Service Delivery: How About Real Equitable Distribution of State Revenue to Less Endowed Municipalities?

municipalities ngos local government service delivery
Wednesday, 7 July, 2010 - 11:36

South Africa should prioritise municipalities when allocating resources in order to address the imbalances created by the apartheid regime. Equal distribution of resources to local governments, especially those in the rural areas, will also go a long way in helping municipalities to improve the way in which they offer services. In addition, lack of funding and managerial capacity will make it difficult for local governments to utilise and account for money spent

Promises, promises! The South African voting public has been promised a great many things. Adequate housing, access to water, electricity, sanitation, education, health care, decent transportation, economic opportunities - in short, a ‘better life for all’. Large parts of the population suffer from unemployment, hunger, deprivation and fear (Bhorat and Kanbur, 2006). They lack access to the very basic necessities that will improve their lives and make it possible for them to create a better living environment for the next generation of citizens. In effect, the constitutional commitments to basic rights like equality and dignity are negated by the living conditions a large number of South African citizens find themselves in (Desai, 2002).

In many deprived places across the country, angry urban protest reminiscent of the 1980s has exploded (Atkinson, 2007). These took a turn for the worse in May 2008 when foreign immigrants, but also South African ethnic groups such as Shangaan and Venda, were attacked and displaced from various townships around the country. Blamed for reducing job and other economic opportunities for South African citizens, their stores were burnt, their shops looted and their belongings stolen. Some analysts argue that this is only to be expected given the poor levels of service delivery which is at the heart of the government’s effort to ‘create a better life for all’. Patrick Bond (2000) and John Saul (2005) indicate that the next struggle for liberation must evolve in order for true emancipation and freedom to take root.

The neo-liberal economic paradigm, which was adopted post 1996, has so stifled the African National Congress’ capacity and willingness to redistribute resources that there is, seemingly, no alternative but to engage in the politics of protest and opposition again to force the government into action. Others, such as Alan Hirsch, would disagree with this perspective arguing that what is forgotten in these critiques is how far the government has actually moved in bringing about socio-economic change and transformation (Hirsch, 2005). Hirsch and the defenders of current government policy argue that the country’s economy required liberalisation and right-sizing before the massive task of addressing the legacies of apartheid could even begin.

Why is there a problem with service delivery? There are several possible answers to the question as to why service delivery in South Africa is so uneven and so very poor in some municipalities. There are three main hypotheses and explanations prevalent in the South African academic and policy debate: the politics of funding and a lack of funding for deprived communities; problems inherent in the institutional design and structure of governance as well as the implementation of policy; and, a lack of social capital.

Politics of Funding

Only a concerted effort by the central state can address the resulting inequities (Everatt and Maphai, 2003). Decades of neglect, active discrimination, forced migration and uneven development rooted in the desire to concentrate wealth on urban centres on the backs of migrant workers are the root cause of the current state of poverty and inequity (Bhorat et al, 2006). These imbalances can only be addressed by a commitment to spending on behalf of central government that will bring about economic growth in such neglected areas.

Urban and metropolitan municipalities, due to their more central role in administration and the existence of a local tax base in terms of property taxes and industrial activity, tend to receive funding at adequate levels, whereas under-developed rural areas tend not to receive adequate funding from the provincial and national government (Makgetla, 2007). This disparity then mirrors itself in the continued incapacity of rural municipalities to address pressing educational and infrastructural issues (Bond, 2002). Some argue that the cause for the malaise in local government lies in the neo-liberal economic policy direction taken by government from 1996 onwards. It is indeed undisputed that the poor, under or unemployed have not benefited from redistributive policies promised by the government. This is most obvious in the economically depressed regions and the rural hinterlands of the country.

Neva Makgetla argues that without substantial redistribution of government that the poorer municipalities do not receive a proportionally larger share of government grants, in fact they received smaller subsidies and grants, and since they do not have any form of additional income in terms of rates and taxes, they are condemned to remain economic hinterlands. This demonstrates that while previously disadvantaged households have made some gains in the period since 1994 in terms of water, sanitation and electricity connectivity, they still lag far behind with their suburban counterparts.

National Treasury figures show that the poorest municipalities in the country spend an average of R146.00 per resident whereas the most affluent municipalities spend an average of R3 637.00 per resident. As long as this kind of inequity persists, people will be forced to migrate to the urban areas, thereby increasing the pressure on urban and metropolitan resources. A cycle of depression and under-development is in motion that can only be broken if there is a major re-orientation of spending.

Institutional Design and the Incapacities of Local Municipalities

As long as central government policies are not coordinated sufficiently and then implemented carefully through the administrative apparatus down to the local government level, the current crop of problems will emerge and entrench themselves. And these problems range from incompetent administrators, to non-responsive decision-makers, to corrupt officialdom.

Even in well-functioning municipalities there are signs that corrosive developments are taking place and need to be addressed with some urgency. One of the recent Transparency International Reports on South Africa notes that it only dealt with corruption at the national and provincial levels of government, but indicates that the level of corruption at the local level exceeds that of the two tiers above (Transparency International, 2005:116).

The author states: “The intervention of the national government in the Eastern Cape province is an example of how things were allowed to deteriorate to unacceptable levels. Equally, we know little about what is happening in South Africa’s local government, where the capacity to implement and to monitor implementation is not what is should be.”

