Fixing municipalities means grasping the role of relative deprivation

SA has 257 municipalities. As anyone who has travelled across the country will know they vary tremendously. But what may be missed is that they have been designed to amalgamate vastly different communities to share common points of commercial activity. Reducing the number of municipalities and expanding municipal boundaries was therefore a fundamental component of the democratic project to desegregate local government and share resources more equitably between communities.

This project — however necessary — still has a considerable way to go in reversing the stubbornly profound footprint of apartheid spatial planning. Nowhere are the challenges arising from this more apparent than when looking at local government through the lens of its 4393 wards. While municipal averages still reveal sharp distinctions in municipal performance especially between urban areas and former homeland and rural areas there is somewhat of a smoothing result that can disguise the stark differences within a municipality.

Wards however home in on the very stark and individual character of communities. Consider for instance the profile of ward 90 deep in the heart of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs including the elite neighbourhoods of Hyde Park and Sandhurst against that of ward 75 which falls within the boundaries of Alexandra just a few kilometres away. A significant portion of residents in the latter ward — 40% — reside in informal dwellings within sight of some of the country’s most expensive properties juxtaposed on the horizon of ward 90. Little wonder that there have been protests in ward 75.

Residents of this ward will take little comfort in the fact that the proportion of households below the poverty line is slightly better than the national average and the employment level slightly better than average when they reside alongside such conspicuous wealth. They will know without having to crunch the data that they are worse off than the average Johannesburg resident never mind their affluent neighbours.

An assessment of the footprint of service delivery protests by ward across SA using Ward IQ’s ward protest monitor confirms that there is not the direct correlation between absolute poverty and protests that might intuitively be expected. Rather the issue of intramunicipal inequality needs to be considered which assists in explaining why service delivery protests can take place in some of SA’s better-managed municipalities. It is often relative deprivation that drives social discontent and political dissent.

Ward-level analysis can also assist with a more nuanced understanding of communities such as Westbury which has been the site of #TotalShutdown protests against crime and unemployment also in Johannesburg but to the more impoverished south. While basic municipal services in Westbury exceed national provincial and even local averages it is evident from ward-based data that the proportion of households living under the poverty line is greater than that of the average Johannesburg or Gauteng household. The same is true of unemployment.

Combined with precinct crime data for the ward which shows an above-average level of drug-related crime the data begins to paint a picture that vindicates protesters’ grievances surrounding a socially frayed community — one which is likely to have been particularly adversely affected by the recent recessionary climate. It also supports Johannesburg’s decision to prioritise the area for one of five community-based substance abuse treatment centres.

With 2018 now recording a record annual high on our municipal hotspots monitor it has become imperative that assistance and prioritising municipal intervention not only take place by diagnosing dysfunctional municipalities (as already undertaken by co-operative governance minister Zweli Mkhize) but also by identifying and intervening in areas of gross inequality within functional municipalities.

This imperative puts pressure on municipal administrations to focus on the task of ward-based planning and budgeting to empower ward councillors in reporting back to communities and to identify areas of sustained or growing neglect. It may be obvious that the biggest clusters of impoverished wards (as measured on access to basic services income levels and unemployment on Ward IQ’s ward poverty index) are to be found in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape but consider for a moment that the very poorest ward in SA is in Gauteng’s Rand West municipality.

Given the context of SA’s gaping inequality levels local government faces a two-pronged challenge — stabilising dysfunctional municipalities to ensure there is an acceptable basic level of service across all municipalities and homing in on individual municipalities to address the inequality of service delivery and vastly differing economic circumstances that typify SA communities.