In 2001 South Africa adopted a policy intended for the provision of free basic services to poorer households. Under this policy, municipalities were tasked to identify indigent households that would receive services – such as water and electricity – for free or at substantially subsidised rates.
South Africa’s 257 municipalities registered 3,51 million indigent households in 2017.1 That’s about 1 in every 5 of the country’s 16,2 million2 households.
Households are required to register with municipalities to qualify for free basic services. A municipality’s role is to vet every application, selecting only those households that meet various criteria. Successful applicants are granted indigent status. Municipalities often run awareness campaigns to ensure that households are aware of the application process.
Indigent status isn’t for life, however. The economic status of a family might improve over time. To ensure that only the poorest families are catered for, municipalities require registered households to reapply for indigent status on a regular basis, often once a year.
There are constraints. A municipality might not be able to service all indigent households that have successfully registered, due to lack of funds or inadequate infrastructure.
In 2017 most municipalities (147 out of 257) classified an indigent household as a family earning a combined income of less than R3 200 per month. Eleven municipalities (nine local municipalities and two district municipalities) adopted a lower income poverty threshold of R1 600 per household per month.
Municipalities can also decide on the extent to which they subsidise an indigent household. The general rule is that indigent households are entitled to 6 kl of free water per household per month and 50 kWh of free electricity per household per month. The extent to which sanitation and refuse removal services are subsidised varies from municipality to municipality.
The provision of basic services to the poor remains a top priority for government. The indigent programme continues to be a vital lifeline for the 22% of households that would otherwise not have had access to basic services.