The two faces of service delivery in South Africa

In early July, Statistics South Africa released the Community Survey 2016. This survey is intended to be a supplement to the 2011 census and is based on interviews with roughly 1.37 million households in South African (+/- 9% of South Africa’s population).

On the one hand, the statistical picture presented is encouraging. In 2016, 74.4% of households in South Africa had access to water either inside their dwelling, or inside the yard, and 80% of households had access to adequate sanitation.

Between 2001 and 2016, the number of households who had their refuse removed at least once a week increased from 55.4% to 61%, and the number of households with electricity (and who use it for lighting) increased from 69.7% in 2001 to 90.3% in 2016. Notably, 79.2% of households are now living in formal dwellings, up from 68.5% in 2001.

However, one of the newer approaches in this survey was to ask households what they considered the main problem or difficulty facing the municipality in which they live. The results of this are relatively perplexing, and seemingly contradictory to that found by the ‘objective’ questions in the survey. Specifically, in South Africa the five main challenges identified are as follows (and shown in the diagram below):

  • lack of a safe and reliable water supply
  • lack of or inadequate employment opportunities
  • the cost of electricity
  • inadequate housing
  • violence and crime.
Service delivery

Five leading challenges facing municipalities presently as perceived by households by province, as percentage of all main challenges, CS 2016 (Source: Statistics South Africa 2016)

The findings regarding safe and reliable water supply, and the issue of inadequate housing, are particularly contradictory given the high and increasing number of households living in ‘formal houses’ and the number of houses with access to adequate water. However, this might not indicate a contradiction, but rather that we are asking the wrong questions regarding housing and service delivery.

For example, with regards to housing, there have been several studies of subsidy houses that have challenged the quality of housing product delivered. A study done by Narasi et al in 2013 found that RDP houses in Durban were only marginally less crowded than informal dwellings (+/- 4.2 occupants per a room), and levels of dissatisfaction were roughly the same for informal dwellings and RDP houses with regards to dwelling, kitchen and bedroom size, and also on issues of overcrowding, noise and crime. This was similar to the findings of Kang’ethe and Manomano 2015, who found that residents of RDP houses in their study area perceived their dwellings to have poor quality roofs (72% of respondents), windows (74%), walls (76%), toilets (58%), floors (72%) and doors (82%); as well as finding a general dissatisfaction with dwelling size (80% of respondents). (See also the studies by Manomano and Tanga 2015, Molla et al 2015 and Public Service Commission 2003, all of which arrive at similar conclusions to the aforementioned studies.)

With regard to water, the issue seems to be less clearly understood and more nuanced. One dimension of the reliability crisis seems to relate to the time it takes for the municipality to fix breakdowns in water supply. In one study in Limpopo, it was found that the municipality took around three to five weeks to restore the water supply, and on average the system broke down twice a year. The other issue is the effect that water storage and transfer devices (buckets, tanks, etc.) have on water quality. Specifically, the containers used to store and transport water can result in the contamination of drinking water.

In short, while many more households in South Africa in 2016 may now have access to water, and have a ‘formal’ house, in most respects it appears that these interventions have had less than the intended effect on improving respondents’ lot in life.

Seemingly, the emphasis has been wrong with regards to both water and shelter provision, and a major rethink of government policy for both these sectors is now required. There is also an urgent need to rethink the standard survey approach in South Africa, specifically to change the focus from access to water and formality of houses and rather to investigate the quality and reliability of water provision and the adequacy of shelter provided. Only then will we have a true picture of household quality of life in South Africa, and be able to measure ‘true’ progress in this regard.


Stuart Denoon-Stevens is a professional planner, a junior lecturer at the University of the Free State, and a researcher focusing on municipal land management, with a particular emphasis on pro-poor approaches.

Photo: Ablution block in a container. By Hagen von Bloh in South Africa (via flickr user SuSanA Secretariat).

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One Response to “The two faces of service delivery in South Africa”

  1. Steven kgobe

    South Africa has to focus on development than renovations because we suffer service delivery a lot


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