South Africans are building alternatives to public services

JCLAIMS TO OHANNESBURG to be the largest city in the world that is not built on a coast, a river or a lake. But geography isn’t a concern for couples driving paddle boats or toddlers hurtling down slides in the ‘lagoon’, a 300m stretch of water fun that opened in September in Steyn City, the largest private estate in South Africa. Located north of Johannesburg, Steyn City has shops, a school, generators, a petrol station, a golf course, 50km of cycle paths, fishing weirs, 24-hour security and a themed playground. dinosaurs. There is even a helipad; but the residents never need to leave.

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That, for some, is the goal. Part of the appeal of estates like Steyn City, which accounts for nearly one in five property transfers (a proxy for sales), is that they’re fun. Yet they also represent a broader demand: sanctuary in a country where the state seems incapable of fighting crime or providing decent services. And it’s not just the rich who are fending for themselves. So, more and more, it’s everyone.

Since 1997, the number of students in private schools has tripled, from 236,000 to 703,000, while those in public schools have increased from 12.0 to 12.7 million. (These numbers understate the popularity of fee-paying schools, since some public schools charge for attendance.) The increase is not occurring at the more expensive schools, which are, in fact, increasingly easier to get into, because so many people South Africans emigrate. “The growth is in the low to mid range of the market,” says Lebogang Montjane, head of the Independent Schools Association.

Private school groups such as Spark, Curro and ADvTECHNOLOGY promise a better alternative to the state sector. Although public schools in areas once reserved for black South Africans have improved since apartheid, on current trends it will be another 80 years before all ten-year-olds can understand what they are reading. Private fees are priced to be affordable for the black middle class. Spark costs 28,050 rand ($1,800) a year for primary school, about a fifth of what the most expensive schools charge. Paying is a mark of status, notes Montjane. “When you say you’re sending your child to a private school, it sounds much more impressive in a braai.”

At first glance, health care is a different story: 15% of South Africans have health insurance, the same proportion as two decades ago. But many others avoid public hospitals if they fall ill. The nationally representative general household survey released in December found that people in 27% of households would go to a private provider if they were sick.

It would make sense. During the pandemic, hospitals emptied by the transplant could not cope with the influx of patients. Meanwhile, the then health minister was accused in a report by state investigators of ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unlawful’ conduct in relation to the diversion of millions of rands of covid-related funds to friends and family members. (He denied wrongdoing and asked the courts to overturn the report.)

Security is the clearest case where private companies replace the state. In 1997, there were about as many police officers (110,000) as active security guards (115,000). Since then, the number of officers has increased by 31% (to 144,000) but the number of private guards has exploded by 383% (to 557,000). Armed guards and ubiquitous surveillance cameras beaming footage to security firm operating rooms are daily sights in suburbs and high-walled estates.

In Steyn City, a resident says her sons can ride bikes “and you don’t have to worry about them.” Another said: “This is the closest thing I can give my children to what I had growing up: being able to walk outside without fearing for their safety. It is easy to dismiss these views as hysterical responses to life in a highly unequal country or as veiled pretexts by whites for wanting to live in racially homogeneous communities. But the sense that the state cannot protect citizens – underscored dramatically last year when the country saw its worst civil unrest since apartheid – is widely felt.

Just north of Steyn City is the township of Diepsloot. (Meaning “deep ditch” in Afrikaans; accurate, if unattractive, branding.) Its plots are smaller than rooms in a place like Steyn City; its cabins are smaller than the bathrooms. Toddlers splash in burst sewer lines, not lagoons.

“The police can’t control the crime and the community is angry,” says Peter Molatjane, chairman of a local business forum. Diepsloot has the fourth highest rate of violent assaults of any police station nationwide. Dependence on nyaope— a mixture of cheap heroin, cannabis, antiretroviral drugs and diluents — is common. Criminal gangs make life hell. A lack of electricity makes nights darker and more dangerous (although, in a version of what is happening in wealthier suburbs where rooftops shimmer like fish scales, some residents are using solar panels rather than counting on Eskom, the unreliable utility).

Few locals expect the cops to keep them safe. “The police are part of the problem,” says Philemon Mulovhedzi, a welder turned lay preacher, adding that they are bribed by gangs to turn a blind eye.

Instead, residents are organizing, in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of what happens in more affluent areas. Willie Hlungwane, who lives with his wife and four children in a shack, shows the door he built and closes at night to ward off intruders. It is a kind of dilapidated “boom gate”, like those often found at the end of streets in more affluent suburbs. Residents donate a few rands to feed an armed guard all night.

Sometimes there is vigilance. Last year, 300 Diepsloot residents seized two suspected police thieves and killed the suspects. “I’m not saying it’s good, but mob justice shows that people care about their neighborhood,” says Papi Sathekge, a local activist.

Some South Africans emigrate to escape failing public services. But most can’t leave or don’t want to leave. Instead, argues Gwen Ngwenya of the opposition Democratic Alliance, they slip across an imaginary border, migrating, so to speak, into the arms of the “parallel private state”.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The Parallel State”