What does “Service Delivery” actually mean?

‘Service Delivery’ is a hot topic in South African life. Read on to find out what it entails and what you can do to demand accountability for it and ensure that it gets done.
What does “Service Delivery” actually mean?

“Service delivery” ... a hot topic in South African life. What is it? How is it done? Who does it best? How do we improve? When will it be done? These are questions that swirl in the minds of South Africans who all want their lives to be as stress-free and as hassle-free as possible. But what does it actually entail?

In this piece, I will use the national and provincial Departments of Human Settlements – which are responsible for delivering affordable and accessible low-cost housing – as an example to demonstrate the obligations of government to realise this constitutional right, and to show where it has failed and how it can improve on its goals.

By way of example: Housing

According to a conference paper by researchers from the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Construction Management and Quantity Surveying, four million “households” were provided with RDP homes between 1994 and 2014.

As South Africans know, corruption in the public sector is rife, especially so under the African National Congress (ANC). The RDP housing programme is no different. With municipal councillors allegedly being involved in the reselling of RDP houses for money, and administrative incompetence by government officials in ensuring that beneficiaries receive their allocation, dare I say that this sounds like an ordinary South African day.

However, the corruption, incompetence, and the apparent lack of respect that officials have for the most vulnerable and needy are not ordinary.

Beneficiaries of government-sponsored free housing deserve a place that they can be proud to live in. They expect a quality product. Yet, as the above-mentioned paper notes, all too often, common failures include poor construction; and poor location, and the conditions in which people are compelled to live are often characterised by unemployment and rising urbanisation, and widespread abuse of property.

The authors cite reports of roofs, walls, doors, floors and windows that are mostly poor standard as most are reported to be crumbling, pulling off, breaking without any external influence, but due to poor material and workmanship. This lines up with research compiled by the Centre for Risk Analysis that shows roughly 22% of inhabitants of RDP houses complain about the quality of the work done. It suggests that nearly a quarter of all units built show shoddy workmanship. And this despite the Constitution stating that all citizens deserve access to “adequate” housing.

The then-Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, announced in late 2020 that her department would stop providing South Africans with free homes – “it will free up land, but beneficiaries will have to build their own structures”. In a country where nearly half of the population live below the food poverty line and  rely on government-provided services, and where homelessness is a top election campaign issue, the national department responsible for housing has let these people down. Land is not a house.

The difficulties of addressing socio-economic rights

With regard to the lack of service delivery, as the late John Kane-Berman noted, the inclusion of socio-economic rights in the Constitution (under which housing falls) was probably one of the worst things the ANC could have done, particularly given its ideological obsessions. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) opposed the inclusion of these rights, not because it opposed socio-economic upliftment, but because it foresaw the difficulties that would arise. How much would be considered enough socio-economic upliftment? And what about the costs?

The IRR, which  advocates small, effective government as a better alternative to massive state intervention, notes that large-scale public spending invariably places unnecessary burdens on taxpayers, and that benefits to society are undermined when the public purse is raided by unscrupulous political elites – a costly problem,  as the State Capture Commission Reports have revealed. Doubts about the ANC’s emphasis on socio-economic rights arises chiefly from the governing party’s Marxist ideology and its conviction that redistribution rather than economic growth is the key to the success of individuals.

More clean governance, please!

The ANC deserves congratulations for its successes in massively extending services to people – the majority – who were denied them under Apartheid. From around 2007, however, corruption, obsessive ideology and mounting dysfunction guaranteed that service delivery failures mounted. The implications extended beyond the public service: corruption in the public sector has repelled investors and partners. This is why it is crucial to instil the ethic of clean governance, bound by the rule of law.

If the rule of law was strong and unwavering, there would be no reports of the police asking property developers to work with construction mafias. This not only impacts property development in the country, but foreign investment and access to housing, plus the services that come with it. South Africa’s wider economic development is central to providing services to the most vulnerable, most obviously in the jobs that a thriving construction sector, unimpeded by criminal threats and protected by effective policing could provide, giving people a chance to earn an honest living, keeping their families out of poverty and away from criminal activity. This is why the enforcement of the rule of law and job-creation are so important. Employed individuals’ tax contributions help to pay for the services used by those who cannot afford them. A textbook definition of altruism.

If the government cannot reasonably protect the socio-economic rights of their citizens as the Constitution promises, the public must hold it to account. Our elected officials are humans, and they make mistakes,  but this does not annul the importance of accountability, which is the cornerstone of democracy. Being hostile to accountability is akin to being hostile toward the public itself. Many voters understand this very well, hence the outcome of the November 2021 Local Government Elections, in which many poorly run ANC-controlled municipalities were rightly punished for their failure in service delivery and protecting citizens’ socio-economic rights. Democracy works both ways: if you can be voted in, you can just as easily be voted out.

Don’t be fooled

A majority of South African voters support the ANC because of its role as a liberation movement, and because of the record of its earliest administrations as a government of service delivery. But as voters, we should be aware of electioneering tactics, especially with regard to service delivery and socio-economic rights. South Africans are entitled to services; do not let a political party hijack state projects, as seen here, where the Minister of Transport is showing off a government initiative, yet all the functionaries, including the President, are dressed in ANC regalia. It is their duty to provide access to services. Your freedoms are attached to those rights. Your future is attached to those rights. Elections, democracy and freedom are a serious business.



Cover image source available here.

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