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Mpolweni community mobilises to access Free Basic Services

The Built Environment Support Group (BESG) shares some key recent developments in its Accounting for Basic Services work.

If you listened to the State of the Nation Address on 16 February, there was a strange set of statistics around government’s efforts to address extreme poverty. We have 17.3 million social grant recipients but only 3.5 million households receive Free Basic Services through the Equitable Share Grant (ESG).

There has been long-standing criticism that the ESG is given unconditionally by National Treasury. There are no controls on how it is utilised, and for many smaller local municipalities who do not have a rates base and rely on central funding, it is directed into operational costs including salaries. However, even when local municipalities commit to making Free Basic Services available to the poorest of the poor, human resource and operational issues can hamper effective service delivery.

This is the focus of work being undertaken by the BESG, one of the local implementing partners on the Accounting for Basic Services (ABS) Project funded by the European Union and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. One of its project partners is the Mpolweni community in uMshwathi, a predominantly rural municipality in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, some 45km from Pietermaritzburg.

Historically, water was supplied to Mpolweni by parastatal Umgeni Water on a flat rate of R50 per household. The responsibility for water provision was subsequently transferred to the uMgungundlovu District Municipality (uMDM). In 2011, when it emerged from two years of being under administration, the new municipal leadership set about a comprehensive turn-around strategy. For the first time, it introduced billing for water.

By 2012, many communities were resisting paying for water. By 2016, when the ABS project commenced, some households had consolidated accounts in excess of R20,000, but many complained that their meters were never read, or had been broken or stolen by metal thieves. In February 2017, BESG supported the Mpolweni community-based organisation (CBO) in conducting a baseline study involving 225 households, with the aim of assessing the level of awareness by the members of the Mpolweni community regarding indigent support and ascertain their level of indebtedness. Key findings were:

  • 15% of the sample (35 households) have historical debt of between R350 and R25,000. The majority are pensioners and social grant recipients.
  • Of the 35 households in water debt, only three had a monthly income over the indigent threshold. Only 17 households earned above the R3,000 monthly qualifying income limit for Free Basic Services.
  • 69% of households with a metered water service stated that they pay for water on a monthly basis.
  • Only 8% of the sample was aware of the Indigent Support policy adopted by the uMDM. The source of information was either an NGO (78%) or the Ward Councillor (22%).

In its 2015/6 to 2017/8 Medium Term Revenue and Expenditure Forecast, uMDM budgeted R3m of a total expenditure of R576,9m – or 0.52% if its operating budget – for the provision of Free Basic Services. By contrast, it made a R37.9m Provision for Doubtful Debt – more than 12 times the amount budgeted for Free Basic Services.

In its current 2017/18 financial year, uMDM allocated an amount of R59m for the provision of Free Basic Services. This was in spite of a failed plan to roll out R500,000 of Water Consumer Education in 2016/7. The 2017/8 Integrated Development Plan records various commitments running to several million Rands to update the indigent register, promote access to basic water services, and communicate water provision and drought awareness information at community level. Four months into the new financial year the Mpolweni CBO reported that uMDM had not disseminated any information to communities.The Water Services Authority within uMDM declined to engage with BESG on its plans to roll out information and application forms to qualifying households.

In response the Mpolweni CBO, with logistical support from BESG, embarked on a Mass Registration Drive to assist qualifying households in applying for indigent support. The drive followed the following 10 steps:

  • Training of community volunteers on Free Basic Services
  • Engaging stakeholders including Wartburg SAPS for support of the campaign
  • Leaflet drop to households to inform the community about the registration drive planned for 25 November 2017
  • Door to door mobilisation to give details about the drive
  • Loud hailing to remind community members about the drive
  • Receiving community members in the community hall
  • Interviewing each member and giving them information about Free Basic Services
  • Assisting community members in filling a four page application form
  • Verifying and certifying supporting documents with a resident Commissioner of Oaths
  • Submitting the forms to the uMDM Customer Service Centre in Pietermaritzburg

A total of 343 people were assisted on the day of the drive. A total of 251 applications were submitted to uMDM for processing directly after the drive, while community volunteers assisted the balance of applicants with missing documents. A community delegation was very well received at the Customer Service Centre and applauded by the Manager: Revenue. The exercise was a true expression of citizen empowerment and a demonstration to the District that much can be achieved with a little will and human resource capacity.

For more information, please conact Khulekani Mfeka, Senior Facilitator at BESG, on +27 33 394 4980 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Written by: Cameron Brisbane and Khulekani Mfeka


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Sharing the common goal of promoting participatory, effective, accountable and pro-poor local governance, the network strives to provide an interface for civil society organisations to network and share information towards strengthening local democracy in South Africa.