Private is not always better than public

South Africans have an unflinching conviction that all things private are better than all things state-run. This is not always true, says Justin Foxton.

Durban - In the early hours of Boxing Day morning our 2-month-old baby boy died in his sleep. According to the doctors he was healthy. According to all who knew him he was beautiful.

File photo. Credit: AFP

When you care for numbers of orphans and vulnerable babies there is perhaps a certain inevitability to tragedy. Since opening the doors of The Baby House in June 2010 we have looked after 25 little ones, some from as new as a few hours old. We have often wondered how we would deal with one dying. Now we know.

Our babies come from harsh beginnings; some are taken care of by loving but impoverished mothers who in the end are simply unable to cope. Some are abandoned with neighbours or market vendors. Some are left in hospitals and some are found in dustbins or toilets.

But this little guy was different. He arrived with us smelling of talc and wrapped up in a warm fleecy receiving blanket. He had a Life Hospital beanie on his head and the irony of him being accompanied by a full colour glossy manual on how to care for your new baby was lost on none of us. He had been born and spent the first few days of his short life being cared for within the South African private medical system – in this case, the Life Hospital in Westville, Durban. No other baby of ours has enjoyed such a privileged start, yet of all of them, he is the one that is dead. I am not blaming the Life Hospital in Westville. I am just musing on the irony. South Africans across the class and race spectrum have an entrenched, unflinching conviction that all things private are better than all things state-run. This includes, but is not limited to, hospitals, social workers, the postal system and schools.

The last few years of writing about South Africa generally and running an NGO in particular have provided me with surprising insights into the distinctions between private and state-run organisations and how we view and interact with them. It is a complex issue because the terms “state-run” or “government” are politically and racially loaded. The simple conclusion that most of us end up with is that private is good and government is bad.

Here are a few of the things I have discovered:

With regard to medical care:

With regard to social workers:

Yes, you get the odd bad apple, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

With regard to postage:

Postnet and other similar services prey on our inherent mistrust of the post office. Like all things private or with some form of premium product offering, they charge like wounded buffalos and their sales pitch usually includes a good deal of eye-rolling at the “inefficiencies” of the South African postal service.

I am not sure if they are any better than the South African Post Office.

All I do know is that we only use the post office and that in the 7 years since I returned to South Africa, I have never lost anything in the post.

With regard to schooling:

University of the Free State rector and vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen recently released his list of the country’s top 10 secondary schools. He based his list on a combination of academic excellence, human spirit and atmosphere. Eight of his current top 10 are government schools.

Our state-run or subsidised institutions are not perfect by any means, particularly not when it comes to health care, education and the care of orphans and vulnerable children.

However, we only fool ourselves if we think that private is always better – unless of course our only criteria are the décor and what’s on the menu.