Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 26 September 2012

Service delivery and development: Hot or not?

Government has to end its paternalistic and arrogant approach to social welfare issues and service delivery. With our levels of structural underdevelopment and poverty we simply can’t afford to have a superficial understanding of our problems.

The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) issued a press release on 11 September agreeing with statements made by President Zuma in a speech to the South African Local Government Association (Salga) the previous day. In that speech, the president claimed that “(n)o country could have produced the delivery we produced in the last 18 years.”

The statement by the president, and its subsequent support by the SAIRR, has been the subject of some debate over the last two weeks. One of the most contentious claims in the SAIRR release is that the sharp increase in the number of service delivery protests since last year is a sign of successful service delivery by government, not failure.

The central claims of both the president and the SAIRR are difficult, if not impossible, to verify and therefore equally difficult to refute. It’s a case of false hypothesis to claim, as the president does, that no country could have matched South Africa’s delivery of the last 18 years. The claim of the SAIRR that “the ANC and the Government it leads deserves considerably more credit for improving the living standards of poor and black South Africans than it has received” is also problematic.

There are those who believe that the levels of service delivery since 1994 are nothing short of miraculous and that the ANC-led government is grossly undervalued by its citizens. There are those who believe that the government is largely corrupt and incompetent, and any successes attributed to it are overblown and inaccurate. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. I will try to provide some objective background to the service delivery trends of the last few years and interested readers can form their own conclusions.

Firstly, verifiable statistics related to service delivery are largely at an aggregated level. StatsSA has been producing an annual General Household Survey (GHS) since 2002, which surveys the provision of basic services and housing across the country. Unfortunately the analysis is at a provincial level, making it harder to determine the relative success of different municipalities (municipal government is responsible for the provision of basic services).

The full-scale surveys measuring basic service delivery at the municipal level are fairly infrequent; in the last decade, the 2001 Census, the 2007 Community Survey and the 2011 Census have been the only surveys providing this level of detail. The results of the 2011 Census will probably only be released next year and analysts have therefore only have two data points from which to extrapolate and interpolate service delivery at the municipal level.

This aggregated approach makes it difficult to evaluate the performance of the sphere of local/municipal government tasked with providing the four basic services: water, electricity, sanitation and refuse removal. As a result, there is some descriptive value, but little prescriptive value, in the annual GHS with respect to basic service delivery.

Secondly, most analysis (including the SAIRR’s recent release) focuses superficially on the top-level numbers. Typically the analysis compares the percentage of households receiving a particular service at particular date to a different percentage of households receiving the same service at another date. If there is an increase in the percentage (or number) of households receiving this service over time, it is interpreted as an improvement in the level of service delivery.

The problem with this quantitative approach is that it says nothing about the quality of the service received. For example, Section 10 of the 2011 GHS is concerned with “Water access and use”. It describes the percentage of households that receive different levels of water services and it also describes the levels of satisfaction that households have with the service they receive.

In the report, the percentage of households that believe the service they receive is “good’” has fallen to 62% in 2011 from 76% in 2005. Table 10 in the report shows that between 7.5% and 11% have routinely reported problems with the water they receive, ranging from water that is unsafe to drink to water that tastes or smells bad.

Official statistics often omit measures of interruptions in services. Officially a municipality is given some leeway in the form of a maximum number of incidences or maximum total length of time where service supply is interrupted. In practise, these service interruptions are underreported and unlikely to be reflected in the official statistics.

There are analogous trends in the provision of sub-standard RDP housing. It is all well and good to report an increase in the number of houses built, but if a large proportion of these houses will eventually have to be demolished and rebuilt then the official delivery statistics will overestimate the successes of government.

Thirdly, even if the qualitative information about basic service delivery were properly reported, there would still be a gap in the analysis of the progressive nature of basic service rights. The official legislation states that basic services are progressive rights, meaning that government should do everything in its power to provide an increased and improved service over time. If a municipality is providing a certain amount of water to poor households in a certain year it cannot provide less water in the following year.

The establishment of a national norm and standard of six kilolitres of water per household per month was meant to provide a minimum level of service to poor households and guarantee that all South Africans would have access to a minimum amount of water on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the sole focus on this target has led to a number of perverse outcomes that have, in some cases, ended up hurting the poor households meant to benefit from this minimum level of service.

