Still a Long Walk To Freedom: Public Service Delivery in Rural South Africa

By Langa Mtshali · 23 Jun 2008

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Picture credit: Border Rural Committee
Picture credit: Border Rural Committee

One of the legacies of apartheid South Africa and the Bantustan system is the unequal distribution of resources between urban and rural areas, which has created a perpetual divide that even under our democratic dispensation is not being bridged.

The ongoing lack of importance given to rural South Africa in the post-apartheid era, has created a rural backwater where poverty is entrenched and where people are simply abandoned and expected to fend for themselves in the face of what can best be described as state apathy.

In rural South Africa, government institutions are few and far between and accessing their services is an ongoing challenge.

On a recent trip to my hometown of Hluhluwe, I visited the local home affairs office to renew my passport.  Even when visiting the home affairs offices in big cities, most people come back with horror stories about bureaucratic incompetence, but seeing the way that these offices operate in rural South Africa, highlighted much greater concerns for me about the lack of care that the people working in these offices have for their work.

I was greeted by snaking queues, just two staff members on duty and one functioning computer. When I finally got to speak to the officers on duty, they casually reported that their colleagues were on leave and that their broken computers had not been repaired for some time.  There seemed no urgency to resolve the problem.   The general conditions in this office were appalling with no sanitation facilities for people who were waiting to be served.

Many of the people queuing in that office had been there since the early hours of the morning and as the hours wore on, many would have to give up their places in the queue to avoid missing the limited number of taxi rides back to their villages.

People informed me that it was the rule rather than the exception to come to this particular ‘service point’ more than once before being attended to by the clerks behind the counter.

Some had travelled more than 100kms to apply for an identity document or birth certificate, or some other document needed to access government services. About 80kms from the home affairs offices is the local Social Security Offices at KwaHlabisa where the conditions are just as bad.

The majority of people visiting these offices are applying for social grants - their main source of income given the high levels of unemployment in rural South Africa. Delays in accessing these grants have a profoundly negative impact on their livelihoods.

But this fact appears to be lost on the people working in these offices.

For many of our rural poor, managing to submit an application for a social grant is only the beginning of another arduous process of ‘to and fro’ between village and office before any feedback is provided about the success of their applications.

On average, people visit these offices more than five times before getting any news about the outcome of their applications and if they are lucky, they will eventually receive the ‘card’ that will allow them to access their grants at the nearest pay-point.

What is most worrying about this situation is how people simply accept this appalling level of service without complaint. What is scarier still, is knowing that government officials simply take advantage of disempowered rural people because they know that they can get away with it.

So while our government continues to present itself as a developmental state making huge investments in social services. The reality on the ground is quite different to the picture painted by our politicians.

The lack of service delivery institutions in rural South Africa and the inertia of those that already exist is creating enormous challenges for the rural poor, who, accustomed to receiving the short end of the stick, are quietly allowing government bureaucrats to get away with a neglect of duty.

The lack of delivery to the rural poor can’t continually be attributed to "a lack of capacity" - as our government is wont to protest. We’ve been hearing this for far too long and there seems to be no end in sight. There simply are no workable plans being proposed to address this persistent problem.

A developmental government has the responsibility to create responsive mechanisms to deal with the inequitable distribution of resources as well as the lack of access to basic services.

But beyond "Batho Pele" it is difficult to see what programmes our government has instituted to promote a better work ethic, reduce corruption and create a service-oriented administration on the ground. If "Batho Pele" is the answer to our service delivery woes, then I would suggest that its time for our civil servants to go back to the drawing board because it’s not working.

For one thing, ‘Batho Pele’ has done little to encourage cooperation between local authorities and grassroots community organisations.  As part of their constitutional mandate, government and local government in particular, should at the very least be creating functional partnerships with localised community organisations.

The Community Law and Rural Development Centre, which I work for, has advice offices that assist the rural poor with legal and educational services as well as raising people’s awareness about the Constitutional Bill of Rights. In the rural towns where they have been established, these advice offices are often the first port of call for people seeking social services.

Our paralegal officers open files for clients and spend a huge amount of time chasing government departments, querying delays in the processing of various applications and reasons for the termination of social grants.  At least I can report that our offices have an average success rate of 70 percent, in resolving our client’s matters.

In the two decades of our existence, we have recovered in excess of two billion Rand for clients - monies, which would have been otherwise lost in the system. In this way, we have ensured that people at least get some income to alleviate their socio-economic hardships. All this is achieved without the financial assistance of the state and with limited support from other donors.

We are well aware that what it takes to deliver services to people is hard work and a commitment to serving others. This is an ethic that our government has not instilled in its workers.

Our government must also recognise that state institutions, on their own, cannot resolve the challenges facing rural communities. It needs to demonstrate greater commitment towards building strong partnerships with grassroots practitioners and communities, while improving access to state institutions.

People want to see not only improvements in their lifestyles, but also want to feel like equal and respected citizens.

The South African government must carry rural communities along with it, in a manner, which ensures that people's dreams and aspirations are incorporated in the programmes that are designed to serve them. This, I'm afraid to say, our government is still not doing.

Mtshali is the executive director of the Community Law and Rural Development Centre.

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