South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Down the Bucket Toilet: Basic services mission not entirely flushed with success, reveals Statistician-General’s report

Down the Bucket Toilet: Basic services mission not entirely flushed with success, reveals Statistician-General’s report

The 3 August local government elections have sharpened the focus on municipal governance and performance, as have various community protests across South Africa. Over the past week two sets of data on municipal finances and delivery were released by the Auditor-General and Statistics South Africa (Stats SA). Both tell a multi-tiered story of achievements, outstanding issues – and the discrepancy between politicians’ rose-tinted election spectacles and the hard numbers. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

A week ago Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu announced that the 2014/15 local government audit showed 14 more municipalities got a clean bill of health, or an unqualified audit with no findings, bringing the total to 54 of South Africa’s 278 councils.

Those with a clean bill of health, and the 109 municipalities with unqualified audits but with findings, account for about 80% of the total R347-billion allocated to municipalities. After staff from the Auditor-General’s office went to council offices to check statements, quotations, balance sheets, internal financial controls and the like these 163 councils had the paper trail to prove where the money was spent.

But across the board, perennial concerns remained: irregular, fruitless, wasteful and unauthorised expenditure, lack of consequences for contravening laws and regulations, and lukewarm political and administrative leadership. And some councils regressed.

Although not an unqualified good story, it was a better audit tale compared to five years ago when this crop of councillors came into office after the 2011 municipal poll.

So when Statistician-General Pali Lehohla on Tuesday delivered the news that provision of basic services was up – but not the free basic services for the higher number of indigent households – he faced questions as to whether this good news release was done with the 3 August local government elections in mind.

I don’t know good news or bad news. I’m very much agnostic,” replied Lehohla.

Statistics must add to an overall understanding of the world we live in and be trustworthy – and statisticians-general independent. “Let me debunk the myth of a captured statistics system. It is not. It is absolutely independent,” he added.

But in a local government election year, the questions is whether political demands to show service delivery become the overriding consideration for Cabinet members, whose performance agreements include a host of numerical targets to be met.

Exactly how many night soil buckets are there in South Africa? Stats SA on Tuesday said 80,119 in the year ending mid-2015, down about 5,600 on a year before. Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane in her budget speech said her department had confirmed 55,217 after a verification process.

It’s not quite clear why the water and sanitation department would have conducted its own verification process, rather than tapping into the official statistics entity, Stats SA. But the minister in her budget speech on 11 May said: “In a verification process, the department confirmed some 55,217 bucket toilets predominantly in the Free State Province (with the highest backlog), Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and North West (with the least buckets in existence)”.

In North West, where there had been “only 231 bucket toilets”, she told Parliament, “The department today can announce that this province will join Gauteng, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces as having rid themselves of the legacy of the bucket toilets in the formal and established townships.”

Stats SA records show only Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo as having no bucket toilets, according to its “Non-financial census of municipalities for the year ended 30 June 2015” released on Tuesday.

It would have been easy for Mpumalanga to eradicate its remaining 30 bucket toilets between June 2015 and May 2016 when the minister presented her budget speech. According to Stats SA, the province led the eradication stakes by slashing 1,770 within a year from the 1,800 recorded in June 2014.

But in North West, the numbers don’t add up – even if allowance is made for different time frames. Stats SA covered the year up to end June 2015 using data supplied by municipalities themselves, while the water and sanitation time frame is largely unclear.

Stats SA recorded 6,184 bucket toilets in mid-2015, down from 6,417 a year earlier, based on information councils themselves provided. It is unclear where the minister’s 239 figure comes from. Effectively, the discrepancy means that between 1 July 2015 and 11 May 2016, when the minister delivered her budget speech, North West eradicated over 6,000 buckets, when in the previous year it managed to cut numbers by 233.

The Free State has the highest number of bucket toilets at 32,551, the only province where the numbers increased, followed by the Eastern Cape with 28,757 bucket toilets.

On Tuesday Lehohla was diplomatic: “It’s difficult to account for the verified information of 55,000 bucket toilets. The municipalities themselves have said they cleared 5,000.”

South Africa for a decade has struggled to eradicate the undignified and unhygienic night soil buckets, which are put out on the roadside for emptying by municipal workers, who sometimes don’t come according to schedule.

In 2008 then president Thabo Mbeki announced that bucket toilets would be eradicated that year. The deadline was stretched, and subsequently government set a deadline of 2014. According to Statistics SA, as of the end of June that year, there were 85,718 still left.

Stats SA is the government’s official and statutorily independent producer of numbers and figures – the go-to guy on anything from unemployment, causes of mortality, household incomes, the gross domestic product and consumer price index, to what South Africans own. The regular general household surveys, statistical analysis and censuses provide timely and accurate statistics for appropriate policy formulation, and to keep track of the impact of policies.

But sometimes statistics and political promises don’t seem to see eye to eye. DM

Photo: An exterior toilet stands in a Zulu homestead in the Valley of a Thousand Hills near Durban, South Africa, 23 September 2010. EPA/JON HRUSA


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