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Monday, December 4, 2023

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Widespread service delivery protests hamper our society’s progress

Residents in a service delivery protest. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

Residents in a service delivery protest. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Oct 8, 2023


By Tswelopele Makoe

THIS past Wednesday, October 4, residents of District Six were in an uproar after blocked drains and burst pipes left their homes damaged.

Sewage, raw faeces, and dirt streamed into their homes, leaving many of the residents displaced. In fact, many of the residents had to stay in hotels and alternative accommodation.

This incident is not only affecting the lives of innumerable citizens, but also exacerbating the housing crisis and socio-economic strain that people are already undergoing.

It is truly devastating that, as the year draws to a close, and the joyful holiday season ensues, masses of people will still be contending with the resultant damage of this event.

Lack of service delivery is not unique to Cape Town – it is rampant across the country.

By definition, service delivery refers to the provision of basic services. These include, among others, electricity, clean water supply, functioning roads, street lights, health services, refuse collection, traffic controls, sewage disposal and maintenance.

Local government through municipal infrastructure is responsible for ensuring the provision of these services. Without the consistent provision of these fundamental services, the quality of life in our communities and our living conditions would rapidly decline.

This would further lead to the decline of resources, and dwindling job opportunities. Additionally, this would affect access to shelter, food, and health care, leading to widespread malnutrition, as well as poor physical and mental health.

In our highly unequal post-apartheid context, underprivileged South African communities bear the brunt of poor basic service delivery, particularly where water, sanitation and electricity are concerned.

Over the past decade, South Africa has experienced a proliferation of service delivery protests aimed at local municipalities for their perceived lack of provision of basic services.

People are angry, and people are frustrated. As time goes by, these protests magnify, not only increasing in participation and occurrence, but also in intensity.

As a result, they become more violent, dangerous, and destructive. In 2022 alone, the SAPS was present at about 2 455 protests.

There were 122 service delivery protests in the first half of 2023 alone. The first 32 protests, recorded in January, were a direct response to the rolling blackouts as a result of Eskom’s power cuts as well as water outages caused by load shedding.

The rampant power outages have not only resulted in the disruption of business operations and productivity, but they have also impacted schools, workplaces, the banking industry as well as vital household routines that require electricity.

This has left countless people scrambling for alternative sources of power, many of which are unaffordable and inaccessible.

Another challenge to contend with during load shedding is the amplification of criminal behaviour. In the dark, criminals tend to roam and enact crimes more easily, particularly because of a lack of light and working security systems.

Furthermore, communities are unable to take evening walks and travel freely, and as such the quality of life is highly compromised in many communities. Ultimately, the deterioration of basic services leads to the escalation of various societal challenges and compounds our societal problems.

In South Africa, a nation deeply riddled with economic disparities and socio-economic inequalities, the failure of public services has had a rampant effect.

With a poverty rate of over 60%, the stratified cost of living, coupled with poor service delivery, and compounded by crime and corruption, has left the nation highly discontented.

These challenges amplify the daily struggles of South African citizens, further impeding their access to employment, and to agricultural resources, as well as vital services and other resources.

This year marks 29 years since the advent of democracy, yet millions of citizens of all ages are still struggling to access proper infrastructure, proper sewerage and refuse disposal, clean water, proper toilets, homes, and electricity, among others.

Due to the high unemployment and poverty rate, scores of citizens remain dependent on the government for these services and provisions. In fact, the government refuses to recognise and acknowledge the need for these services in many rural areas and informal settlements.

Countless citizens are disempowered and remain unheard, and as such, the rise in service delivery protests is unsurprising and inevitable.

As South African socialist and scholar-activist Dr Trevor Ngwane reflected: “For the grass to burn, it must be dry.” People are disheartened, and the needs of the society have completely overburdened the fibre of the nation.

Kevin Allan, the managing director of Municipal IQ, referred to service delivery protests as a “regularly occurring and firmly entrenched social phenomenon”.

We need to ensure that we are tackling this issue not only at a governmental level, but also at an institutional and social level.

We should not minimise the power of protests as a tool for change. Echoing Ngwane’s sentiments in an SABC News interview: “The failures of the present government have turned poor South Africans into communities of protesters… the lack of service delivery has forced ordinary poor citizens to go to the streets in order to be heard, because no one hears them otherwise.”

Perhaps this is why South Africa is dubbed by some as the “protest capital of the world”. This not only speaks volumes about the state of our society, but the anguish that is embedded in our society as a result of a defunct system.

Service delivery is not only about the provisions that are pertinent to the survival of a society. It is about the crucial role of the local municipality in supporting household empowerment and promoting a stable society.

The role of service delivery is a crucial one that promotes social equity, drives economic development, and maintains political stability, environmental sustainability, fostering public trust, and enhancing accountability and transparency.

It seems that service delivery is only made a national focus during election times, where it is partnered with elaborate empty promises. We need to start addressing service delivery with the seriousness that it deserves, understanding its direct impact on the empowerment of the individuals in our society, and its power to construct a formidable society overall.

As former UK prime minister Gordon Brown once tactfully said: “The vision of personalised public services – meeting the individual needs of all our citizens – requires continuing reform in the way services are delivered.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a gender activist. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.