IRIN Africa | Southern Africa | SOUTH AFRICA: Rising pressure on govt to deliver quicker | Democracy, Early Warning, Economy, Other | Special
Tuesday 27 December 2005
Latest News
East Africa
Great Lakes
Horn of Africa
Southern Africa
·South Africa
·Southern Africa
West Africa
Democracy & Governance
Early warning
Food Security
Gender Issues
Health & Nutrition
Human Rights
Natural Disasters
Peace & Security
IRIN Films
Web Specials

SOUTH AFRICA: Rising pressure on govt to deliver quicker

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  ANC

President Mbeki is under pressure to deliver on promises the ruling party has made to the poor

JOHANNESBURG, 27 May 2005 (IRIN) - More than a decade after winning power in South Africa's first democratic elections, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) faces increasing pressure to deliver promised social services.

During the past two weeks angry protestors have blocked roads, set up burning barricades, sung liberation struggle songs and demanded that local authorities in the coastal cities of Cape Town in Western Cape province, and Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape province address their needs.

The scenes were a throwback to apartheid-era pro-democracy demonstrations that South Africa has not witnessed for many years. They followed the pattern of similar violent protests by poor people, angry at the slow pace of housing delivery in the central Free State town of Harrismith, where a protesting student was shot dead when crowds clashed with police last year.

The latest developments have caught the attention of President Thabo Mbeki. He told parliament on Wednesday that "nothing that is happening, or has happened in our country, suggests that our new democracy is threatened". But he pointed to "fault lines" in South African society "that can emerge and generate conflicts that we do not need".

One problem area underlined by the demonstrations was the feeling "among some of the poor that, so far, the democratic order has failed them".

The recent protests "reflect and seek to exploit the class and nationality fault lines we inherited from our past, which, if ever they took root, gaining genuine popular support, would pose a threat to the stability of democratic South Africa", Mbeki told parliament.

Ashwin Desai, a researcher at the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the demonstrations were "a genuine cry about the neglect, which is very apparent, and the distance between government and ordinary people".

"The sheer scale and geographic spread [of the discontent] has forced Mbeki to recognise these things as more than a conspiracy [by particular groups] ... they are genuine protests against expectations that the government themselves have created: of free basic services, homes and jobs for all," Desai remarked.

Mbeki conceded that "the recent demonstrations in some of our municipalities suggest that the interaction between the government and the people has not been as effective as it should be".

He told parliament that the heads of government departments were currently reviewing the administration's performance to "determine whether it is working effectively to ensure that no distance or disconnect takes place between the institutions of state and the people".

Ross Herbert, senior researcher and head of the NEPAD and governance project at the South African Institute for International Affairs, told IRIN that Mbeki had actually been "ahead of public discourse in calling for delivery" in previous state of the nation addresses.

Last week the Minister for Public Service and Administration, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, said in her budget vote speech that "we are still faced with strong divides between urban and rural, male and female, rich and poor, white and black, literate and illiterate".

"We are faced with desperate levels of hardship of large sections of our population - one day passing without making progress to a better life is too long. While speeding up delivery, we are expected to radically overhaul the entire machinery of state - such changes are immensely complex and time-consuming," she said.

At the same time the government has trumpeted its successes: providing social grants to more than 9 million people; potable water to 10 million; and extending a free monthly allowance of 6,000 litres of water to 75 percent of the country.

While there was no doubt that Mbeki and his cabinet were aware of the need to improve the provision of social services, the "problem is: what to do about it", said Herbert.

The recent protests over the slow pace of housing delivery and water cut-offs, "dramatises one of the real challenges for the ANC. They have a good core team on core economic policy ... but not a lot of depth, when you get to the level of local councils, in terms of competence and commitment," he commented.

Herbert noted that after the first democratic elections in 1994, "people gave government a free pass, as it were, just on sentiment and because a non-ANC regime is not one people find palatable, but they're asking why things are taking so long".

"A lot of people are looking for free services, and a lot of the violent protests are around pay-as-you-go water and electricity metres - it's a form of frustration, but also a different perspective [on basic services]. Government has not been able to sell to its constituents [the idea] that they need to pay for services," Herbert explained.

Each household is entitled to 6,000 free litres of water per month, and only starts paying once consumption rises above this. Those defaulting on payments have been disconnected.

"The local [council] debt problem is an enormous one; payment for services is directly related to government's ability to roll out new services to others," Herbert commented.

Charles Meth, a researcher at the Department of Social Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told IRIN "it looks as though there are a couple of provinces where water cut-offs are very high, like the Free State, where delivery has been slow, but you also have a high cut-off rate".

"The question is: are the people actually getting that so-called lifeline water supply [of the first 6,000 litres free)?" asked Meth.

Commenting on the recent protests, Herbert said there was a belief that "there is a cadre of well-organised campaigners, who have helped facilitate protests in some cases, but I think the ones in Harrismith [in the Free State, in 2004] seemed to be genuine public expressions of dismay".

