Basic services: why the challenge for South Africa is so great


L’Access to water or electricity, garbage collection, possession of toilets. Basic and essential services that scare people in South Africa. For a month the candidates for the municipal elections have all been chanting the same refrain: They will know how to make things better. Promises that South Africans are finding increasingly difficult to believe, and with good reason: the situation has hardly improved in twenty years, sometimes even declining.

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Less than half of South Africans have running water in their homes

Some figures from the General Household Survey (GHS) from 2019 testify to this (the one from 2020 has not yet been published due to the epidemic). According to him, only 58.8% of households benefit from weekly garbage collection, compared to 65.4% in 2016. 85% of households have access to electricity and 88% to running water, but only half of them in their homes (44.9%).

Those who have access to these resources are not spared from all problems: due to faulty grids, water and power outages are becoming more frequent in the country. A quarter of South Africans witnessed a disruption in their water supply in 2019, compared to 20.3% in 2018.

On the occasion of the elections, the news portal News24 compiled an index of municipalities that were rated according to their performance. Among the indicators: access to these basic services, investments, hidden expenses or debt. The finding of the “Out of Order” index is clear: the situation is not brilliant. More than half of the communities report that more than 50% of households live in poverty. In 101 of them (out of 257), residents have no access to running water at all.

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Power outages: a daily nuisance

Eight o’clock in the evening, in a residential area of ​​Johannesburg. Suddenly, the hum of the refrigerator stops, the lights go out, and an entire neighborhood is suddenly plunged into darkness. Power failure. Or rather : load shedding, i.e. a planned decommissioning to “let go of the ballast”. Everyone in South Africa knows this word. That load shedding sometimes take place daily, as in the last week before local elections, when Eskom, the national electricity generation company, announced it would ” Level 4 » (step 4), ie without electricity for all 7 hours a day. The reason: The corporation has pumped up its reserves and is dangerously approaching total failure. His solution: Ration electricity for everyone by spreading the effort and reclaiming a margin of safety. In addition to these planned outages, unplanned power outages are common.

For the past decade, the state-owned power generation company, which is expected to supply more than 90% of the country, has struggled to keep up with demand. Despite its fifteen coal-fired power plants, Eskom does not produce enough energy. This is due to aging infrastructure, ailing power plants and a poorly maintained network, as well as cable theft (wanted for its copper) and massive debt. Corruption is no stranger to Eskom’s financial woes: the utility is at the heart of the Zuma affair, with questionable contracts that have cost it more than €10 billion, nearly half its current debt.

The experts are not very optimistic about the near future: in their opinion, the load shedding will be continued regularly for at least the next five years. Some are therefore calling for the switch to renewable energies, others see the rehabilitation of the power plants as a priority and more and more voices are calling for the increased use of private energy suppliers.

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Harmful consequences for the economy

These recurring premature blackouts, coupled with poor management by local authorities, are costing the South African economy a great deal of money. According to a report by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), between 60 and 120 billion Rand (ie between 3 and 7 billion euros, while the country’s GDP is 260 billion euros) for the year 2019 alone.

Both private individuals and companies suffer from this poorly maintained infrastructure, as the Clover dairy group cites as an example in a research note published by the Bureau for Economic Research (BER) in mid-October. Due to frequent water and power cuts, he finally announced in June that he would close his cheese factory in Lichtenburg, 200 kilometers west of Johannesburg, the largest in the country. Clover denounced the community’s lack of effort in the face of excessive losses. Around 330 people are expected to lose their jobs in the region.

Another big company, Astral Foods, has decided to go to court after an estimated annual loss of €3.5 million. The affected municipality was commissioned in 2018 to improve its infrastructure. After two years with no noticeable improvement, another ruling ordered the national government to intervene.

South African cities spend on average just 2% of their budget on infrastructure repair and maintenance, a far cry from the recommended 8% achieved by only four cities in the country.

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Half of the communities threatened with collapse

The annual report on municipalities’ accounts for the 2019-2020 financial year, presented in June, showed that many of them were already on the brink of collapse before the Covid crisis. Regarding a quarter of them, Auditor General Tsakani Maluleke expressed “serious doubts that they will be able to continue working in the near future”. She added that she had not seen the warnings of previous years being heeded. The risk of collapse affects 87 out of 250 communities, according to the government, a figure rising to 130 according to the out-of-service index compiled by News24.

Although the ANC claims to have significantly improved local government governance over the past twenty years, the figures continue to show the opposite. That load shedding imposed on the country on the eve of the elections will certainly not work in its favour.

The Electoral Commission announced on Thursday October 28 that 394 polling stations in the rural region of the Eastern Cape have to be lit by candles or electric lamps as they are not connected to the electricity grid. Quite an icon.

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