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‘Some animals are more equal than others’: service delivery in SA

With frustration and desperation spilling over into peaceful and violent protests, when will the government take heed?

04 July 2021 - 20:08 By Marike Keller
Service delivery protest between Ventersdorp and Potchefstroom in North West.
TYRESOME Service delivery protest between Ventersdorp and Potchefstroom in North West.
Image: Antonio Muchave/Sowetan

Service delivery protests have long been part of SA’s fabric. It is a constitutional right in this country to protest, and for many it feels like the only way they can get the government to sit up and take notice of the service delivery issues in their communities. 

The SA Police Service (SAPS) Incident Registration Information System (IRIS) documented 909 service delivery protests between August 2020 and January 2021, with the Covid-19 pandemic doing little to stop them. Almost every week, the media report more incidents of service delivery protests across the country. Yet, protests seem to do little in the way of prompting the government into action to improve service delivery. 

Recently we saw escalating violence in Harrismith where residents are fed up and angry about the state of service delivery. Many reported protests in the Eastern Cape have been around poor sanitation – from sewage overflowing, to residents required to relieve themselves in bushes due to the lack of sanitation infrastructure and pigs eating their excrement.

Is this too much to ask, when people living in SA are constitutionally entitled to have their basic needs met? 

Amnesty International SA’s team held a brainstorming discussion on the topic of service delivery in the country. Some of the thoughts and phrases captured were: people suffering; failure by government; lazy officials; corruption; ineffectiveness; inequality; poor quality; and, as George Orwell said, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. 

Nationally, service delivery leaves much to be desired. Access to basic services in SA is largely crippled by the mismanagement of public funds, a lack of prioritisation by government and a legacy of spatial segregation and unequal development at the local level.

With a housing backlog growing at a rate of 178,000 a year, the announced budget cut for the department of human settlements of R486.9m over the next three years is frightening.

According to the National Water and Sanitation Plan, in some municipalities only 50% of residents have access to adequate sanitation facilities; sanitation facilities in at least 26% of households within formal areas do not meet the required standard due to crumbling infrastructure; more than three million people do not have access to basic water supply; and only 64% of households have access to a safe and reliable water supply. In a world battling a deadly pandemic, where water and sanitation are crucial for the protection of human health, these figures are a stark reminder of the increased risk millions of people are faced with due to basic service delivery failures.

With frustration, disappointment and desperation growing day by day and spilling over into peaceful and violent service delivery protests, when will the government take heed? Does it take a multimillion-rand company leaving an area after years of service delivery issues for local government to finally spring into action, as is the case with the Clover factory now moving its operations from Lichtenburg in the North West to Queensburgh in eThekwini? Are the voices of their constituents not enough? Is their oath to “solemnly promise to perform [their] functions and duties as a councillor of [municipality] to the best of my ability”, as well as their constitutional mandate to “promote a safe and healthy environment”, not enough for them to take action and develop functioning municipalities fit to live in?  

The demands are simple – water, housing, sanitation, road repairs, electricity and street lighting. Are these too much to ask for, when people living in SA are constitutionally entitled to have their basic needs met? 

At Amnesty International SA (AISA), we went back to basics to ask ourselves why service delivery is important. The answers are: to live a life with dignity; to live in a safe environment; for people to access and realise their basic human rights enshrined in international and national legislation; to reduce poverty; to raise the living standards of the poor majority; and for greater equality. 

While this is not an exhaustive list by any means, it is for these reasons (and more) that we must remind duty bearers that not only do they have a constitutional mandate to uphold in providing effective service delivery, but a moral and ethical one too. 

Local government officials must take their oath seriously and fulfil their constitutional mandate to provide basic human rights and services, such as housing, water and sanitation, so that all who live in SA can live a life of dignity, equality and safety.

With local government elections scheduled to take place on October 27, we have an opportunity to make our voices heard. AISA is launching a campaign this week, to call on the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, as the body overseeing municipalities, to ensure that all municipalities fulfil their constitutional mandate to provide basic services to everyone in SA.

Through the campaign we will be highlighting the current status of service delivery as it pertains to housing, water and sanitation; failures by local government to live up to their promises; and calling for transparency in the management of public funds and decision making, accountability to commitments made to ensure equitable delivery of basic services, and access to information to promote active citizenry, to be prioritised by municipal officials.

The delivery of basic services is directly correlated to the attainment of basic human rights. It is time for us to take a stand and ensure that elected officials truly represent their constituents’ needs and that human rights are being upheld.


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