"I know some of the groups [involved in the protests] are more left-leaning political groups, and were helping to facilitate and organise these protests in a bid to influence government policy, but I think, nevertheless, it should not be read as though there is not a lot of genuine dissatisfaction at the speed of delivery," Herbert concluded.

Desai pointed out that it was not just delivery, but the sustainability of delivery, that was a problem. "It's one thing to deliver a tap, but then you have to later take away the water supply, or deliver a telephone line, and then later cut it."


Dave Hemson, director of the Integrated Urban and Rural development research programme of the Human Science Research Council (HSRC), has conducted research on the delivery of basic services.

"We had a figure for [water] cut-offs per year, nationally, of 1.2 million. This seems to indicate a reasonable implication that a million a year, over 10 years, have experienced cut-offs," he said.

Beyond the problem with water delivery, Hemson noted that housing had been the main cause of recent protests.

"The number of households is growing quite fast in South Africa, and pressure on housing is enormous. The housing backlog identified in 1994 was somewhere around 1 million households, and about a million homes have been built in the subsequent period, but the number of poor households has gone up enormously; there's a problem, then, in trying to meet that backlog," Hemson said.

According to research conducted by the HSRC, based on projections made on the census figures of 1996 and 2003, the number of households has increased by 30 percent.

This was not so much the result of population growth, but the decreasing size of families, with younger generations moving out of the parental home and into informal settlements.

"What [the research] did show was that, given the overall increase in slums between 1996 and 2001, we project that by 2008 this will rise from 1.9 million households living in slums in 2001 to 2.4 million in 2008," he said.

"So the proportion of the population is more or less stable, but the numbers of households is rising, which is a problem for delivery because it means you have to improve delivery every year to be able to meet the demand," Hemson explained.

The recent protests underlined this. "I think we've got into a period where a lot has been promised and people are hoping they see delivery", Hemson said, but those expectations have been dashed.

In his experience "the people dissatisfied are ANC members", rather than people opposed to the government, "which is an unusual development if you look at any [liberation] movement internationally".

Hemson pointed to government's promise to improve sanitation. "The bucket system, for example, was meant to have been eliminated by next year: the target is for 300,000 households to be provided basic sanitation in 2006 - that was in the state of the nation speech last year. But the first tranche of money to eliminate the bucket system has only been written into this year's budget, so that target evidently is not going to be met," he commented.

These were "very prominent" issues in both the Free State and Cape Town protests.

"All of this comes back to the question of poverty: if people's incomes were rising they would be able to buy or build their own houses. Most people are happy to receive free basics, but they would like to receive a little bit more than that. With incomes stagnant or declining, and our very high levels of unemployment - that's where the tensions come in. People are unable to pay reasonable costs for certain services," Hemson said.

According to Statistics South Africa, a government department, in 1995 approximately 28 percent of households were living below the poverty line; four years later that percentage had escalated to just below 33 percent.

South Africa's high unemployment rate is closely linked to poverty. Between 1995 and 2002 the number of people classified as 'unemployed', according to the narrow definition of those actively seeking work, had risen from just over 1.9 million to over 4.2 million - an increase of over 2.3 million.

Poverty also remains inextricably linked to race in South Africa. The highest incidence of joblessness is found among rural black women, with more than 47 percent out of work, according to a 2003 report, 'Employment and Labour Market Trends'.

The department of labour says the national official unemployment average is 30.5 percent or 4.8 million people, but independent researchers have disputed the department's strict definition of 'unemployed', and some have put the general level of unemployment as high as 40 percent.

 Theme(s) Democracy
Other recent SOUTH AFRICA reports:

World Bank highlights investment challenges,  14/Dec/05

Relations unaffected by spy scandal, says official,  13/Dec/05

UNHCR sees improvements in immigrant detention centre,  7/Dec/05

Zuma's political career unlikely to recover from rape charge, say analysts,  6/Dec/05

Mbeki promises to help nation fight poverty,  2/Dec/05

Other recent Democracy & Governance reports:

IRAQ-MIDDLE EAST: Street children face hunger and abuse, 26/Dec/05

YEMEN: World Bank cuts support by a third citing slow progress, 26/Dec/05

AFGHANISTAN: ADB approves US $55 million for post-conflict country, 23/Dec/05

NEPAL: UN welcomes Maoist statement on aid and development, 23/Dec/05

WEST AFRICA: IRIN-WA Weekly Round-up 309 covering 17 - 23 December 2005, 23/Dec/05

[Back] [Home Page]

Click here to send any feedback, comments or questions you have about IRIN's Website or if you prefer you can send an Email to Webmaster

Copyright © IRIN 2005
The material contained on comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.
All IRIN material may be reposted or reprinted free-of-charge; refer to the IRIN copyright page for conditions of use. IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.