Picture: 123RF/LIGHTWISE
Picture: 123RF/LIGHTWISE

I was prompted, recently, to recall a postmodernism assignment I had written during my undergraduate years, where I derided the ironies of “public toilets” in shopping malls. The irony, of course, is that they are not public at all. They are privately owned and operated, and, are exclusive to patrons of the mall.

It is probable that the proprietors of the mall might have preferred to forego the expense of building and maintaining so many toilets, or would have preferred to charge admission to the loo, were it not for public policy (via town planning rules, bylaws and regulation) forcing their hand. But, when it comes to the crunch the proprietors reserve the right of admission to their toilets.

I wonder, though, how many publicly elected municipal administrations have scaled back their provisioning for (truly) public ablution facilities, precisely because there’s now a mall nearby? What worries me is that if this was indeed the case, then it is only those who are most at risk of not being allowed access to private “public toilets” that would notice such a shift in public resource provisioning. That is, the very folk who need the service most, are likely to be the first to be declined access.

What of the homeless child, the bergie, the hitchhiking refugee? The rest of us take no notice of the difference enjoying our ready access to ablution facilities and taking them for granted — and if we have thought about it at all, it was probably to be grateful to the seemingly benevolent mall proprietors for lavishing us with such smart loos (“I’m definitely shopping here again”).

I promise it wasn’t Bill Gates’ latest obsession with solving the global problem of human excrement that prompted these musings (laudable as his efforts are). Rather, it was Steven Friedman’s recent article in this publication (“Secret ballots are undemocratic and remove accountability”, December 10). Friedman warns that the pernicious practice of publicly elected representatives affording themselves the private privilege of a secret ballot is actually a profound undermining of our democracy.

In the SA context, this binary opposite of public vs private has become, of late more so than ever, I fear, inextricably intertwined with another of our favourite binary complexes: black vs white. And the black/white dual plays out, even today — a quarter-century into our freedom — as a proxy of the duel between bad and good (respectively).

I despair when I see a white-run public benefit organisation (PBO), backed by private donor funding in the main, believing that it should be supported as the exclusive supplier of a quality social service because the public service is failing so spectacularly to deliver. I’ve even heard one such PBO bemoaning the same “failing” public administration not having agreed to fund them! I’ve seen this across all sectors.

In education (“forget the school maths teachers, they’re useless: hire us instead to run extra maths classes on weekends to help get matric students through their finals”), the creative arts (“fund us, we get Opera [the civic theatre is clueless]”), public health care (“never mind the local clinic’s free pre-HIV test counselling service, our service is more dignified”), livelihoods (“no, the local agriculture department officials aren’t interested, but with your support we can be in the field once a week”), and early childhood development (“our proprietary training methodology results in proven impact, and your support will help us take this to scale”).

The trope is so subtle that it seems to elude even the protagonist of the argument, but it is really just saying: (black) public administration = bad; (white) privately funded PBO = good. And I fear there are many funders who respond positively to funding proposals that are centred on this argument. Is this because they feel “it just makes sense”? The truth, of course, is that it does not make sense. Even if there was an iota of statistical accuracy to such an argument, supporting it would just be a short-sighted aggravation of the situation.

I am aware of a foundation funded by a local mining company that supported a schoolteacher capacity building programme, helping public schoolteachers in 10 primary schools improve in their practice and management of curriculum delivery, over many years. It was fantastic in the way it was centred on building the capacity of the teachers (it was intended as a public education strengthening intervention). However, an unintended negative consequence was that the circuit manager and all the district subject advisers just stopped visiting these 10 schools — as, to their mind, these schools were covered now by the mine’s education programme. The public sector withdrew because the private sector had moved in.

What many seem to want to ignore is that in a democratic republic the mandate for our mutual development rests with the state. And that every PBO exists to achieve a mission, and once achieved it should move on, or close up shop with a huge victory celebration: mission accomplished! This remains true whether the state officials, or PBO executives, or benefactors, or beneficiaries alike, are black, white or any colour under the rainbow.

In my experience, the best returns on social investment (that is: deep and sustainable impact) generally only follow programmes where PBOs have worked in close partnership with the public sector, to collaborate in both designing and implementing interventions.

Our journey of reconciliation and nation building is far from done. Presently, when we take something for granted, someone somewhere loses out. We can do better, indeed we must. As citizens, all, we need to interrogate the assumptions of the arguments we encounter and have the courage to engage in constructive, difficult, vexing, robust conversations with each other. Let us dedicate 2020 to having more courageous conversation.

Wilkinson is a social investment specialist.