What Does “Service Delivery” Really Mean?

This article was originally posted on the World Policy Journal blog.

By Le Chen, Janice Dean, Jesper Frant, and Rachana Kumar

“Service delivery” is a common phrase in South Africa used to describe the distribution of basic resources citizens depend on like water, electricity, sanitation infrastructure, land, and housing. Unfortunately, the government’s delivery and upkeep of these resources is unreliable – greatly inconveniencing or endangering whole communities. In response, the number of “service delivery protests,” or protests demanding better service delivery, have become more popular in recent years. So popular, in fact, that the term “service delivery protest” has become a loosely used term by the media to define various types of protests.

We traveled to South Africa to develop the South Africa Service Delivery Protest Tracker, a unique online application that tracks and maps service delivery protests in real time, ahead of the country’s election. In order to so, we needed to find out how to distinguish service delivery protests from other protests and examine why they were happening.

Through our visits to townships and encounters with protesters, we were able to begin to answer these complex questions and shed some light on how the phrase “service delivery” is used in the vernacular of South Africa.

Our first stop was the Alexandra Township, once known as the “Dark City” due to its lack of electricity. Established in 1912 and located about 15km from the center of Johannesburg, Alexandra is lively with a vivid social culture and is a good window into township life. As one of the most densely populated areas in South Africa, Alexandra also encompasses many of the problems associated with township living. With almost 70 percent unemployment and poor infrastructure in areas like sanitation and electricity, there is dire poverty and high crime rates.

When we arrived in Alexandra on March 21, we joined up with a group of volunteers from South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC). The day we arrived was Human Rights Day, a celebration in remembrance of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, which took place a day after demonstrations against the Pass laws. These pass laws were a form of internal passport system designed to segregate the population which severely limit the movements of the black Africans.

One of the ANC volunteers invited us to join them in Sharpeville, a township nearly an hour away by car, for Human Rights Day celebrations. During the drive, the ANC volunteer, a life-long resident of Alexandra, told us about his everyday struggle for basic services. He explained to us why the residents needed to protest. He said besides services, jobs were their biggest issue. He is unemployed and feels voiceless. The only way to express their grievances are through these protests.


 A service delivery protest in Standerton, South Africa.

Sharpeville is the epicenter of the country’s Human Rights Day celebration. In spite of the grim history of Sharpville Massacre, the atmosphere was festive with a lot of singing and dancing (see our video blog). Though the focus was on Human Rights Day celebration, conversations and speeches were peppered with mentions of  service delivery, showing how citizens see access to basic services as a basic human right. During the celebration, we talked to various participants about the service delivery industry, mostly focusing on housing,water, and power shedding. They said corruption within the local municipality has led to prolonged lack of delivery of sanitation, water, electricity and decent housing.  In addition, in President Zuma’s address to the crowd he promised to better the service delivery system. However, despite frequents mentions of service delivery rights; it was still unclear to us how hey plans to do so, or what “service delivery” actually meant.

Sometime after the Sharpeville celebrations, we came across a large crowd of about 200 people, clad in red T-shirts, holding banners that read, “Smash false solutions,” “Decent work + living wage. NOW,” and “Create work through worker Cooperatives.” The gathering, organized by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), was protesting against the Employment Tax Incentive Act. The Act encourages private employers to hire young workers by providing a tax incentive to employers, with government sharing the costs of such employment for a maximum of two years under certain conditions.

In response to NUMSA’s protest, General Secretary Irvin Jim said, “the protesters felt that the working class is forced to subsidize capitalists, while tax incentives are not reducing high levels of unemployment.” When we asked the protesters if job creation is a responsibility of the government, the majority responded yes. This again refers back to the question of what constitutes service delivery? Does it simply refer to basic services such as sanitation, water, housing, and electricity or does it also include employment, or the right to a job?

From our anecdotal experience we learned that “service delivery” is not universally defined. Such linguistic challenges have significant implications in our ability to best track the various protests. Should our tracker capture every broad mention of “service delivery,” or should it focus on a distinct definition? The talk of service delivery is pervasive in the political discussions of South Africa—the term may be overused or over-reported on. While this realization complicated our research, it ultimately was revealing and allowed us to witness the excitement and vibrant nature of South African democracy.

Le Chen, Janice Dean, Jesper Frant, and Rachana Kumar are Master of Public Administration students at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs. They are working with Ambassador John Campbell. The project was made possible by faculty advisor Professor Anne Nelson.

For full background on the project, check out the related blogs, “Tracking South Africa’s Democracy In Real Time,”and “Eyewitness to Democracy: South Africa.” 

[Photo courtesy of Kim Ludbrook/EPA and Jan Truter]


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