Service delivery: systemic trappings of apartheid remain

Residents of an informal settlement near Dunoon, Cape Town, protest over the lack of water and sanitation. The country’s water challenges are a stubborn reminder of the government’s attitude towards accountability, says the writer. Picture: Armand Hough/Independent Newspaper Archives

Residents of an informal settlement near Dunoon, Cape Town, protest over the lack of water and sanitation. The country’s water challenges are a stubborn reminder of the government’s attitude towards accountability, says the writer. Picture: Armand Hough/Independent Newspaper Archives

Published Apr 20, 2024


Dr Minga Mbweck Kongo

The post-apartheid water governance and the apartheid legacy set the tone for the debate on the contested water issues in South Africa.

Thirty years after Freedom Day, which campaigned for basic human rights, many South Africans struggle for water access.

Post-Covid-19 inspired many water-related protests. The protests are all over mainstream and social media, highlighting corruption, inequality, lack of water and suppression of the right to water. The water challenges throughout South Africa are a stubborn reminder of the government’s attitude towards accountability.

Much of the systemic trappings of apartheid are firmly in place, long after Freedom Day. This is evident in the general defiance shown by the protests, where residents of various townships across South Africa militantly contested the consensus notion that the ANC’s ways of dealing with service delivery in townships was working.

Many residents, particularly in townships, speak of marginalisation as a reflection of their shared experiences of exclusion and alienation.

Their desire for freedom and to restore their humanity and dignity have been betrayed by the government.

This is self-evident as residents reflect upon the outcomes of their negotiated water issues.

During apartheid, homeland governments and local municipalities were each responsible for water supply services. Black local authorities had a massive challenge responding to increasing service demands and were accused of bad governance. In contrast, white local authorities had access to adequate services and served a minority white population.

After Freedom Day, municipal and provincial governments were restructured to meet the service delivery goals proposed by the ANC government. South Africa was restructured from four provinces, 10 “independent” and “self-governing” Bantustans, to nine. Municipalities were reduced from 843 to 284, and municipal boundaries were redefined.

The boundaries were restructured so that local governments could bridge the gap between rural and urban areas and between the rich and the poor regarding access to basic services.

Future Strategic Integrated Projects were also established to deal with the past spatial imbalances. Thus, addressing the poorer provinces’ needs and enabling socio-economic development, emphasising areas lagging in in-service delivery provision.

The projects aimed to provide new infrastructure, rehabilitate, upgrade infrastructure, and improve water infrastructure management.

The municipalities were tasked with the mandate of the Constitutional Assembly (1996), to prioritise basic needs of the community, promote socio-economic development, and participate in national and provincial development programmes (Constitutional Assembly, 1996, Section 153).

As spelt out in the Bill of Rights (Constitutional Assembly, 1996, Chapter 2), the goal is to progressively ensure that citizens can exercise their rights to access water, health care, a clean environment, housing and, more generally, dignity.

Local government is the closest sphere of government to the people.

It is assumed to be the tier that can most readily identify, prioritise and implement programmes and projects to address development needs.

Some municipalities’ operational debt remains severe, such that further infrastructure development could be possible only with innovative external assistance to catch up to maintenance backlogs and restore operations.

Policies and Funding

The Free Basic Services policy, adopted in 2001, aimed at prioritising provision of free basic municipal services to all marginalised South Africans.

The policy would assist in poverty alleviation and improve hygiene conditions in impoverished communities.

The bucket eradication programme was established in 2005 to provide facilities with more appropriate and adequate services. Then, the priority of water and basic sanitation provision in rural areas was established by the Rural Household Infrastructure Programme in 2010.

The Reconstruction and Development Programme, a socio-economic policy framework, specifies the social development policy aimed at improving social and economic challenges by extending basic services.

The main objective was to eradicate the uneven redistribution of resources adopted by the apartheid government and ensure that basic services were accessible to all citizens. A further objective was to enhance municipalities’ developmental capability and promote their financial viability and transfer skills, which were secondary benefits.

The central aspect of service delivery is funding: if a project or service is not sufficiently budgeted, the government will have difficulty providing it.

The government’s Budget has changed post-apartheid, with a focus on delivering services to historically disadvantaged communities. The redistribution of social expenditures does not necessarily equate to progressive distribution. Furthermore, social services expenditures increased quicker than the other Budget items.

Spending has fluctuating effects within municipalities, depending on the primary level of service, given that the maintenance of building facilities costs more.

A way forward

The number of South Africans lacking access to potable water is partly due to the country’s population growth and geographic location, as one of the “driest” countries in the world regarding freshwater supply.

Although geography and climate play a role in the issue of water inaccessibility, it remains biased to blame nature alone.

Lack of service delivery due to bad governance is equally responsible. As we recall, during Covid-19, former minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who oversaw housing and water and sanitation, said the government’s initiative to supply water to distressed communities was met with obstruction and sabotage by entrepreneurs.

In South Africa, municipalities are the sole custodians of water resources and the various cities. Despite all interventions and programmes, the government’s service delivery goals face many challenges and remain stalled.

In an interview at a sustainability conference in Johannesburg, Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu shared plans to, once again, reform the national water industry and remove municipalities from responsibility for water provision.

The general reforms aim to attract private investment, enforce accountability, increase performance, and remedy a nationwide crisis that has seen massive outages.

* Dr Kongo is an anthropologist, development scholar and social and cultural water consultant with research interests in water sociality, mobility, urbanism, politics, illness and climate change. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Humanities in Africa and the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at UCT.

Cape Times