Defend Truth


With only 27 out of 257 South African municipalities getting a clean audit outcome, service delivery remains a pipe dream


Cassandra Dorasamy is a research intern at Amnesty International South Africa.

Almost 20 million South Africans do not have access to safe water and 14 million have no access to basic sanitation. There are roughly 12.5 million people living in informal settlements and a housing backlog of up to 3.7 million houses. 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.

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    I just couldn’t read this article word for word, and scanned it instead, as I had a gut feeling for where this was going. Sorry to author. But she seems to have missing the obvious point.
    I feel for the 20m citizens without basic water, sanitation, etc.
    But we deserve the government we vote for.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      I agree!

      Look forward people. Fixating on the rear view mirror will never help avoid the oncoming truck.

      Vote! And vote for the party most capable of providing effective governance. (my personal belief is that the only real choice currently is the DA)

      Our future is not about colour, it is about economics.

  • Joe Doe says:

    Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and yet expecting a different outcome.

  • Zavier Haddad says:

    Not sure how ones writes an entire piece on service delivery and failing municipalities without mentioning the ANC’s role in it once? As if the cause and possible solutions (voting for other parties) are these great unknowns.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Diabolically unfair on the electorate for its inability to apportion blame. You can’t call for anything without naming the abusive thieves! (ANC)

  • chris butters says:

    I think this issue is hugely important and should be THE MESSAGE of any serious opposition party. There is not much money in South Africa, but the amounts needed for these basic services are, as this article points out, not huge compared to the amounts wasted through mismanagement or corruption. For millions of peaceful people without basic services – water, refuse collection, lighting, toilets at their rural schools … even after 20+ years of “liberation” … political ideologies are really not very important, let alone incitements to radical and often destructive action. The big words, promises and ideas do not make better lives.
    But small municipalities in particular are often inefficient and poorly staffed even if not corrupt. They need assistance with financial management, as well as strict oversight, both from below as you urge here, but also from above. Tender procedures are in place, and it is not that difficult to follow the requirements. Nor, at present, to ignore them with impunity! I suggest we need an office with the power to spot check ANY tender process but also to provide support as well as training to municipal management.

  • Lee Richardson says:

    No mention of where the 27 municipalities are? Interesting

    • chris butters says:

      Can we please get a countrywide breakdown in the form of “acceptable financial management” – those 27 – but also “not too bad” and “very bad” … or similar, along with WHERE they are and which of them are, for example, ANC managed?
      If the DA has something here to be pleased with, they should surely be using it for all it’s worth?

      • chris butters says:

        And by the way, much of that you can find in the Auditor report linked in her article. Western Cape for example has 14 of those 27 “good” ones. There is a LOT to dig into in the full report.

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