Service Delivery in South Africa: Putting the Poo-Cart Before the Horse

By Cameron Brisbane · 29 Apr 2014

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Picture: Abahlali baseMjondolo
Picture: Abahlali baseMjondolo

One of the ANC’s 2014 election slogans proudly boasts “A better life for all.”  Its claim is supported by a series of service delivery achievements such as the building of three million (a contested figure) subsidised homes. The feel-good factor of these claims belies the reality that many communities are tired of empty promises, and the frequency of service delivery protests that has reached unprecedented proportions bears testament to the ”gatvol” factor.

The state’s response to this disconnect is to create a generalised perception that protests are orchestrated by criminals. That legitimises the state’s use of deadly force in quelling dissent and even supporting the removal of illegal electricity connections. It is hardly the vision of building the type of social cohesion envisaged in Chapter 15 of the National Development Plan. 

At election time the majority party goes one step further: When people have given up hope in the liberation movement-turned-gravy train, and see no alternative but to urge voters to “vote no”, they are accused of being traitors to the democratic dispensation. The potential “no” voters, combined with the number of eligible voters who simply have not bothered to register, represent a significant force. They cannot be wished away.

Service delivery protests first manifested after the 2006 local government elections. By 2008, a string of cabinet ministers and senior civil servants went on a national drive to “listen to the people”.  In November 2009 government adopted the “National Turnaround Strategy for Local Government”, an overly ambitious plan to improve service delivery and communication between citizens and the state. The main causes of service delivery protests were lack of access to water, sanitation and housing.

The protests continued unabated. In October 2010, the Presidency entered into a series of performance agreements with cabinet ministers. The challenges that we faced in relation to water, sanitation, and housing, included a legacy of 2.3 million poorly located and badly built “RDP” houses; an official count of 2.1 million households in need of housing; of which 1.2 million were living in informal settlements. If one included settlements on private land that had not been enumerated at the time and backyard shacks, one could add 60% to the housing demand statistics. 

The Presidential Performance Agreement that addressed these issues, known as Outcome 8, committed the Department of Human Settlements to, inter alia, take measures to deliver secure tenure and basic services to 400,000 households by March 2014. It implicitly recognised that the government needed alternative strategies to the housing subsidy scheme in order to deal with the rising civil protest. Beyond those that are explicitly aligned to demands for land, services and housing are the Marikanas and De Doorns. If one had well-located housing with access to basic services, it would not be necessary so spend so much money, time and energy surviving on the poverty line that fuels the demand for hyper-inflationary wage increases. 

Six months after Outcome 8 was signed, local government elections were held. The dominant theme was “toilets” in a tit-for-tat war between the ANC and DA over outside toilets built with walls of corrugated metal or no walls at all. With the exception of our metros, it was not a local government mandate, but it dominated the election. The “poo wars” have continued unabated – attacks on the Cape Town City Hall and International Airport – until the announcement of the election. Now, in order to prevent a “no-vote” backlash to their leaders’ expulsion in the Cape Flats, the ANC has co-opted the instigators back into party structures.

At the same time, a Special Purpose Vehicle was established in the National Department of Human Settlements to address the commitment to informal settlement upgrading. The National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP) is an office with a mission, but it is hopelessly under-resourced. The challenge is whether local municipalities have the will and capacity to implement a programme of recognition for informal settlements and provide basic services where it is technically and financially feasible to do so. To date their track record has not been good. Some statistics of “emergency assistance” are being reported, but that is a case of clutching at numbers when the national support programme is still in its infancy.  There is no visible change in the informal settlements that were visited by consultants undertaking “rapid assessments” in late 2012 and 2013.

Our NGO, the Built Environment Support Group, commits a substantial amount of donor funding and energy to “soft skills” training in leadership development, building the capacity of communities to engage with government and community-driven planning and development.  They know their rights to basic services and shelter and to administrative justice when the state fails them. They know how to toyi-toyi with their heads instead of their feet,

But when complaints to their MEC and the Public Protector elicit no response, it is understandable why people lose faith in our democratic institutions and resort to either a ballot boycott (don’t register) or protest (vote “No”) and/or toyi-toying in the traditional manner.  In the same discourse, we stand accused by officials of making their lives more difficult because we empower communities.

Last year we unblocked a project for the permanent upgrading of 281 households who had been evicted under a High Court order. They moved willingly on the promise of development. That was 17 years ago. No sooner had we been given the green light, we were requested, on the indirect instructions of the MEC, to install temporary toilets while the planning stage was being undertaken. He had reportedly undertaken to eradicate the “bucket system” in the province by year-end. 

The municipality wanted us to install communal toilets from converted shipping containers, connected to the water and sewer reticulation in a neighbouring, downstream development. There was insufficient water pressure without women and children having to walk 200 metres down dark footpaths to access the toilets – or continue to use buckets in their backyard. Portable flush chemical toilets, which were preferred by the community, were “not an option for the MEC – it has to be waterborne sewerage.” Which is precisely what we are still waiting, 10 years on, to be given a contract to install.

It is a simple case of putting the poo-cart in front of the horse. Officials would rather incur wasteful expenditure and the wrath of the community than the wrath of their political master.  But the political expediency that drives the development agenda is so see-through to those who resent inappropriate solutions being imposed on them when they do finally reach the front of the queue. 

“A better life for all” is not a new slogan. It was conceptualised by a public relations adviser to the ANC, Stan Greenberg, in 1994. It was a momentous time that heralded the birth of universal franchise and the Reconstruction and Development Programme. For many poor communities, nothing has changed in twenty years. The slogan, the dream, has empty meaning. They are reduced to voting with their feet out of sheer frustration.

Brisbane is executive director of the Built Environment Support Group.

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Peter Lor
9 May


Interesting site, but hardly accessible to people without good eyesight, let alone the visually challenged! Why the pale grey fonts? Please dump the bourgeois elegance.

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