Informal settlement Indlovu, in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Picture: DAVID HARRISON
Informal settlement Indlovu, in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Picture: DAVID HARRISON

SA’s 5-million residents of informal settlements still dream of the services other South Africans take for granted. Over the past six weeks the Asivikelane campaign (“let’s protect each other” in Zulu) has reported that many residents still share communal toilets that are not regularly cleaned, queue for insufficient taps that are not repaired when they break, and tolerate refuse removal that depends on the whims of the truck driver. This endangers the lives of these residents daily, and during a pandemic, the lives of all South Africans.

Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic has suddenly catapulted the fate of informal residents to the top of local governments’ agendas. In the past weeks the department of human settlements has delivered 41,000 water tanks, and local governments has mostly found money to fill them. The National Treasury found more than R5bn to allocate to informal settlement services, and some metropolitan municipalities are finding innovative ways to distribute hand sanitiser and clean shared toilets daily.

This is a good start, but what is the recipe for ensuring that the government begins to satisfy informal residents’ urgent, basic needs at scale, beyond the current crisis? How do we heed Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “make sure this crisis doesn’t go to waste”? And how do we ensure we don’t revert to the status quo of neglect and disdain after the crisis and indeed waste this “opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible” (the rest of Emanuel’s quote)?

More money alone will not solve the problem. Reading just one auditor-general report shows that pouring more money into the leaky bucket of local government service delivery systems will not translate to better services. Heightening the challenge is that the institutions that are meant to fix the bucket — councils, public accounts committees and the auditor-general — have not managed to do so.

That is where the Asivikelane campaign comes in: it helps those closest to the problem, informal settlement residents, to monitor the delivery of services themselves and begin a dialogue with the government to ensure scarce public money goes to those who need it most, and is spent efficiently.

Here is how it works: every two weeks residents are asked three simple questions and reply by text message: was water available every time you needed it? Were toilets cleaned in the last seven days? Was waste collected in your settlement in the last seven days? The results are collected by Asivikelane partners and the results used to engage local and national governments directly to improve services. The results are also reported on social media using red, orange and green traffic lights.

This growing network already covers 165 informal settlements in five metropolitan municipalities and 10 smaller towns. Asivikelane partners include IBP SA, Planact, Afesis-corplan, the SA SDI Alliance, Development Action Group, Social Justice Coalition, Grassroot and Social Change Assistance Trust.

Recently a municipal official contacted one of the partners of the Asivikelane network trying to find out why his municipality still reflected orange in the traffic lights of the biweekly Asivikelane publication, even after that municipality had delivered water tanks to informal settlements. When we followed up with community leaders it was discovered that in one settlement water tanks had been delivered but not yet filled with water. In another settlement residents reported that there were still not enough water points for the number of households in the settlement and that existing taps were broken. The municipality dealt with these problems.

In this way the campaign has built a platform for informal settlement residents to communicate severe water, sanitation and refuse removal shortages during the Covid-19 crisis. Some national and local governments have responded well and fixed service delivery problems. Others have found excuses to keep ignoring the pleas of the poorest. Nonetheless, we are continuing to grow the network so that other communities join the campaign — and we are able to apply pressure for better services for many more informal settlement dwellers.

The government’s recent budget acrobatics shows that there are significant resources hidden in the budget system, and through Asivikelane informal settlement residents are helping the government make the best use of tight budgets. But the five loaves and two fishes are likely not to be sufficient and more public money will have to be invested in informal settlement services. Perhaps improved efficiency in service delivery will convince the rest of us to make the tax sacrifices needed to change the fate of the one in 10 South Africans who still live in squalor. The Covid-19 crisis has hopefully taught us that we are all in this together.

Makwela is senior programme officer at Planact, and Van Zyl director of IBP SA.