When President Jacob Zuma appeared before the Midrand conference of the South African Local Government Association last week, he told delegates the government had outperformed every country in the world over the past 18 years in delivering services to its citizens.Coming on the day that protestors closed the N1 highway outside Cape Town in a violent dispute over alleged service delivery failures in Touws River, and noting the reports of similar protests around the country - in places such as Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth - doubling since 2009, the remark has caused widespread debate.
The morning after the speech, the majority of callers to the Johannesburg area talk radio station Radio 702's 'Open Line with Gushwell Brooks' show disputed the president's claim. "President Zuma's statement that the government had been able to provide exceptional service was met with contempt".
But is he right?
So is the president right? Has the government outperformed every government in the world in delivering services to its citizens over the past 18 years? Certainly, South Africa did embark, in 1994, on one of the world's most ambitious service delivery campaigns, aimed at reversing decades of neglect under apartheid-era governments. But has it achieved its aims, and has it outperformed all governments worldwide?
What criteria do we use to judge?
Well, as so often with assessing claims made in public debate, the first problem is the slipperiness of the term "delivery" itself.
For a politician wanting to impress an audience, it is a wonderfully vague term that could mean almost whatever the speaker wanted.
However, when they hear the term most South Africans think primarily of the delivery of publicly-subsidised services in the five following categories: social housing, electricity and water supply direct to households, education and healthcare, so let's go with those categories.
What has been delivered?
According to the Office of Performance Management and the Presidency, set up on 1 January 2010 to monitor the impact of government policies on the population, since 1994, the government has "delivered":
- new homes built - 2.5 million homes housing ten million people
- households with electricity - over 80% today from 32% in 1994
- households with access to drinking water - almost 100% from 60% in 1994
- households with access to sanitation - 63% from 49% in 1994
- households with access to regular refuse remove - 64% from 50% in 1994
How does this compare internationally?
Looked at in terms of raw numbers, a number of other countries have "delivered more" than South Africa over the period. For example, over the past 18 years, China's government, despite concentrating on enabling the private sector and economic growth, has still seen more social housing units built than South Africa. But China's population is, of course, many times larger, so this is perhaps not a fair comparison.
Some smaller countries, such as the Cape Verde Islands for example, may have done better in percentage terms but with a tiny population, less well in terms of raw numbers.
And developed economies, where almost all homes were already supplied with water and electricity in 1994, have not made the sort of progress seen in South Africa and China, because they did not need to.
In short, none of these comparisons with developed or developing countries are fair or useful, each country having its own set of circumstances and challenges.
Has South Africa met is own goals?
In addition, the service delivery figures the government uses refer only to services extended to formal households, and thus miss out the 4.4 million people, estimated by research organisation Afesis, who live in shacks and shanties with no services - almost 10 percent of the population.
And even for those in formal households, the raw numbers are deceptive. According to Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, 134,000 houses built under government programmes are collapsing and need urgent repair. In November 2010, he said his department would spend about R2 billion to repair those houses and in May this year told The Sowetan newspaper a further R400 million would be needed. And if "potable water" is supplied to almost 100% of households, some 264 out of 283 water purification schemes in the country have severe maintenance backlogs which will cost R10 billion to fix.
Over the past 18 years, the government has indeed "delivered" an increase in the number of social housing units, households with connections to water and electricity and access to education and healthcare. Opposition claims otherwise are misplaced. But President Zuma's claim that this performance has been world-beating does not stand up either.
Edited by Ruth Becker and Peter Cunliffe-Jones. Additional research by Ntombi Dyosop.