Shocking service delivery in informal settlements

Later this year, on 27 October, the country will vote in local government elections amid service delivery disasters currently crippling municipalities. The recent unrest in South Africa has exacerbated the service delivery interruptions, particularly affecting people in informal settlements. 

During this uncertain time, one might expect that cash-strapped metros would maintain communal infrastructure such as taps and toilets to avoid buying new ones. This would not only make financial sense for municipalities, but also ensure that the rights of residents in informal settlements are protected. Unfortunately, evidence points to the fact that this often does not happen. 

Chapter eight of the Local Government Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000 prescribes that municipalities should give priority to the basic needs of local communities. Therefore, a broken communal tap or toilet in an informal settlement, during a pandemic, is a gross violation of this constitutional right.  

A total of 1 201 residents from 227 settlements responded to questions from the latest Asivikelane 18 — a survey done by a coalition of non-profit organisations focused on giving a voice to informal settlement residents in South Africa’s major cities who face severe basic service shortages.

Across the country, 40% of residents in informal settlements indicated that they do not have access to taps and decent sanitation (toilets) at all. Out of those residents who do have access to communal taps and toilets, 48% using communal taps said leakages were the main issue. Leakages sometimes become runoff water and often pedestrian lanes bear the brunt, progressively eroding into gullies. These trap litter, which prevents water flow, and in extreme cases this makes the lanes almost impassable.

Almost half — 45% — of residents said their municipalities have never fixed any toilets or taps in their communities. One of the pieces in the maintenance puzzle is that officials often blame broken taps and toilets on residents’ vandalism. This may be the reason in some cases, but the poor quality of taps and toilets shared by many people, with little or no regular maintenance, is more likely the cause.

Poor hygiene is not ideal as new waves of Covid-19 push the South African health systems to the brink, and this is exacerbated by scant access to water and sanitation in the country’s sprawling shack settlements that encroach on its cities.

Why are metros not maintaining taps and toilets?

  • Information from the Asivikelane survey shows that more people use these taps and toilets than municipalities realise. Therefore, they require more maintenance than municipalities think they do. 
  • There is no routine maintenance, which means taps and toilets are only ever fixed when they break. 
  • Fault reporting systems in municipalities do not serve informal settlements. These systems often depend on access to airtime, a smart phone, and erf and account numbers. This means that informal settlements are largely excluded from accessing services as most of them cannot afford these luxuries. 
  • Municipalities often outsource maintenance of infrastructure, and the procurement processes are often slow and conducted in an inefficient manner. The survey reveals that contractors often also do not do what they are paid to do, and the metros monitor their work poorly.
  • Crucially, during the engagements with the community volunteers involved in the Asivikelane Campaign, municipalities also attribute the poor maintenance to insufficient budget allocations for repairs and maintenance in municipalities.

As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in communities, there are calls urging the government to be more transparent and accountable to ensure public resources reach those who need it most and to help communities rebuild.

In the short to medium term, routine and proactive repairs and maintenance could save the municipalities money in a fiscally constrained environment.

Interdepartmental co-ordination will undeniably be a challenge and there is a need to engage the department of human settlements and the roads and stormwater department in local government about issues such as unblocking footpaths and roads in some settlements. 

Unfortunately the necessary drive and agility required of the government in times of crisis seems to be lacking and residents will likely continue to bear the brunt of an ineffective administration.

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Chelesile Ndlovu-Nachamba
Chelesile Ndlovu-Nachamba is a community development communicator. She is a Resource and Communication Coordinator at Planact.

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