‘Victims of success’ argument both true and false

President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address last week was scant on details but provided a clear narrative for the coming elections: life is now better than it was for almost all South Africans and where there are protests these are a consequence of municipalities that are in fact delivering at a successful rate.

This view reiterates the position of public servants — "we are victims of our own success"; in other words the better their delivery the higher community expectations are. We have also pointed out that some of the municipalities that are subjected to service delivery protests are among the best ranked on productivity and compliance indices and perceptions about superior job opportunities and public services are the reason so many people migrate to these areas.

This context however should not obscure the fact that "success" in fast-growing well-performing councils is not absolute with large numbers of households living in poverty. The danger of the "victims of success" argument is that it papers over some of the serious developmental cracks that manifest in service delivery protests.

Zuma argued that "success is also the breeding ground of rising expectations" as an explanation for the rising wave of protests. This position was endorsed by the African National Congress (ANC) in Gauteng. In an interview with Kaya FM ANC Gauteng secretary David Makhura argued: "You will find that government has built houses in an area. When the allocation takes place people complain of people who are not the right beneficiaries being allocated those houses…. Area by area from Bronkhorstspruit to Hammanskraal Sebokeng and Bekkersdal there have been development projects that have been under way brought by government in response to people’s basic needs. That is why we say that these protests are more a reflection of the government’s successes in delivery rather than a … failure."

The argument is true:

• Where delivery takes place but neighbouring communities expect to receive the same services at a rate and in time frames not always logistically feasible;

• When pressure on delivery turnaround times is especially pronounced because the rapid rate of in-migration (for instance about 10000 new residents a month in Johannesburg) compromises the ability to plan for new residents; and

• Where basic service delivery leads to what we describe as "second-generation" issues; in Gauteng a leading cause of service delivery protests is electricity — not basic access in most cases but the cost of the service.

But where the argument is weak and dangerous is when:

• It overlooks (numerous) protests where there are very clear delivery failures as is evident in Madibeng’s water supply to Mothutlung essentially letting councils off the hook for poor or inadequate service delivery;

• It undermines the squalid living conditions of those falling on the margins of delivery in successful cities; and

• It sidesteps the very pressing issue of inequality in our largest cities which needs to be central to debates on the sustainability of cities.

Two further issues are the danger of using aggregate figures to obscure individual failures and the issue of communication. According to Census 2011 certain wards in Bekkersdal have some of the worst delivery records in all of South Africa — this can be lost looking at the aggregate delivery record of a region municipality and especially a province.

Second where protests take place at the same time of delivery the role of the ward councillor communicating project progress needs to be scrutinised. Why are communities either unaware or suspicious of individual projects? An absence of clearly articulated plans lies at the door of individual councillors and officials.

To be fair many of South Africa’s protest hot spots are places of successful delivery or where delivery is under way. But clearly the rash of protests that continues to take place in metro areas cannot be taken as a backhanded compliment.

There need to be clear strategies to alleviate the plight of those still waiting for services or who are unable to afford them. There also needs to be honest scrutiny of individual projects that may be held up by less than optimal delivery. Municipal managers need to consider ways in which to deliver services faster better cheaper and most important equitably. Success demands nothing less.