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]

Human Rights Day Rally, Sharpville, Johannesburg

Eyewitness to Democracy: South Africa

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

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

The May elections in South Africa will be a bellwether for the future of the young democracy  experts from around the globe are weighing in on the possibilities. We at Columbia University wanted to witness this historic moment in history first-hand, and collect field research on the South African political sphere. We traveled to the country and interviewed journalists, academics, civil rights advocates, and local officials to create the South Africa Service Delivery Protest Tracker – a student consulting project for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Throughout our field research, we were interested in three critical questions. How do South Africans feel about the upcoming elections? How does Nelson Mandela’s legacy impact the development of this young democracy? How does South African democracy manifest itself at the local level?

As our video shows, South Africans maintain a sense of guarded optimism about the stability and effectiveness of their government in the lead up to the elections. They still feel very much in touch with Nelson Mandela’s legacy, using it as a guiding light for democracy. And in working to attain democracy, the people of South Africa frequently take to the streets to express their rights and grievances.



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.

Tracking South Africa’s Democracy In Real Time

This article was originally posted on the World Policy Journal and Council on Foreign Relations blogs.

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

We arrived in Johannesburg after 17 hours in the air, with a short, hurried stopover in London. As the airplane doors opened, the scorching 80 degree weather of South Africa’s Highveld greeted us, melting the sub-zero temperatures from recent New York winter memory. The change in weather was cheerful but, as graduate students from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, we were more interested in the changing climate of South African democracy.

We arrived at a crucial and transitional moment in South Africa’s history, beginning on what we hope to be an important project on the country’s democratic future. Following Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, the May 2014 elections will be a bellwether for the future of democracy in South Africa. Whether this election will lead to a more representative and responsive government or increased political divisiveness and turmoil remains an unanswered question.

Our project, the South Africa Service Delivery Protest Tracker, will stand as a resource used to provide information for gauging the strength of South African democracy. To do so, we are focusing in on the country’s service delivery protests. These protests, a legacy of the apartheid era, are organic uprisings that occur with regularity across South Africa when a community feels its right to basic services – sanitation, water, housing, electricity, etc. – are not being met by the government.

The protest tracker is part of a student consulting practicum with John Campbell, former Ambassador of United States to Nigeria and Africa Fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations. His work and the work of many experts inform our new tech-driven project.

For many analysts, service delivery protests are an indicator of the strength, or weakness, of South African democracy. In “Pathways to Freedom,” a book co-authored by Ambassador Campbell, the authors write that civic organizations in South Africa  “now play an important role in agitating for better service delivery, more accountable governance, and policies to address poverty, inequality, and high unemployment.” Protest, a legacy of the fight against apartheid, remains one of the primary tools wielded by these civil society organizations. However, little is known about the character and scale of these protests in aggregate.

The protest tracker will aggregate news articles and other online media sources and subsequently visualize mentions of service delivery protests both geographically and over time. Building upon the methodology the Council on Foreign Relations used to build the Nigeria Security Tracker, we plan to develop an online platform that automates the process of tracking and aggregating data on these protests. The hope is that this tool will be a source of real-time data on protests that will be useful for policy makers, think tanks, journalists, academics as well as the general public.

A search of FACTIVA’s database revealed preliminary evidence that reporting on service delivery protests has been increasing since the early 2000s, with a sharp downturn in 2013. However, this data is limited by internal factors such as FACTIVA’s addition of new sources and external factors like the media’s use of the term “service delivery protest.”

Our field research in Johannesburg, which included interviews with key stakeholders and visits to townships, brought a better understanding of the current media and political environment in South Africa. This new information triggered debate among our team members on some of our project’s underlying assumptions and intended direction

The first aspect we debated was where to get our data. For example, we explored using FACTIVA, a service that aggregates articles from top South African media outlets, web media, trade and consumer publications. This dataset would be used as our baseline – a point of comparison to judge the reliability of the data we collect via the protest tracker.  Through our interviews in South Africa – covering academia, newspapers, non-profit organizations – we realized that FACTIVA’s data may be insufficient as a baseline for our project.

FACTIVA, although covering 28 languages over 35 years, excludes the dominating local languages in South Africa like Afrikaans and Zulu. More importantly, FACTIVA’s data is unreliable when looking for trends over time due to changing reporting patterns and shifting data sources. Relatively little reporting on service delivery protests in prior to 2004 (see graph) may not necessarily indicate fewer service delivery protests during that time because journalists may not have used the term “service delivery protest” as a description.

Moreover, the increasing number of articles mentioning service delivery protests may have more to do with FACTIVA’s addition of new sources than with the country’s political situation. While selection bias may be unavoidable with a methodology that involves aggregating news sources, the effect can be minimized by creating as comprehensive a list of sources as possible, favoring local newspapers, and designing search terms that accurately reflect the most commonly used lexicon in reporting about service delivery protests.

We then were forced to re-consider what exactly our project sought to contribute. We quickly learned of a number of research projects on service delivery protests, involving separate groups which employ similar methodologies: Service Delivery Protest Barometer, ISS Crime Hub, MunicipalIQ, Mail &Guardian, the University of Johannesburg, and Rhodes University. How was ours different?

Soon it became clear that, while these groups tend to be better at recording individual protests, few are open source and most leave the data sources disconnected from the final visualizations. Graphs and visualizations, although comprehensive and full of information, tend to be static snapshots of the data. Our project aims to fill in these gaps by creating an interactive online dashboard that empowers users to look beyond numbers and explore the context behind each data point.

As we begin to develop this platform, many questions remain unanswered. How can we make this project sustainable so that it will live on beyond our semester-long practicum? Can an automated methodology fully capture the complexity of service delivery protests and distribute valuable data? These questions, in addition to concerns over time-constraints and technological solutions, remain unanswered.

This is the first of three dispatches from South Africa covering our work. Follow along as we design a platform to track service delivery protests and report on South African democracy in the lead up to the imminent elections.


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.