Last year ended on a high note politically, with the sense that Cyril Ramaphosa may lift the gloom over the capability of the South African state. However, the challenges of corruption and state integrity cannot be underestimated, and a review of the immense effort required to change things after apartheid is a reminder of how much work has gone into the postapartheid transition. Two key books published late last year, Crispian Olver’s How to Steal a City and Jacques Pauw’s All the President’s Keepers reminded us how important it is to protect and build on SA’s achievements of 23 years, and to identify where further reforms can and must be made.

This theme is taken up in Building a Capable State – Service Delivery in Post-apartheid SA, published by UCT Press/Juta, which provides a critical assessment of the record and capacity of government in the areas of service delivery that affect the everyday lives of residents. The analysis in the book is a reminder of the costs of corruption, given how hard it is to turn the machine of government around. The assessment looks across the whole country and explores the institutional and financial framework within which municipalities function to provide household and settlement services. The post-apartheid period is divided into three phases that reflect growing disillusionment and discontent:

  • The new democracy (1994-2000): freedom and reorganisation;
  • Making it work (2001-08): growth and implementation; and
  • The ailing nation (2008 onwards): slowing economy and disheartened citizenry.

In the first phase of democracy the biggest challenge, once the political transition was in place, was to transform the institutional landscape, both to make existing institutions more democratic and to set up new institutions of service delivery. In fact, it was largely about transforming existing institutions, as capable, albeit undemocratic, institutions existed in the form of urban local authorities and some state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and the water boards. The mandate of these institutions had to be radically reoriented to include previously marginalised and underserved black citizens.

The post-1994 years did more than try to equalise the terms of service provision; they brought innovative new policies and legislation, including our constitution, which generally served us well over the following decades. The full transformation of local government had to wait until 2001, when “making it work” became the priority of state reform. New metros and a new two-tier structure of local and district municipalities were established, including in parts of the country that under apartheid had no effective local government. The option of deracialising existing administrations could work for urban areas, but in the rural areas of the former bantustans (or homelands) new administrations had to be built from scratch.

Looking back at the 2001 to 2008 period, the state across all spheres of government did “make it work” in the sense that there was a rapid increase in delivery of services: water supply, sanitation, electricity and roads most notably. Housing delivery, in terms of number of units delivered, was remarkable. But there was growing concern about the capability of local government to manage the resulting infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. The two-tier structure of local government outside the metros was also showing inefficiencies.

In understanding state capability in this second phase, it is necessary to look at service provision by sector. In the case of water and sanitation the phase started with strong political and administrative leadership from what was then the water and forestry department. Civil society was an active participant in rural areas, in the form of water committees which, in many places, took responsibility for operating and maintaining local water supply systems. The sector was backed by international partners, which, along with the department, supported rural municipalities.

The electricity sector had a bipolar nature in the 2001-08 period. On the positive side, urban municipalities and Eskom rapidly increased access to electricity by households, a major achievement by international standards. On the other hand, the national minerals and energy department infamously delayed the implementation of new power generation plants, which resulted in the power shortages post-2010.

The Department of Transport also contributed to economic inefficiency through the lack of attention to planning and implementing public transport interventions in metros. Although the 2010 Soccer World Cup served as a stimulus for planning bus rapid transit systems, the passenger rail system languished, and cities are left with underdeveloped public transport systems, rescued significantly by the minibus taxi industry.

The housing sector certainly did “make it work” over the 2001-08 period, with 320,000 new housing units provided per year, 220,000 under the RDP public housing programme. Individual households in rural areas built on average 50,000 houses a year, largely without support from the state or from the formal housing finance sector. While shortcomings related to the effect on city spatial efficiency of this large-scale housing programme have been recognised subsequently, the scale of housing delivery over this phase remains remarkable.
The year 2008 was a momentous year in South African history. The international “great recession” started biting and Jacob Zuma displaced Thabo Mbeki as president. With a slowing economy and corruption increasingly evident, the country entered an ailing phase. While SA retained a sound local government fiscal framework and financial transfers continued to flow to local government, service delivery slowed. It is not possible to pinpoint all the contributing factors, but increasing costs of infrastructure coupled with decreasing technical capacity in municipalities and the national entities supporting them, are likely to have been the major contributors. As the “ailing nation” phase progressed, collective morale declined, stifled by economic stasis and evidence of state capture.

In looking at this last phase, it is evident that poor governance has been the major cause of our ailing condition. This, in turn, has caused a decline in administrative capability, with the biggest concern from the point of view of infrastructure-intensive services being deteriorating technical capability. Over the past 10 years there has been a decline in the number of engineers in local government and this is coupled — with a strong causal relationship — with a decline in capability of national entities supporting local government. For example, in the Department of Water and Sanitation the number of engineers dropped from 350 in the mid-1990s to 80.

Perhaps the most significant indicator of state incapability is the condition of water supply services in rural areas. For example, in Limpopo in 2011, 63% of households had access to piped water in the sense that a piped system was in place. But 80% of these piped systems were not properly operational, resulting in interruptions lasting longer than two days at a time, with many people having taps that work intermittently.

So, considering the postapartheid period as a whole, do we have a capable state? In the book the conclusion is: yes, but.… The reason for the “but” is largely explained above: poor governance, particularly over the past decade, has inhibited economic growth and slowed service delivery, especially in the old bantustans.

There is some reason for optimism at the start of 2018, but it will require dramatic follow-through of change politically, backed by improved public sector administration and increased commitment to development by the private sector and civil society. Even without the imperative of keeping corruption at bay, huge effort is required to ensure state capability.

For more than two decades many thousands of South African politicians and public servants have made it their business to ensure that service delivery improves on the dismal record of apartheid, and it is essential that this commitment be continued and encouraged.

• Palmer is an adjunct professor at the University of Cape Town, attached to the African Centre for Cities. He is co-author, together with Nishendra Moodley and Susan Parnell, of: Building a Capable State – Service Delivery in Post-apartheid SA.

This article by Ian Palmer was first published on BusinessDay on 23 January 2018.