SA Constitution protects our rights

26 March 2014

Phumla WilliamsAs we celebrate Human Rights Month, South Africans are again reminded of how different our country is today compared to two decades ago. Today we are a progressive country with a Constitution which protects fundamental rights such as access to water and adequate housing.

For many decades under apartheid the provision of basic services was distorted. In rural areas, black people were denied access to clean water, sanitation and electricity, while in urban areas, services for black people barely met their basic needs with power outages being commonplace. 

Apartheid planning also ensured that the majority of South Africans lived far away from economic opportunities. By the 1980s, housing for black people was rapidly deteriorating further and was insufficient for the growing demand. This was worsened by the lack of municipal services and growing illegal informal settlements.

When the first democratically elected government came into power in 1994, they faced a mammoth task to redress imbalances in services and housing. Since then South Africa has made steady progress in rolling out basic service delivery, especially in areas which were deliberately excluded by the apartheid government.

With the understanding that basic services provide dignity, improved living standard and ensure better health, pro-poor policies were implemented to provide vulnerable households with free basic water and electricity.

Now after twenty years of freedom, we have a good story to tell particularly insofar as the provision of water services is concerned.  The recently released  South Africa Twenty Year Review 1994–2014 recognises our achievements, stating that access to a basic level of water increased from just over 60 per cent of households in 1994/95 to over 95 per cent of households in 2011/2012. Access to a basic level of sanitation increased from just over 50 per cent of households in 1994/95 to 83 per cent in 2011/12. These achievements ensured that we met the relevant Millennium Development Goals seven years ahead of the 2015 global target – a truly remarkable achievement.

The Twenty Year Review also emphasises our successes in other service delivery areas. It states that households with access to electricity increased from just over 50 per cent in 1994/95 to 86 per cent in 2013/2014, while access to a basic level of refuse removal reached 72 per cent in 2013.

Another area where we have a good story to tell is in building sustainable communities andcreating housing opportunities. According to the Twenty Year Review, by1994 the housing backlog was estimated to be 1.2 million, while 1.5 million households were living in informal houses in urban areas.

Since then government has delivered approximately 3.7 million subsidised housing opportunities for the poor, giving a home to approximately 12.5 million people. Most of these beneficiaries were women. Through legislation, government also ensured that many low-income homebuyers could access housing finance loans from banks.

Collectively government and the private sector built 5.7 million formal houses, increasing the number of people living in formal housing from 64 per cent in 1996 to 77.7 per cent in 2011, which represents a growth of 50 per cent.

The Review also points out that we have now reached a point where for the first time black South Africans outnumber their white counterparts in terms of home purchases in suburban areas.  It adds that this is a strong indication that progress is being made with regard to the racial integration of our cities and towns.  

While South Africa is a much better place to live in now than it was before 1994, we are mindful that more work remains to be done.  Government is adamant that every household must be connected to the electricity grid by 2020. Every South African should also have access to safe water and hygienic sanitation before 2030.

Furthermore, we will continue to apply our minds to overcome apartheid spatial development patterns, which artificially divided our people. Work also continues to ensure that all households have access to adequate housing close to economic and other social amenities.

President Jacob Zuma recently emphasised that South Africa has as “a good plan” - the National Development Plan (NDP) - to address outstanding challenges. “It provides a roadmap for the whole country and makes planning easier and predictable,” he said.

Government is confident that the NDP will lead to a more inclusive and united South Africa, where all may enjoy the benefit of our democracy by 2030. As we move to this next milestone, we call on every person to ensure our services and amenities are preserved. South Africa remains a water scarce country and every drop counts. Electricity is also not a limitless commodity and households need to use it wisely.

Over past twenty years, many South Africans have received basic services for the first time. As we move towards the next decade our challenges become even greater. The triple threat of poverty, inequality and unemployment must be defeated. Just as past generations fought the scourge of apartheid, we must now collectively face these problems head on. Government calls on all sectors of society to work with us as we strive to implement the NDP so that all South Africans can benefit from our hard fought freedom.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)