher, 58.6% of victims of assault did not report any incidences to the police, 58% of victims did not report street robbery to the police, and 61.9% did not report theft of personal property to the police.

Even with nearly half of all crime not being reported to the police and presumably dealt with privately, the police service still is under-skilled and under-resourced and cannot respond effectively to the crime that is reported to them. Nationally, respondents who provided a time frame said that police typically take over two hours to respond, that is compared to private security companies who promise to be at the scene within 3 minutes. It is no surprise then that many turn to private security providers.

Reports suggest that private security officers outnumber SAPS by more than 2:1 and a great deal more if one takes into consideration those who are registered as private security officers but are inactive, meaning that the industry may have a very a deep pool to draw from. The total number of registered and active security officers (employed and independent operators) in South Africa is 548 642 compared to approximately 193 000 SAPS officers.

The parallel state can provide the illusion that things are much better than they really are.

Consider that South Africa is almost chronically described as at a cliff edge but never over it, at a crossroads but never firmly along a certain path. It is as though there is an invisible film where the country is always precariously poised, that provides a protective barrier from complete collapse.

The preferred answer is usually that it is the strength of South Africa’s institutions that shields us from the very bottom; that despite poverty and corruption we still have functioning courts, free speech and a vocal media. That is even less convincing now than it ever was.

The official South African state is in fact beyond the cliff edge it is not merely poised on it, and the country is not at a crossroads but long ago chose the path of collapse and is far along it. What analysts and the middle to upper classes mistakenly perceive as some line of resistance against complete disaster is a point beyond complete state collapse when the private sector provides what the state used to provide.

The parallel state- which protects, transports, heals, and educates those who can afford it is the primary buffer against a failed state. It is still possible to live in South Africa, because private ingenuity makes it livable.

Many who feel they can live better elsewhere have already left. Many of those who remain, but have the skills or money to move, do so because they can checkout of the official state in all the ways which fundamentally matter. Absent private healthcare, private education, and private security South Africa would be as miserable an existence to those with options as those without.

The rise of the private parallel state is also responsible for a large degree of false optimism about South Africa. Arrest one senior official and there will be talk of greenshoots and a new dawn by those who do not sit in a classroom listening to a teacher who barely passed matric educate the next cohort of ‘barely passed matrics’, who do not risk their lives and possessions daily on a perilous train commute, who do not die of treatable illnesses, who have a buffer against the criminal at the gate. It is easy to see greenshoots when you rely on the official state for so little.

The parallel state is in truth a form of migration. South Africans are escaping the official state; they live in a state run more by Curro, ADT, Netcare, and the taxi association than it is by any political party. Whether you cheer or jeer at the parallel state, it is there and growing.

This question will increasingly become a marker of inequality; do you live i.e. learn, commute via, get treated by, call on the protection of the official state or the parallel state? There is already a widening gulf in services received and levels of satisfaction between the two. If you get services from the official state and have no other options your prospects are grim, if you get services from the parallel state you are more likely to thrive and live a decent quality of life.

The Covid 19 pandemic may have laid bare that the South African state as currently configured cannot provide universal anything; not education, not, transport, not security, and most certainly not healthcare.