from Africa in Transition

South Africa: What Does "Service Delivery" Really Mean?

May 15, 2014

Blog Post

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Civil Society


This is a guest post by Le Chen, Janice Dean, Jesper Frant, and Rachana Kumar. They are Master of Public Administration students at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs. They are working with Ambassador John Campbell on a graduate practicum project, which was made possible by faculty adviser Professor Anne Nelson. A version of this post appeared on the World Policy Blog.

“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, has increased in recent years. So much so, in fact, that the term “service delivery protest” has become a catch-all term in 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 tracked and mapped service delivery protests in real time, ahead of the country’s elections on May 7. One of our research questions for the trip was to determine what distinguishes service delivery protests from other protests, and to examine why they occur.

Our first stop was the Alexandra township, once known as the “Dark City” due to its lack of electricity. Alexandra is now has 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.

After Alexandra township, we visited Sharpeville. It was March 21, Human Rights Day, a celebration in remembrance of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, which took place a day after demonstrations against the Pass Laws. A volunteer at the celebration 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 is through these protests.

Sharpeville is the epicenter of the country’s Human Rights Day celebration. Though the focus was on the Human Rights Day celebration, conversations and speeches were peppered with mentions of service delivery, showing how citizens see access to basic services as a human rights issue. 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 what “service delivery” actually meant.

We also attended a protest by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) 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. 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. The talk of service delivery is pervasive in the political discussions of South Africa—the term may be over used or over reported. While this realization complicated our research, it ultimately was revealing and allowed us to witness the excitement and vibrant nature of South African democracy.