Many municipalities have elected to provide the six kilolitres, known as the Free Basic Service (FBS) level for water, on a targeted basis, as opposed to a universal basis. What this means in practice is that a household has to prove that it is indigent before it receives the free water. This places the onus on households, rather than government, to ensure they receive the FBS to which they are entitled. My (fairly cursory) level of research indicates that there are substantial gaps between the number of households that should receive the FBS and the number of households that actually receive the service from their municipalities.

Furthermore, many municipalities make the instalment of a prepaid meter a precondition for providing the FBS level of water to poorer households. When this is combined with a high per-kilolitre price for all water consumed about the FBS level it has the effect of limiting the amount of water used by a poor household to the FBS level, as subsequent use is unaffordable.  Unfortunately, poor households are more likely to have a higher than average number of residents, including backyard shack dwellers. This effectively cuts the per-person amount of free water to below the level intended.

Fourthly, some of the increase in the levels of formal housing and living standards is due to the efforts of South Africans themselves to improve their situation and cannot be attributed directly to government. At best, these successes can be attributed to the indirect efforts of government, possibly through AA legislation that leads to an expanded black middle-class, possibly (though not likely) to legislation making it easier for people to save and create wealth. It is, at the very least, inaccurate to ascribe the entire increase in improved delivery statistics directly to the increases in government spending.

Fifthly, the SAIRR rightly acknowledges the greater rollout of social grants as a key cause of lower absolute poverty and higher living standards but does not analyse whether this practice is sustainable. The Daily Maverick has previously noted that social grant increases are set to fall in real terms over the medium-term, placing more pressure on the poorest households.

Lastly, the SAIRR’s assertion that service delivery protests are a result of successful service delivery is problematic. To be fair, there are many reasons behind the steady increase in the number of protests. Some protests are politically motivated, some are a result of raised expectations. Many, however, are a result of poor service delivery. The increased frequency of protests and the higher levels of violence accompanying them are relatively new trends, but the underlying cause of many, if not most, of the protests is unhappiness with the delivery of housing and basic services.

This critique of the release is not to dismiss the SAIRR’s work out of hand or to confirm the biases of the anti-ANC/anti-government cohort. It is good to give praise where praise is due. The highlighting of the usual omissions and shortcomings of service delivery analysis is meant to help us ask the right questions about service delivery and improved living standards for the poorest South Africans.

We should be asking how sustainable the current levels of service delivery are and whether they are likely to show an improvement or a decline. Eradicating the electricity infrastructure backlog will cost the country R35-billion and the infrastructure backlog for water and sanitation also runs well into the billions.

In the case of the growing electricity infrastructure backlog, the inchoate and confusing policy flip-flops over the establishment of the Regional Electricity Distributors (REDs) must bear some of the blame. The decision to transfer assets and control of the electricity distribution network from the municipalities to the REDs meant that the municipalities were left in limbo with respect to their obligations to maintain the distribution network.

The poor track record of inter-governmental relations (i.e. between different spheres of government) is part of the reason why there hasn’t been proper coordination of service delivery. Its fine to assign the provision of basic services to municipal government but households can’t receive water, electricity and sanitation if they don’t have houses. The provision of housing is complex; although it is nominally a function of national government in practice it requires the buy-in of both provincial and local government. The lack of coordination across government spheres has often delayed the provision of services.

Rather than assume that basic service delivery is a straightforward, box-checking exercise, we need to analyse the policies and white papers behind service provision and social welfare. We need to ask whether the things we measure are the best indicators of sustainable service delivery and development. If they aren’t, then we may be supporting policies which are unsustainable or which don’t facilitate real economic and social development. We need to listen more to the recipients of these services and learn from them where the gaps and failures in policy design and execution exist.

The approach of government to service delivery and social welfare is often paternalistic and arrogant. This is not unique to South Africa; in most countries the bureaucratic system is well-meaning but unwilling to take advice from the people it purports to help. With our levels of structural underdevelopment and poverty we simply can’t afford to have a superficial understanding of our problems. DM

Read more:

  • ‘Water Services Fault Lines: An Assessment of South Africa’s Water and Sanitation Provision across 15 Municipalities”, Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS)


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