Besides the lack of funding, municipalities can only perform as well as the administrators in charge. In those municipalities where there was a lack of managerial capacity the local authorities find it difficult to actually spend correctly and account for the money they spend. Not only does such a situation lend itself to abuse, particularly in impoverished communities where the position of a councillor or municipal manager opens up the possibility of creating patronage networks, it encourages unaccountability and non-transparent decision-making where citizens are ignored by small political elites whose sole purpose quickly becomes to establish means of self-enrichment.

The Lack of Social Capital

Good or bad governance is directly related to the strength of civil society and the resulting forms of ‘social capital’ that are stored up in the relationship between government and social organisations (Saul, 2005). Civil society organisations, such as sports clubs, cultural associations, business groups, working class societies and others, develop certain forms of trust towards one another. This trust (often then referred to as social capital) translates into better relations to the government institutions as people have built up the necessary skills to negotiate and reach agreements with one another as well as with the state bureaucracy.

This argument is based on the work of Robert Putnam in a study of why local government seems to function so much better in Northern Italy and so much worse in Southern Italy (Putnam, 1993). An application of Putnam’s analytical framework suggests that ineffective governance is a direct result of the lack of social capital in South Africa. The rather worrisome conclusion from Putnam’s work is that it is unlikely that post-colonial societies will have built up sufficient levels of social capital to perform well. In South Africa there is an indication that there is a vibrant ‘civil society’ in place in the country, but that civil society organisations crucial to the development of ‘social capital’ are few. Many of the organisations founded as part of the anti-apartheid struggle simply faded into obscurity and have not been replaced by other vibrant community organisations (Cherry, 1999). The lack of such a conduit between ‘society’ and ‘government’ would be interpreted by Putnam as one of the principal causes of local governmental failure.


Government has not treated municipalities equally. The distribution of spending per resident varies enormously with the metropolitan areas and richer district spending is up to 30 times more than a poor municipality (Makgetla, 2006). Moreover, poorer municipalities have not had equal access to government grants for infrastructure and other high priority spending to the extent that more affluent municipalities have had. However, the government’s Fiscal and Financial Commission developed a scheme for municipal spending, the Local Government Equitable Share Formula (LES), which is designed to address this issue and should produce greater equality in spending patterns in years to come (Josie et al, 2006). The envisaged positive impact is yet to materialise.

There is strong evidence to suggest that spending patterns discriminate against the rural and poorer communities and reform of the allocations made to local government is needed. Should the LES fulfil its aim in equalising spending, then that reform may prove to be sufficient to deal with the financial aspects of service delivery. However, increased spending will not automatically address the issue of poor service delivery! Increased spending, by itself, is unlikely to solve the institutional hindrances to better service delivery, especially in the rural and poverty-stricken areas of the country.

Furthermore, administrative skills, particularly on budget matters but also in terms of technical skill levels (construction, maintenance, and so forth), are in short supply. Many of the municipalities do not fill important technical vacancies and therefore cannot acquire the necessary skills to discharge their role as providers of service. There are, however, municipalities that function well and there we find competent administrators and managers in place who take the commitment to public service seriously. These municipalities are often able to draw from experienced staff contingents that existed prior to the municipal government reforms.

The effort by government to turn local government into the agent of economic development has led to an unfortunate situation where certain political factions have taken control over municipal governance and are using this platform to foster their own self-interest. As a result, a lack of responsiveness to citizen grievances and outright nepotism and corruption are already widespread phenomena and need to be addressed urgently if they are not to spill over into great social and political unrest.


  • Atkinson, Doreen and Lochner Marais, (2006). “Urbanization and the future urban agenda in South Africa”, in Udesh Pillay, Richard Tomlinson, and Jacques du Toit, (eds.), Democracy and Delivery: urban policy in South Africa, Cape Town: HSRC Press.
  • Bhorat, Haroon and Kanbur, Ravi (2006) (eds.). Poverty and Policy in post-apartheid South Africa, Cape Town: HSRC Press.
  • Bond, Patrick (2002). Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Progress, Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.
  • Cherry, Janet (1999). “Traditions and Transitions: African political participation in Port Elizabeth”, in Jonathan Hyslop (ed.), African Democracy in the era of globalization, Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand Press.
  • Desai, Ashwin (2002). We Are the Poors: community struggles in post-apartheid South Africa, London: Monthly Review Press.
  • Everatt, David, (2003). “The Politics of Poverty”, in Everatt, David and Maphai, Vincent, (eds.), The Real State of the Nation: South Africa after 1990, Braamfontein: Interfund.
  • Hirsch, Alan (2005). Season of Hope: economic reform under Mandela and Mbeki, Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
  • Makgetla, Neva Seidman, (2007). “Local government budgets and development: a tale of two towns”, in S. Buhlungu, J. Daniel, R. Southall, J. Lutchman (eds.), State of the Nation: South Africa 2007, Cape Town: HSRC Press,
  • Putnam, Robert (1993). Making Democracy Work, Princeton: Princeton University Press
  • Saul, John, (2005). The Next Liberation Struggle: Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy in South Africa, Scotsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

- Thabile Sokupa is Project Coordinator at Afesis-corplan. This article was first published in the April-May 2010 edition of The Transformer and is republished here with permission from Afesis-corplan.

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