/ 5 August 2022

Local government must prioritise indigent households

Sewage Buckets 4307 Dv
No service: People living in Mamafubedu in the Free State must carry full sewage buckets to the veld and empty them there. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

One key takeaway from the recently published Non-financial Census of Municipalities is the need for the nation’s 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. 

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 produced by Good Governance Africa, which ranked municipal performance in these terms ahead of the 2021 local elections. 

Regarding service delivery, the non-financial municipal census 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.  

What are indigent households?

Indigent households are those that 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 a month. 

The government introduced free basic services 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 Constitution, which acknowledges that “everyone has the right to have access to social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, 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 such as clean water, electricity and food. 

The importance of this policy is even clearer given apartheid’s 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.

(John McCann/M&G)

Worsening living standards

Worryingly, the non-financial municipal census 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. 

But, as the graphic shows, the proportion of indigent households that 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 from 2016-17 to 2020-21. This was one reason Good Governance Africa’s 2021 Governance Performance Index 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. 

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.

In late 2021, newly elected local councils entered office in the aftermath of an election that had 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. Prior to 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 recent years, the share of national expenditure allocated to local government has been declining. Irregular expenditure and corruption exacerbate 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 in 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 reaching 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 the 2022 national census will provide regarding the quantity, location and accessibility of potentially indigent households. 

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

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

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

Pranish Desai is a ​data​ analyst in the governance insights and analytics programme at Good Governance Africa. Leleti Maluleke is a researcher for the human security and climate change programme at Good Governance Africa.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.