By Wisani Baloyi
As the country grapples with the aftermath of a hard lockdown and its related economic challenges, the pattern of human rights complaints received by the South African Human Rights Commission (the Commission) continues to follow a worrying trend. The 2020/21 Trends Analysis Report (TAR), launched by the commission on July 13, paints a worrying picture of the state of socio-economic condition in the country. Socio-economic rights complaints have now featured among the top three rights violations reported to the commission.
In the 2020/21 financial year, the commission recorded a total of 5 464 complaints; 704 of these related to socio-economic rights. Over the past four years, socio-economic rights complaints have been on a worrying upward trajectory, from 492 complaints in the 2017/18 financial year to 704 in the 2020/21 financial year.
The commission is concerned that socio-economic rights complaints, which include healthcare, food, water and social security, have consistently remained in the top five human rights violations reported to the commission since the 2013/14 financial year. This trend reflects the persistent and severe socio-economic disparities that have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, which are mostly black African people, in particular women and people living in rural areas. There is a strong link between equality and socio-economic rights, particularly that the lack of access to the socio-economic rights exacerbates inequality.
The dire consequences of a lack of access to socio-economic services was highlighted at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lack of access to sufficient potable water, shortages of water and poor water quality – together exacerbated existing inequalities and prevented people from practising essential safe hygiene. Several complaints were received across the country from communities who sought the commission’s intervention to access clean drinkable water.
In Gauteng, one noteworthy complaint received was from the community of Hammanskraal, who complained that they had been receiving contaminated, dirty and foul-smelling water from their taps. Furthermore, that the water was polluted due to the malfunctioning of the Wastewater Treatment Works (WWTWs) of the City of Tshwane. Owing to the wide scale of complaints received in the jurisdiction of the City of Tshwane, the commission decided to hold an inquiry in February 2021.
The commission released the inquiry report in October that year, with key findings and recommendations including calling for the prosecution of municipal managers who allowed pollution to continue through failure to deliver on their statutory and constitutional obligations.
Similarly, in the North West, the commission managed to successfully intervene in 52 complaints on lack of access to sufficient water. Community members sought the commission’s intervention as they were unable to comply with lockdown regulations to practise safety hygiene measures like washing of hands due to unavailability of access to water, thus putting their lives at risk.
Apart from the complaints related to healthcare, food, water and social security, it is important to note that 276 complaints relating to the right to adequate housing were also received. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it became clear that physical distancing would pose a challenge for informal settlements as some communities live in shacks and makeshift housing that lack access to basic services such as water.
Housing investigations conducted by the commission revealed that many South Africans continued to live in structures not fit for human inhabitation despite the clear stipulation in the Constitution and Housing Act that all citizens have the basic human right to adequate, safe and dignified housing. It is the responsibility of the state, at all three spheres of government to provide the necessary resources and to ensure the progressive attainment of this right. Inaccessibility to adequate housing invariably means not having access to other essential services such as water and electricity, both of which are necessary for daily life.
The commission’s research shows that between one in six households in Gauteng metros currently live in makeshift corrugated iron structures and traditional dwellings. This is alarming considering that government has, since the dawn of democracy, pledged to resolve the housing crisis. Part of the crisis is located at the municipal level where service delivery is the primary mandate.
Service delivery challenges
In the execution of its mandate, the commission has noted systemic challenges at the local sphere of government that hinder the attainment and enjoyment of human rights. The 2021 State of Local Government Report by the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs indicated that 64 out of 257 municipalities across the country were dysfunctional, 111 were at medium risk, and only 16 were stable. This dysfunction is rooted in poor governance, weak institutional capacity, poor financial management, corruption and political instability.
The local government audit outcomes report released by the auditor-general in June this year painted a grim picture of the state of municipalities. More than a quarter of South Africa’s municipalities are reported to be on the brink of financial collapse due to non-payment by municipal debtors, poor budgeting practices and ineffective financial management. Only 41 out of the 257 municipalities in South Africa received clean audits.
Lack of delivery of services by municipalities has resulted in frequent protest action in South Africa. According to the SAPS Incident Registration Information System (IRIS), a total of 909 protests took place from August 1, 2020 to January 31, 2021.
On the other hand, the commission, through its provincial offices, has continued to receive a number of complaints on the lack of provision of basic services. In addressing these systemic challenges, and seeking an across-the-board solution, the commission has been holding investigative hearings in provincial offices. These include Access to Water in Limpopo, Allegations of Poor Infrastructure in Public Schools in the North West and an Investigative Inquiry into Service Delivery Challenges within Local Municipalities in Mpumalanga. The commission is yet to release reports from these interventions, with detailed findings and recommendations for implementation by relevant government departments.
Due to the systemic issues related to service delivery at the local level of government, the commission will convene a national conference to deliberate on local government accountability, service delivery and human rights.
The national conference seeks to identify challenges at the local sphere of government, with the aim of enhancing human rights-based service delivery. The conference will offer a platform for the representation of critical voices and role players on the topic of local government accountability.
Given the dire state of local government in the country, it is essential that all role players come together to brainstorm the requisite solutions to urgently address the lack of access to socio-economic rights. In the absence of tangible solutions, the state will be faced with further service delivery protests and a further exacerbation of extreme poverty and inequality.
The National Conference on Local Governance “Local Government Accountability, Service Delivery and Human Rights” will be held from August 31 – September 1 in Joburg.
Wisani Baloyi is the Acting Communications Co-ordinator at the South African Human Rights Commission. His interest is in development communications and rural development.