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Service delivery: Could improvements have been greater, more equitable?

By Aalia Cassim

The popular narrative in the run-up to the elections sprawled across South African televisions, billboards and suburban walls is largely premised on service-delivery successes in post-apartheid South Africa. It is true that the asset and service deficit characteristic under the apartheid government has markedly improved. But almost daily reports of misused municipal funds, service-delivery protests and the lack of rural development suggest a conflicting tale.

Considering aggregated household survey data over the past 20 years paints an impressive picture. The number of formal dwellings increased from 5.8 million to 11.3 million; household access to electricity increased dramatically from 4.4 million to 12.4 million and the number of households with piped water increased from 5 million to 10.6 million over the 1993-2011 period. This was the result of a number of well-targeted state programmes that had the effect of reducing asset poverty and asset inequality in post-apartheid South Africa.

An example of this was the introduction of the Electricity Basic Services Support Tariff in 2002, which provides 50 kW of free electricity to all households, attending to the basic electrical needs of a household such as lighting and cooking. In terms of water services, in 1994 a free basic water and sanitation services policy was also introduced by the new government, specifically targeting poorer households.

Interrogating the data on a less aggregated basis however, brings into context the disparity of service delivery in more rural provinces such as the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal. Census data shows that in 2011, just 50% of households in the Eastern Cape had access to piped water, 28% had access to water in their yard and a significant 22% of household had no access to water on their property. In Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, 14% of households had no access to water on their property. Households in rural areas of Eastern Cape are still using sources of fuel other than electricity for cooking (38%) and heating (69%). Similar patterns are found in Limpopo and rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal. While the service deficit was far larger in these provinces in 1993 than it is today, the fact that there are households that don’t have access to basic services, begs the question as to whether the improvements over the last 20 years are large enough.

Service delivery occurred at a faster rate in the first half of democracy than the second. In part, this is because the backlog in urban areas was far easier to attend to than rural areas. In addition, governance and accountability in local government away from urban centres has not been appropriate to address the needs of these communities. Services received were often interrupted and of a lesser quality. The persistent and increasingly violent protests in Bekkersdal, Mothutlung and Sebokeng are evidence of exasperated and restless communities no longer willing to take a back seat on these issues.

Municipal corruption and financial mismanagement has left a number of households in rural areas as well as informal settlements without access to quality services. The 2012 local government audit results were telling in that just 18% of 278 municipalities got clean results. The rest reported poor quality financials, wasteful and irregular expenditure among other ills. Not only has this resulted in a poor standard of living but also contributed to a higher cost of living whereby billing and regulation was improperly implemented. Statistics South Africa reported that low income households still spend about 20% of domestic income on utilities, despite the free allocations.

The real issue is therefore not whether things are better now, but whether the improvements made could have been greater and more equitable. This is not a question that can be answered definitively or by looking at socio-economic data. This requires an assessment of weak institutions, governance constraints and priorities of state spending. South Africa’s democracy has been tarnished by maladministration, the squandering of public funds by government officials and tender irregularities. An analysis comparing the inefficiencies created by bad service delivery through corruption and rent seeking against the counterfactual of efficient service delivery would be useful to measure progress. Establishing the counterfactual, albeit a truly difficult task, would lead to an interesting dialogue around the actual cost of service delivery for various communities. It would also allow us to take account of the misused funds and where they could have been directed.

It is therefore simplistic to consider progress in terms of what has been done, without a careful eye on what has not been achieved and for who. For example, could the quality and quantity of Reconstruction and Development Programme houses have been greater if not for tender irregularities and pocketing of funds set aside. In terms of electricity, has the rising price of electricity constrained its use by poor households who also bear the brunt of load shedding to a greater extent? Is it acceptable that households in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal have to fetch water from a tap miles away, while others closer to urban areas have water shortages on a regular basis. These are the real questions that need to be answered and assessed when we measure asset and service-delivery progress.

When government becomes accountable to poor communities for the delivery of basic services, not just in terms of quantity but quality too, service delivery in South Africa should be celebrated. However hopeful, this is indeed a useful notion to embark on the next 20 years.

Aalia Cassim is an economist at the Development Policy Research Unit at UCT.