Service delivery – Looking back but going forward?

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Looking back but going forward? 2 decades of democracy, 20 years of service delivery?
Professor Anne Mc Lennan (Associate Professor, Research Director, Wits P&DM)

Recent events and newspaper headlines speak to a growing frustration with an apparent lack of democratic accountability and service delivery on the part of government. These are evident in growing numbers of service delivery protests, many of which are violent. MunicipalIQ suggests there have been 733 major service delivery protests since 2004, of which 70% were violent. These are not new practices. They were learned in the heat of the struggle against the apartheid state which was as much about delivery as about rights.

“Residents in the area say they still suffer from high rentals, poor homes, evictions and a high rate of unemployment. “Evictions take place during the day when tenants are at work,” a committee representing Vaal residents told Weekly Mail.”
Mona Badela ‘Twenty-eight years later Sharpeville bleeds again’ Weekly Mail, 18 March 1988.

“Hundreds of dwellers from an informal settlement within the Protea South area in Soweto began protesting against a lack of housing, sanitation and electricity … “Our councillor lives in that luxury. It is easy to see why services are taking a lifetime for us. It is hard to trust the government, hence we have to resort to these measures just to be heard,”….”

Khuthala Nandipha “Chaos on Soweto streets as protests continue” Mail and Guardian, 9 Aug 2013.

A quick read of the quotes above could lead to the easy assumption that they were written recently, not 25 years apart, as the protest rationale (inequality, exclusion and unemployment) and strategy (demand and (sometimes) destroy) are similar. These practices, honed in struggle, are steadfast strategies for citizens feeling voiceless and betrayed or frustrated with their living conditions and realities. The recent protests speak of decaying infrastructure, erratic delivery, corrupt leadership, police brutality and broken promises. The ideal of ‘a better life’ that rang loud in the heady days of the new democracy seems distant from the dusty streets of South Africa’s informal settlements and remote rural villages.

Service delivery is so fraught because the stakes are high. Delivery is not simply about the efficient and effective distribution of goods to citizens, it is about the complex and challenging task of development (as social justice and growth). Service delivery is so highly politicised because it contains a paradox from the transition to democracy. On the one hand, it is a continuing crisis as the structural effects of apartheid disrupt government’s ability to develop, compete and meet demands. On the other hand, it is a redistributive route to development for those previously denied the rights and benefits of citizenship. In this way, the delivery process is strongly associated with development and the developmental state is associated with the capacity to provide social justice.

Since delivery is associated with development, the stakes of non-delivery are high. Most state-driven delivery processes are about who gets what, when, in what ways and for what reasons. Defining access is central to this process. However, an emphasis on access gives primacy to distribution. This in turn leads to an obsession with the mechanics of delivery (skills, systems and management) rather than outcomes. In highly unequal societies, service delivery has to do more than redistribute existing resources or provide entry rights. The expectation is that delivery will also shift entrenched poverty and inequality (by providing access to services and employment). When this does not happen, citizens, with democratic rights and many expectations, demand change using strategies that have been tried and tested. In these conditions, service delivery needs to address not only issues of access, but the institutions (habits and practices) and social norms that condition people’s ability to control lives and livelihoods.

Looking back to the long lines of people that formed to cast the first vote for majority rule democracy in South Africa in April 1994, the progress made is remarkable. The first decade of democracy was characterised by real and symbolic change in a range of policy and service delivery areas. Almost every aspect of the public service delivery system was subjected to review and revision. A new Constitution guaranteed human rights, democratic governance and promised efficient delivery of services. As democracy deepened in the second decade, the challenges of delivery showed more sharply. A growing tide of popular protest saw urban communities claiming the benefits of democracy, using protest as a means to secure survival where democratic process has failed. These protests reflect the tensions implicit in managing the shift from a politics of struggle to one of delivery in a highly unequal, dynamic and democratic context.

In the first decade of democracy (1994 to 2004) South Africa was forced to negotiate social development within a global economic policy framework focused on securing economic growth with minimal state intervention. Added to this was the challenge of transforming a racially fragmented and unequal public service delivery system into one which would meet demands from a newly franchised citizenry. The legacies of apartheid, combined with poor budgetary and financial management, a massive backlog in basic services and infrastructure, racial and regional inequalities in provision, limited opportunities for social development and expanded delivery. In addition, the delivery system was fragmented, authoritarian, hierarchical and rule-bound. The strategy adopted by government was to reconstruct by expanding access to services and then to modernise public service systems to improve implementation. The relationship between state and citizen shifted from collaborators in the early years to clients and customers as government redefined its role in delivery.

