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Indigent programme a lifeline for many households


If South Africa was a suburb of 100 households, 22 would be beneficiaries of government’s indigent programme. Statistics South Africa’s recent non-financial census of municipalities provides insight into those households that struggle to afford access to basic services.

In 2001, South Africa adopted a policy intended for the provision of free basic services to poor 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. That’s about one in every five or 22 percent of the country’s 16.2 million households that are classified as indigent.

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.

eThekwini is home to about 627 000 indigent households, comprising 18 percent of the national tally.

Tshwane has the second highest number (474 035 households), followed by Cape Town (213 424 households) and Johannesburg (178 599 households).

Municipalities determine their own criteria for identifying and registering indigents. To a large extent, this determination is based on the resources available to the municipality.

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.

With over half of South Africa’s population in poverty, and the economy in recession in the first half of 2018, the indigent programme continues to be a vital lifeline for the 22 percent of households that would otherwise not have had access to basic services.

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