How to get local government working for communities

A few weeks ago President Jacob Zuma claimed that "no country could have produced the delivery we have made in 18 years". While critics of Zuma have questioned this claim Zuma received support from an unlikely source the South African Institute of Race Relations which using aggregate data from between 1996 and 2010 argued that Zuma was quite correct to proclaim successful delivery efforts. The institute also claimed that service delivery protests are not a function of the failure of delivery but rather of its success.

While there is clear evidence that robust delivery has taken place since democracy it is equally important to acknowledge that a significant portion of our population still has no access to key services and still lives in poverty. Benchmark data in Statistics SA’s 2007 Community Survey suggest that 11% of households (or 1.4-million households out of 12.5-million) still do not have access to potable water and 20% of all households or 2.5-million still do not have access to electricity. It is likely that last year’s census will confirm these figures.

The crux of the matter lies with aggregated national figures that belie geographic variation. Of the total number of households without access to potable water a third live in the Eastern Cape another third live in KwaZulu-Natal and a further 14% live in Limpopo meaning 80% of households without access to water live in these three provinces. By contrast only 1% of households without access to water are in the Western Cape and 5% are in Gauteng — the most developed and urbanised provinces. This situation is mirrored in household access to other key services. New data from the 2011 Non-Financial Census for Municipalities shows that last year on average 95% of Western Cape’s and 99% of Gauteng’s indigent households received support from municipal indigent programmes while only 36% of Limpopo’s 39% of the Eastern Cape’s and 54% of KwaZulu-Natal’s indigent households received support.

While backlogs are the least severe in the Western Cape and Gauteng average municipal spending in the past five years was highest in these two provinces whereas in the Eastern Cape KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo which have the highest levels of underdevelopment municipal spending remains the lowest. In the Western Cape average municipal spending was three times that of KwaZulu-Natal. In addition in the past five years metropolitan councils spent on average four times that of rural municipalities and those municipalities containing former homeland areas.

The real concern then is where service delivery is not taking place. Clearly virtuous or vicious cycles apply in cities and rural areas respectively. Those who live in urbanised developed municipalities and provinces especially in Gauteng and the Western Cape have access to higher levels of services than those in provinces and municipalities containing rural and former homeland areas especially the Eastern Cape KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.

This reality does not escape citizens. Stats SA’s latest mid-year population estimates from earlier this year show that between 2006 and last year the populations of the Western Cape and Gauteng increased significantly while in all other provinces (except KwaZulu-Natal where the population is reasonably stable) populations decreased significantly. People are moving out of areas where service delivery is poor and where there are limited economic opportunities and moving to areas where they are superior.

Gauteng is under the most pressure its population having increased by 367000 people in the past five years. Consider that the populations of Limpopo and the Eastern Cape shrank by more than 142000 and 214000 respectively in the same time. It is critical that unbalanced service delivery is addressed not only to alleviate grinding poverty in rural and former homeland areas but also to reduce urbanisation.

So where do the solutions lie? Access to funding despite popular perceptions has risen substantially. Indeed one of the greatest fiscal concerns is the underspending of grants by municipalities.

Capacity and accountability are key. Metros and larger municipalities if not able to deliver or perform at the levels that their residents might deem appropriate are able to consistently conform with most legislative requirements such as formulating and completing realistic and appropriate annual plans and following through in budgetary allocations. In many smaller municipalities these basics typically remain a challenge with spending (and therefore delivery) inconsistent and low notwithstanding that basic plans are a regulated requirement. What is behind their failure and why are they not being held accountable? Submitting an Integrated Development Plan a budget or a set of financial statements annually in terms of local government legislation is the responsibility of a single mayor and council who in turn direct municipal managers chief financial officers and departmental heads.

In cases of complete failure a breakdown in the basic functioning of a municipality where sewage flows openly down main roads or where refuse piles up for weeks uncollected a lack of accountability is most apparent. Accountability however hinges on the enforcement of a legislated system of governance. Local councillors and by extension officials accountable for ensuring things get done daily are pivotal to ensuring delivery in response to community needs.

It is this culture of accountability of public service that is most lacking in municipalities failing most seriously typified by low expenditure and poor delivery.

Provincial and national government have the key role to play in overseeing local government and basic compliance but this is a first step.

In cases where accountability for poor performance is emphasised such as in KwaZulu-Natal where local government MEC Nomusa Dube demanded improved audit outcomes performance improves with KwaZulu-Natal receiving the highest number of clean audits in the country last year.

The next step is bottom-up engagement not of the violent Northern Cape variety that enforces school boycotts but where ward councillors meet communities ask hard questions of accounting officers and drive budgetary needs into plans and projects.

This means hard work and rigorous engagement with communities. While service delivery protests in metros are often associated with a jostling for service delivery that is happening in the area it would be an overstatement to say that service delivery protests are the result of the success of service delivery. In protests outside of metros they are very often caused by service delivery failure in the poorest areas and in almost all cases associated with a failure by councillors to communicate.

In many service delivery protests a failure by mayors and councillors to meet a community on a set of demands often precedes more violent forms of protest.

It would therefore be a grave error to paint service delivery in South Africa with a broad brush concealing consistent failure in the hidden recesses of former homeland and rural municipalities. What is needed is a return to the premise of decentralised government — communities can and should be given avenues to express their needs and local politicians and officials need to act on these or be replaced.