While the first five years of government focused on building the rainbow nation by transforming apartheid infrastructure and policy revision, the second five years were about implementation. Despite achievements made in only five years of democracy, including a continuous flow and indeed expansion of government services to the majority of South Africans and the establishment of a new state delivery system, many remained poor and excluded. Entrenched racial inequalities, combined with decades of poor education and regional underdevelopment, proved difficult to shift and a strategy focused on the modernisation of delivery systems and introduction of efficient management techniques was introduced to expand access to the poor. This was built on the assumption that delivery could be improved with more effective and efficient public services. Strategies included the introduction of performance management, budget and financial controls and regulated reporting.

South Africa moved into a second decade of democracy in 2004 with great promise and a focus on development through social protection. Democratic practice was well established and evident in a strong civil society, independent media and judiciary and dispersed centres of power in business, trades unions and others. This hard-won, but delicate, democratic framework offered opportunities to recognise mistakes and correct policies, structures and implementation. Many interest groups, lobbying for particular policies, or avenues of implementation, used this framework, and the Constitution, to secure services.

The introduction of social grants made possible by improved economic growth and successful revenue collection significantly improved the living conditions of the poor. The government began to explore the notion of the developmental state as an option to manage the ever-present demand for social development and relief for the poor, with managed economic growth. The development and approval of the National Development Plan (NDP) provides a long terms vision of what a developed South Africa would look like. The citizen is no longer a recipient of services provided by government, but a co-producer, working with government to build the society. However, this assumes that citizens are able and enabled to contest and define their lives and livelihoods.

Despite concerns to improve access to social services, a stressed global and local economy led to growing dissatisfaction with the quality and cost of services provided. In addition, citizens felt less able to influence policy and practice which affected their lives. The traditional democratic routes were insufficient to deal with the crisis. Citizens seem to have lost faith in political process and vehemently demanded the space to voice their demands. COSATU embarked on rolling mass strike action in July 2008 to protest increased electricity tariffs. A range of social protests over the following years exposed the challenges of managing delivery in unequal and resource constrained contexts. Protests increased threefold in 2009, peaking in 2012, with the Marikana massacre. The first two months of 2014, which marks the 20th year of democracy, have seen consistent and violent protests over lack of water, housing, electricity and corruption. Government seems less able to deal with these protests and nine have died from the resulting action.

It seems that the protests demonstrate not only a loss of faith in the ability of government to deliver, but also in politicians to meet their mandates. A common assumption is that poor delivery is a consequence of poor management. Improving the system will therefore improve the output. This is partially true, however, it as much an issue of ability (the right systems and skills) as it is of will (to build the country). These can easily be seen as challenges implicit to democratic process. Democratic governance suggests a reciprocal relationship between elected officials, the public service and citizens. Citizens elect politicians; politicians decide policy; and the public service implements. Public servants account to the executive. The imperative to deliver effectively, embedded in the democratic promise of re-election, is a strong motivator. In democracies, delivery buys votes by improving public value, while accountability buys legitimacy by showing how things are done.

There is reciprocity in this process making weak democratic politics as much a cause as system failure. People make demands because the impression is created that poverty is only the product of governance failure. There is a need for active and open social engagement to mobilise citizens to work with government to achieve a common goal of creating a better life for all, rather than rally short-term political gain for patronage. This is the central difference 20 years into democracy. A simplistic assessment of protests as frustration with service delivery, fails to recognise the importance of enhanced accountability through active mobilisation. The current danger is that populist politics will lead to further positional contestation between elites rather that actively address the democracy/delivery paradox. The manner in which political parties respond to protests determines whether the democratic space opens or closes. Will these frustrations be used to secure future positions, deepening patronage and closing the space for contestation? Or will people be mobilised to change their social and economic space?

Managing the democracy/delivery interface will be the defining balancing act for government if it aims to deliver a prosperous, equitable and free society as per the NDP. Will the poorest of the poor be better served by centralised or local systems? Will these systems be focused on serving citizens or building patronage? While improved systems and professional bureaucratic practice is necessary, it is not sufficient if citizens feel increasingly unable to control their lives and livelihoods. While larger systems may bring economies of scale, they may further erode local participation. Localised delivery may, however, further entrench inequalities as communities are required to take responsibility to securing lives and livelihoods without the requisite support, skills or resources.
The government will have to continue to manage the politics of competing demands resulting from institutionalised inequalities and the promise of democracy. This will play out partly in the choices political parties make as they context the upcoming elections. Democratic popularity does not secure delivery, particularly in a context of inequality, scarce resources and limited economic growth. But stable, able political and bureaucratic leadership with moral purpose will. If the formal democratic process limits the space for civil participation, the people themselves will create the space for engagement. They will continue to use methods of social protest to demand and access services that are increasingly remote. The extent to which they do so depends on whether the country continues to look back while trying to move forward. This future is in the hands of all South Africans.

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– By Professor Anne Mc Lennan (Wits P&DM), SABC