A key takeaway from the recently released non-financial municipal census is the need for local government councils across the country to prioritize the provision of services to indigent households.
Statistics South Africa publishes the report annually, but the most recent edition is of unique significance as the first to report on the state of municipal governance using data collected after the onset of the Covid pandemic -19.
The report provides an overview of how the country’s 257 municipalities are faring on key aspects of their mandate, including service delivery performance and submission of annual municipal plans. This is a key corollary to the Governance Performance Index produced by Good Governance Africa, which ranked municipal performance in these terms ahead of the 2021 local elections.
With regard to service delivery, the non-financial municipal census studies performance focusing on the provision of water, electricity, sewerage and sewerage, and solid waste management. The report also highlights the extent of municipal coverage of free basic services for the nearly 3.6 million poor households.
What are indigent households?
Indigent households are those who are unable to contribute financially to basic services. The status of indigent household is granted by the municipalities which, on an annual basis, receive and examine the applications sent by the households in their territory.
A crucial aspect of this process is that the resources available to a municipality are a key criterion for identifying and registering indigent households. At present, most municipalities grant destitute status to households earning between R1,861 and R3,720 per month.
The government introduced free basic services in 2001 as a means of helping poorer households. Under this policy, municipalities were tasked with identifying indigent households that would receive free or partially subsidized services.
This policy was in accordance with Article 27 of the Constitution, which recognizes that “everyone has the right to have access to social security, including, if he is unable to support himself and those dependents, appropriate social assistance”. The State therefore bears the responsibility, within the limits of its available resources, to ensure that these rights are progressively realised.
The proportion of unemployed among these households is higher, which prevents them from accessing basic necessities. Without such a policy, many poor households would be trapped in a vicious circle of economic constraints, which force them to choose between essentials such as drinking water, electricity and food.
The importance of this policy is all the more evident given the legacy of apartheid’s uneven development, which still haunts the former homelands and major metropolitan areas. The provision of free basic services to indigent households is therefore a cornerstone of the concept of ‘developmental local government’ set out in the 1998 Local Government White Paper.
Deterioration in the standard of living
Worryingly, the non-financial municipal census suggests that living standards have stagnated and, in some cases, seen reversals in recent years. Following the release of the report, media scrutiny was applied to the fact that almost 5,000 more households had to use bucket toilets in 2020 compared to 2019.
The story in terms of overall service delivery to indigent households is equally worrisome if we look at trends over the past decade. Between 2010 and 2015, there were significant reductions in the proportion of indigent households without access to free basic services such as waste removal, water and sanitation.
But, as the graph shows, the proportion of indigent households lacking assistance in the four critical services has either stagnated or, in the case of access to electricity and sanitation, increased between 2015 and 2020.
As these reversals in the living standards of indigent households were occurring, the auditor general’s office reported that irregular spending by municipalities exceeded R20 billion in each financial year from 2016-17 to 2020-21. This is one of the reasons why Good Governance Africa’s 2021 Governance Performance Index has identified administration as the category with the weakest municipal performance.
It is also not surprising that among municipalities where the supply for indigents is minimal, we find a lower rate of submission of annual integrated development plans.
The links between inadequate service delivery and negative outcomes in health, education and poverty levels demonstrate the interwoven nature of governance failures and remind us of the long-term consequences of inadequate planning and financial malfeasance. in municipalities.
At the end of 2021, newly elected local councils took office following an election that saw record voter registration, record turnout and a record number of suspended councils.
One explanation for these results is the low level of trust in local government. Before the election, Afrobarometer reported that only 24% of South Africans trusted their local councils. This is much lower than the continental average of 43%. It is also less than the trust that South Africans have in other institutions, including the president, parliament, courts and police.
So what can these newly elected local government councils do to rekindle the confidence of South Africans?
Prioritizing and providing to needy households would be a good start. This is more important than ever given the additional economic pressures that Covid-19 lockdowns and rising inflation have placed on these families.
To do this, local leaders need to focus on three things: fighting corruption in municipal offices, eliminating waste, and improving their identification of needy households.
In recent years, the share of national expenditure allocated to local authorities has decreased. Irregular spending and corruption exacerbate these trends as less money is spent on fulfilling the real mandate of local government, including providing free basic services to all needy households.
Thus, cracking down on corruption and reducing financial mismanagement in municipal offices are necessary steps to ensure that the resources needed to provide free basic services are effectively available.
This is related to the problem of identifying indigent households because the number of indigent households approved by a municipality is limited by that municipality’s capacity to supply.
There are other practical constraints on the ability of municipalities to identify indigent households, particularly to reach residents of remote rural areas and densely populated urban areas. This makes it more difficult for municipalities to inform poor and disadvantaged households about the process of applying for indigent status.
To mitigate these issues, municipalities must be proactive in using the information that the 2022 national census will provide regarding the quantity, location, and accessibility of potentially indigent households.
Although full national census results will not be available until 2023, new local councils can start the process by developing a strategy using existing information such as the national census questionnaire. Some municipalities already do this but the practice needs to be generalized because it can facilitate the process of getting households to ask for help.
The responsibility for all these initiatives does not lie solely with the local councils; they need national and provincial help to design a recovery strategy for municipalities in financial difficulty. But local municipalities have an important role to play in helping development across the country.
At the end of the day, local government remains the level of government that most often deals with people. Therefore, any attempt to rebuild South Africans’ trust in their government begins with the municipalities. By providing essential assistance to needy households, local councils can ensure they lead this process.
Pranish Desai is a Data Analyst in Good Governance Africa’s Governance Analytics and Analytics Program. Leleti Maluleke is a researcher for the human security and climate change program at Good Governance Africa.