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S. Africans Increasingly Impatient at Slow Service Delivery

A recent survey has found that some 27 percent of South Africans are dissatisfied with services delivered at the local government level, a finding born out by ever more frequent protests across many areas of the country. This week saw protests in Kliptown, Soweto - the site of the 1955 Congress of the People where a document calling for human rights for all South Africans was adopted. Delia Robertson reports from our bureau in Johannesburg.

It is a sound almost obscenely incongruous for what is hallowed ground in post-apartheid South Africa. Rubber bullets being fired at protesters in Kliptown, Soweto: the site where in June 1955 the Congress of the People adopted a Freedom Charter in defiance of the apartheid government. The document that 40 years later, in 1996, was the sub-text in almost every paragraph of the country's constitution, now regarded by many as one of the best in the modern world.

And it was about some of the most basic promises in the Charter that the residents of Kliptown were protesting this week: "All people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security; Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built . . ."

Over the past several years in South Africa there have been hundreds of protests, about housing, poor infrastructure, corruption, poor health facilities, and more. The Kliptown demonstration is about what residents consider a failure by the government to deliver on its promises of proper houses to replace informal settlements.

Life in Kliptown is not good, one protester told national television.

"And we think if he [Johannesburg Mayor] Masondo can come around in Kliptown . . . not to come to the shop in Kliptown and say Kliptown is OK. Kliptown is not OK," he said.

In fact there has been much progress in delivery at the local level in South Africa. Eighty-three percent of South Africans now have potable water on tap . . . up from 59 percent in 1994. Basic health care services are available in hundreds of rural communities, where previously there was none. And, says Lucius Botes of the University of the Free State, millions of houses have been built.

"It is not often in other countries in the world where you have seen a government manage to roll out 1.5 million houses," Botes said.

Botes, co-author of a soon-to-be-released report of a study into the reasons and lessons to be learned from the protests, says that good news aside, at the local level government is often weak and sometimes rudderless. Most importantly, he says, local governments are failing at the basics, in their communications with the people they have been elected to serve.

"Is the point of service delivery also a point of efficiency? Be it where you meet your councilor, your political representative or where you engage with at an administrative level, in other words any front line official," Botes said. "So it is all about how responsive is the service and the client interface we bring to our people and I think that is where, in most cases, it went wrong."

Botes says poor communications often result in representatives and officials appearing to be arrogant and disinterested. This is exacerbated he says, by the failures of many local authorities to introduce any performances evaluation measures.

"In the six or seven cases that we have studied, we could not detect a single one, where there was a proper complaints system institutionalized, no effective complaints management system; nobody could tell you the number of complaints in the system, what are the nature of the complaints," Botes said. "Also [there is] very little evidence where people tried to measure service delivery, in other words client satisfaction type-of-service, nothing."

The impact of the protests is becoming more severe. While most protests have been peaceful, more and more are resulting in violence. And while most are short, a few hours, a day or perhaps two, some have dragged on for weeks or even months.

When that happens, such as in Khutsong near Johannesburg, the impact is felt deep in the community. Overall service levels deteriorated, payments of rates and utilities plummeted, and many businesses suffered losses. And because teachers and students have become involved, there has been no education in Khutsong since April.