The South African government has in the past month been forced to reckon with the country’s untenable rate of poverty and inequality.
In the aftermath of the unrest that besieged KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng (during a devastating global pandemic, no less), President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the reinstatement of the Social Relief of Distress Grant to provide a measure of support for those who have no other source of income.
Civil society organisations such as the Institute for Poverty and Inequality Studies and the Black Sash have been at the forefront of calling for the reinstatement and increase of the grant. The Department of Social Development has also just released its Green Paper on Comprehensive Social Security and Retirement Reform, which considers the expansion of social assistance and the implementation of a basic income grant.
An important tool in the government’s arsenal to reduce poverty and inequality is service delivery. Through the delivery of quality basic services, the government can improve the standard of living for many people living in South Africa and reduce multidimensional poverty — a measure of the full reality of poverty that looks at child mortality, healthcare, water access and sanitation levels, among other factors.
While all spheres of government have some role to play in service delivery, local government is largely responsible for the provision of basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity. It is also required to ensure that residents within their area of governance have access to adequate housing.
Local government’s constitutional mandate includes a duty to give priority to the basic needs of the community in its administration, budgeting and planning processes. Two of the five objectives of local government stated in the Constitution include providing democratic and accountable government for local communities and ensuring the provision of services in a sustainable manner.
But a painful image emerges when you view the gaps in service delivery against the constitutional mandate of local government and the many reports of corruption and mismanagement of public funds at that level.
At present, almost 20 million people do not have access to safe, sufficient and reliable water and 14 million people do not have access to basic sanitation. There are roughly 12.5 million people living in informal settlements and there is a housing backlog of up to 3.7 million houses, growing at a rate of 178,000 a year. Without effective service delivery, the socioeconomic rights listed in the Constitution are a hollow set of promises with no real bearing on the conditions in which people live. It is up to those elected to power to ensure that these rights are progressively realised.
In June 2021, the Auditor-General released a general report on local government audit outcomes. Given the poor performance of local government, the report was appropriately themed “Ethical and accountable leadership should drive the required change”. Local government is underperforming and the consequences of this are dire. Those who are at the helm of local government must be held accountable for the shortfalls.
The numbers speak for themselves. In the 2019/2020 financial year, R26-billion of local government’s expenditure was classified as “irregular”, meaning that this money was spent in a manner that did not comply with laws and regulations. A total of R3.47-billion was lost in fruitless and wasteful expenditure. This exceeds the figure for fruitless and wasteful expenditure at provincial and national level combined.
A further R2.04-billion is estimated to have been lost in material irregularities which are instances of non-compliance with financial regulations that may result in a significant financial loss, a misuse or loss of public resources, or harm to the public or a public institution. Only 27 out of 257 municipalities received a clean audit outcome. These are shocking figures indicative of the need for dramatic change in local government structures.
The Auditor-General’s 2020 Annual Report revealed that out of nine local government auditees, six material irregularities occurred in three municipalities that amounted to R25-billion in financial loss (R3-billion of which is known and R22-billion which is estimated). By way of illustration, R3-billion alone could have provided an additional 1.04 million people with access to water in rural areas or 753,958 more people in urban areas. Alternatively, it could have provided 16,547 more housing opportunities. To reiterate, this was money lost in three municipalities alone from an audit of nine (there are 278 municipalities in South Africa).
Thanks to the Auditor-General’s expanded powers to refer material irregularities for investigation and make binding remedial recommendations if no action is taken, it is possible that some of the money lost through material irregularities can be recovered over time. However, more needs to be done at local government to ensure that its administration, budgeting and planning processes are transparent and give priority to the basic needs of the community.
Reducing poverty and inequality requires a multifaceted, all-hands-on-deck approach. It requires that officials at all spheres of government play their role in ensuring that our constitutional democracy is one that works for all.
Amnesty International South Africa is focusing on service delivery in our #DignityNow campaign. Through the campaign, we are calling for accountability and transparency in municipalities, and for municipalities to ensure that communities have access to information to participate in budgeting and planning processes. Accountability and transparency on the part of government, and an active citizenry are what is needed to strengthen the systems that are responsible for delivering on basic human rights.
Calling for better service delivery may seem like an old song, but it is one that we need to keep singing if we are to see any improvement in the quality of people’s lives. DM