How to deliver

2009-08-28 00:00

IN discussions of the current socio-political situation in South Africa, the phrase “service delivery” is used again and again. It seems mainly to refer to the basic services that by now every citizen has learned to expect: piped potable water, electricity, decent sanitation, waste removal, stable housing, good roads, street lighting and land line telephone connections.

But it also often includes a significant and highly visible set of services which impact slightly less immediately on the wellbeing of citizens: those concerned with the active maintenance and enhancement of both the natural and the built environment. These would encompass such items as the upkeep of roads, the removal of litter and weeds in public places, the cutting of grass, the cleaning of rivers and their banks, and the general care of public buildings and open spaces.

There is a very widespread sense that “service delivery” represents one of the country’s biggest problems. Some of the many people who live in disadvantaged areas, particularly in informal settlements, many of whom lack some or even all of the basic services, have been expressing their intense and understandable frustration in a series of protest marches and even riots. At the same time, a fair number of those who live in areas where the basic services are all available have nevertheless felt annoyed, again understandably, by the irregularity of some of the services and by what they see as the neglect of the urban and natural environment. Such people express their frustration in letters to the newspapers, in attempting to muster some political­ clout, and at times in emigration­.

Who is to blame for all these things? Because most of the services that I have named are provided (or not provided) by municipalities, the onus has tended to fall very heavily on them. When Thabo Mbeki went on his infrequent walkabouts he apparently used to say: “If you have complaints, it’s because your ward councillor hasn’t been doing his or her job.” President Jacob Zuma has also often seemed to imply that most problems relating to “service delivery” are to be located at the local government level.

In my view, this analysis of the situation is inadequate and unfair. I don’t deny that there are serious problems in some or many areas of many municipalities — corruption, cronyism, laziness, incompetence and inexperience (although for this individuals cannot always be blamed). There is much that needs to be reformed and renewed, and one hopes that there will be tangible results from the president’s promise that corrupt people and non-performers will be removed from their jobs. But it isn’t often recognised that a great deal of good and solid work is performed by municipalities, especially the larger ones. Nor are most people aware that res­ponsibility for the whole vast business­ of “service delivery” cannot sensibly be handed over to municipalities.

Some of the aspects of delivery enumerated above clearly belong wholly in the municipal arena. It is also the duty of municipalities to use the resources they have been given as efficiently as possible. But laying on all the basic services — and this means bringing every hectare of South Africa up to the level of First World countries such as Australia or Canada — is clearly not something that can be seen simply in terms of local planning and the work ethic of ward councillors.

What is required is a proper nat­ional survey of what is needed throughout South Africa. The demar­cation board looks at the country in detail and defines all the ward boundaries. Similarly, a multi-party basic services commission should decide carefully what and where the needs are, and how these needs are likely to expand in the future. And then it will be necessary for the government to decide roughly how the country’s limited resources will be used, in what order, and how long the whole process is likely to take.

This will be an extremely difficult and painful task for the government to perform, as some of those who fall late on the list are likely to be very disappointed and angry. There will be a need for wide consultations and full explanations, for complex compromises and for certain concessions and rebates for those who will have to wait for some time.

But it would be in the government’s and everyone’s interest for the whole problem to be brought out honestly into the open, so that the nation as a whole can see what the backlogs are and where we all stand. As I have said, it won’t be easy. But it will be better and more efficient and in the end less divisive than enduring years, maybe decades, of sporadic and often chaotic marches on municipal offi­ces to protest about a lack of basic “service delivery”.

• Colin Gardner is an ANC member of the Msunduzi Municipal Council.

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