by Piet Coetzer

Service delivery protests

Non-delivery more symptom than cause

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Service delivery.JPG

As the cost of service delivery protests -- in lives and in monetary terms – is spiralling, 2012 is set to become the year with the highest number of delivery-linked protests since 1994. Local governments are at the eye of the storm. But unless the country, across all three levels of government, comes to terms with the rapid rate of urbanisation, it is unlikely that the tide of these destructive social waves will soon be turned. 


A number of recent research reports, including one by the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), point a  finger at the process of rapid urbanisation, under way for more than three decades, as  the main cause of the often destructive violent protests.

The process, already identified as a serious challenge in a 1984 report on an urbanisation strategy by the then President’s Council of parliament, has seen the proliferation of informal settlements throughout the country. As up to 5.5 million people migrated to urban areas at a rate of more than a million a year between 1996 and 2001 alone, informal settlements grew to almost 3 000 by 2008.

A SALGA report under the title Governing Migration & Urbanisation in South African Municipalities, released late last year, states that “failing to meet the very real challenges of domestic and international migration creates the risk of increasing conflict, violence, poverty and social exclusion in ways that negatively affect all urban residents.

“While local authorities and ... SALGA have begun to recognise the importance of mobility for the rights and welfare of all residents, municipalities still face numerous obstacles in creating inclusive and equitable communities.”

Research results released in July by research company TNS has found that no less than 73% of informal dwellers were unhappy with service delivery, compared to an overall figure of 56% for all residents in South Africa’s eight metropolitan areas.

In November 2010 TNS found that 51% of respondents were unhappy with the service delivery they received from their local authority or municipality. The latest figures  “ suggest that, at least in terms of people’s perceptions, no tangible progress is being made in terms of service delivery at local government level,” the company said in a statement.

According to the statement, “TNS has highlighted in the past that these levels of unhappiness have the potential for protest action and even violence, as well as passive resistance.”

The SALGA report of last year probably did not receive the full attention it deserved. It stated, that municipal authorities have “been wary of addressing population movements and acknowledging human mobility as a fundamental driver of, or response to, development. Rather than take a proactive approach that plans for mobility in all of its forms, South African local authorities have typically been unable to address challenges related to migration, including inter-group conflict, economic marginalisation, and the inability to access suitable services.”

Not only municipalities to blame

Municipalities are, however, not the only level of government or institution to blame for the lack of coming to grips with the problem of rapid urbanization, which also afflicts most of the rest of Africa.

In the South African context it was pointed out at the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) earlier this month during Municipal Week that 300 sections of different laws are possible blockages to service delivery at local government level.

At a seminar organised by the NCOP to bring the different spheres of government together to tackle the challenges facing municipalities, SALGA’s chief executive Xolile George said a prime example of problematic laws were those dealing with the environment.

Often municipalities have to wait for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before they can use land for a specific purpose, like housing.

"There might be a need to speed up the resettlement of people in an area, but the EIA laws might be putting in place an elaborate process that might go beyond a financial year," he said.

Chairperson of the NCOP, Mninwa Mahlangu, indicating that government is aware of this problem, said that the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs (DCGTA), Richard Baloyi has formed a task team to look at all legislation complicating service delivery.

There are also a number of other factors, such as criminal elements and special interest groups like established local traders as well as political tensions, that exploit the situation.

Indicative of this is that the Western Cape, with the lowest level of dissatisfaction with service delivery at 48% according to the TNS survey, has become the protest hot spot.

A study published in June this year by the company Municipal IQ has found that Cape Town accounts for 25% of recorded protests so far in 2012, at a direct cost of more than R13 million in recent weeks alone.

Municipal IQ ascribes the situation in Cape Town to the political tensions there. The spokesperson of the DCGTA is also on record as saying that “ there are a lot of petty political issues in branches that cause the mobilisation of people in the name of service delivery”.  

In July this year Free State premier, Ace Magashule accused  “criminal elements within the ANC” of being involved in violent service delivery protests in that province.

In its 1984 report, the President’s Council recommended unconventional methods such as  security of tenancy on their plots for informal dwellers to allow them to upgrade their structures to something more permanent and valuable.

It is clear that without a holistic strategy, which includes the unconventional ,to come to grips with the process of rapid urbanisation, it is unlikely that South Africa will stem the tide of service delivery protests in the near future.

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