A key takeaway from the recently published Non-Financial Census of Municipalities (NFCM) is the need for the nation’s newly elected local government councils to prioritise service delivery provision for indigent households. Statistics South Africa publishes the report annually, but the most recent edition is of unique importance as the first to account for the state of municipal governance using data collected after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A street vendor walks past a barricaded community electricity box in Protea Glen, Soweto on July 14, 2022. Photo: Phill Magakoe/AFP

The report provides an overview of how the country’s 257 municipalities are doing on key aspects of their mandate including service delivery performance and the submission of annual municipal plans. It is a key corollary to the Governance Performance Index (GPI) produced by Good Governance Africa (GGA), which ranked municipal performance in these terms ahead of the 2021 local elections.

Regarding service delivery, the NFCM investigates performance focusing on the provision of water, electricity, sewerage and sanitation, and solid waste management.  The report also highlights the extent of municipal coverage in free basic services for the nearly 3.6 million indigent households in the country.

What are indigent households?

Indigent households are those which are unable to make monetary contributions towards basic services. Status as an indigent household is granted by municipalities, who on an annual basis receive and review applications sent by households within their boundaries.

One 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 indigent status to households earning between R1,861 and R3,720 per month.

The South African government introduced Free Basic Services (FBS) in 2001 as a means of helping poorer households. As part of this policy, municipalities were tasked with identifying indigent households that would receive free or partially subsidised services.

This policy was in line with Section 27 of the South African Constitution which acknowledges that “everyone has the right to have access to social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants, appropriate social assistance”. The state therefore bears the responsibility, within its available resources, to ensure that these rights are progressively realised.

There is a higher proportion of unemployment among these households, preventing them from accessing basic necessities. Without such a policy, many indigent households would be trapped in a vicious cycle of economic constraints which force them to choose between essentials like clean water, electricity and food.

The importance of this policy is even clearer given apartheid’s historical legacy of unequal development, which still haunts former homeland areas and large metropolitan townships. Provision of free basic services to indigent households is, therefore, a cornerstone of the concept of “developmental local government” articulated in the 1998 White Paper on Local Government.

Worsening living standards

Worryingly, the NFCM suggests that living standards have stagnated, and in some cases seen reversals in recent years. In the wake of the report’s release, there has been considerable media scrutiny applied to the fact that nearly 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 similarly disturbing if we examine trends over the past decade. Between 2010 and 2015 there were meaningful reductions in the proportion of indigent households without access to free basic services such as waste removal, water and sewerage.

However, as the figure above shows, the proportion of indigent households which do not benefit from assistance in the four critical services either stagnated, or in the case of access to electricity and sewerage, increased between 2015 and 2020.

While these reversals in living standards among indigent households were happening, the Auditor-General’s office was reporting that irregular expenditure by municipalities exceeded R20 billion in every single financial year between 2016/17 and 2020/21. This was one reason why GGA’s 2021 GPI identified Administration as the category where municipal performance is weakest.

Nor is it surprising that among municipalities where indigent provision is minimal, we find a lower submission rate of annual Integrated Development Plans (IDPs).

The links between inadequate service delivery and adverse outcomes in health, education and poverty levels demonstrate the interlocking nature of governance failures, and remind us of the long-term consequences of inadequate planning and financial malfeasance in municipalities.

The scale of the challenge

In late 2021 newly elected local councils across the country entered office in the aftermath of an election which witnessed record low voter registration, record low voter turnout and a record number of hung councils.

One explanation for these outcomes 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 South Africans have in other institutions including the president, parliament, courts and the police.

What then can these newly elected local government councils do to revive the trust of South Africans?

Prioritising and delivering for indigent households would be a clear start. This is more important than ever given the additional economic pressures which Covid-19 lockdowns and rising inflation have placed on these families.

To do this, local leaders need to focus on three things: tackling corruption in municipal offices, eliminating wastefulness, and improving how they identify indigent households in the first place.

In recent years, the share of national expenditure allocated to local government has been declining. Irregular expenditure and corruption worsen these trends since less money is spent on fulfilling the actual mandate of local government, including delivering free basic services to all indigent households.

So, a crackdown on corruption and reducing financial mismanagement within municipal offices are necessary steps for ensuring the resources needed for delivering free basic services are actually available.

This is connected to the problem of identifying indigent households because the number of indigent households approved by a municipality is limited by the capacity of that municipality to provide.

There are other practical constraints on the ability of municipalities to identify indigent households, especially in terms of accessing residents in remote rural areas and in densely populated urban areas. This makes it harder for municipalities to inform poor and disadvantaged households of the application process for indigent status.

Mitigating these problems requires municipalities to be proactive in making use of the information which the 2022 census will provide regarding the quantity, location and accessibility of potentially indigent households.

While the full results of the census will only be available in 2023, new local councils can begin the process by developing a strategy using existing information such as the census questionnaire. Some municipalities already do this, but the practice must become widespread as it can aid the process of getting households to apply for help.

The responsibility for all these initiatives is not solely with local councils as they need national and provincial assistance in devising a turnaround strategy for financially distressed municipalities. However, local municipalities do have a significant role to play in aiding development across the country.

Ultimately local government remains the level of government which most frequently deals with ordinary citizens. Therefore, any attempt to rebuild the trust South Africans have in their government begins with municipalities. By delivering essential assistance to indigent households, newly elected local councils can ensure that they drive this process.

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Pranish Desai is a doctoral student in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His core areas of focus are in comparative politics and political methodology, with a specific interest in the politics of Southern Africa. Between 2021 and 2024, Pranish held several key positions within the Governance Insights and Analytics programme at GGA. In these roles, he was centrally responsible for the elevation and enhancement of the Governance Performance Index as GGA's flagship governance assessment tool. Before departing GGA, Pranish also played a key role in the development of our strategic framework for the 2024-2028 period.

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Leleti Maluleke is a Researcher for our Human Security and Climate Change programme. She completed her Bachelor of Political Science in Political Studies in 2017, and her Honours in International Relations in 2018 at the University of Pretoria. She started her career at International SOS in the Security Services department as a Political Risk and Security Intern. Socially, her countries of interests include Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.