Black Economic Empowerment vis-à-vis Sustainable Development Goals: a (mainly) water and sanitation perspective

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As South Africa’s 2024 election looms, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has made the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) part of its case to voters, as an alternative to Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). The ANC and others dismiss this DA stance as “anti-transformation”, equating it with unwillingness to undo the apartheid legacy head-on.

Let’s reflect on this issue with specific reference to the burning issue of water and sanitation services (WSS), although it is just one of the 17 SDG targets, alongside others such as health, gender, jobs and poverty reduction, as part of the globally agreed SDG agenda to end poverty in a “single generation”. This is an ambitious pursuit when nearly 800 million people internationally live in extreme poverty – ie, earning around R20 ($1,90) per day or less. The SDGs articulate targets and a deadline for the global community’s efforts for ending extreme poverty by 2030.

What does the data tell us about South Africa’s progress towards meeting the SDGs?

Among the extensive and growing literature on the SDGs, there have been some substantial contributions in general, on specific sectors, and on countries’ progress or lack thereof. South Africa’s reporting has been pretty substantial. Its latest official SDG report in 20231 casts encouraging light on the country’s progress, including President Ramaphosa’s introductory remarks that although it is an ambitious agenda, South Africa “has made positive strides towards improving the livelihoods of its citizens through increased public spending on basic services and social security” and overcome “hindrances to achieving sustainable development”. The report shows:

  • “Overall improvement” on indicators from 64% in 2019 to 72% in 2023;
  • “Positive trends” towards 33% of the targets;
  • “No noticeable change” in the data on 23% of the targets;
  • “No progress” on 11% of the targets; and
  • “Insufficient or no new data” for tracking progress towards 33% of the targets.

A recent Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) and World Bank joint report,2 Going beyond the infrastructure funding gap: A South African perspective”, sheds further light on the country’s progress towards achieving the SDGs in four sectors. The analysis estimates that the “SDG gap” by 2030 will require infrastructure spending of between R4,8 and R6,2 trillion jointly on transport, water and sanitation, basic education and technical vocational education and training (TVET) up to 2030. Reliable service levels, access goals and efficiency are anticipated as the main drivers of these funding needs. The report agrees that meeting the SDG targets depends more on good governance than on infrastructure investments.

The political economy around SDGs vis-à-vis BEE

The DA says that if it ends up in government, it will use the SDG framework to target support to more specific beneficiaries, based on measurable criteria such as income, location, school quintile, net assets, number of dependants and access to basic services. It also wants to set clear priorities for companies and sectors in addressing the drivers of inequality of opportunity by building a “lean, capable state based on liberal democratic principles”. This, they say, would mean reducing the number of ministries, embedding a civil service culture of “competence, not connections”, and outlawing cadre deployment. In line with the global SDG framework, the DA also emphasises that reducing wealth inequality requires lowering barriers of accessing investment products, and of boosting housing opportunities and financing. It believes that this will reduce spatial inequality by allocating more resources to land reform and reparations, and by sustainable extension and maintenance of basic services.

The ANC hence sees the DA’s attempt to juxtapose the SDGs with BEE as conceptually confusing, and a denial of the racial foundations of poverty in South Africa.

To be clear, as governing party, the ANC government committed South Africa to the SDG targets and was quite vocally involved in the build-up towards the adoption of the SDGs by the UN General Assembly in 2015. It proudly pronounced that the 17 SDGs align with its “progressive, people-centred … transformative agenda” for the “eradication of poverty and hunger … safe, resilient and sustainable human settlements and protection of ecosystems … and gender equality”. More recently, despite some slippage, it took pride in South Africa having among the better indicators in Africa and developing countries globally, with the SDG Sustainable Development Report 2022 ranking South Africa’s performance in meeting the 17 SDGs 113th out of 161 countries. The ANC hence sees the DA’s attempt to juxtapose the SDGs with BEE as conceptually confusing, and a denial of the racial foundations of poverty in South Africa.

However, political parties and voters may not exactly hunger for the analytical application needed to agree on and operationalise such an SDG agenda. So, let’s dig beneath the hyperbole to make sense of how South Africa ranks, and why this may be a bone of contention between these and other political parties.

  • First, BEE aims to empower black people and redistribute wealth fairly among South Africans, undoing the imbalances of apartheid and promoting economic transformation. The DA and other critics of BEE contend that while they might support such ambitions to some degree, focusing on the SDGs would be more measurable and have greater impact on the lives of all South Africans, than race-based BEE scorecards. They also see the ANC’s BEE approach as compromising standards by issuing contracts and jobs to candidates regardless of skills for managing and executing services . Being guided by SDG targets, they say, will facilitate more measurable, internationally recognised monitoring of inclusion of the historically disadvantaged, ending poverty and meeting critical services delivery targets.
  • Second, South African government departments have set up oversight structures to facilitate alignment across subsector mandates and indicators to monitor progress on all SDG targets, ie, for water and sanitation, health, nutrition, education, gender equality, inclusion of vulnerable groups, environmental protection, minimising the impacts of climate change, and supporting economic growth. These arrangements are supposed to guide and sequence measures towards achieving the SDGs, including institutional reforms, coordinated capacity building, and ensured accountability.
  • Third, while the SDGs set targets and safe modes of action for specific sectors, they are also intended to be interdependent with wider goals like promoting inclusive economic growth and employment; building resilient infrastructure; achieving inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and innovation; developing sustainable, inclusive and safe cities and human settlements; and combating climate change and its impacts.
  • Fourth, given the apartheid history, one would expect any pursuit of meeting SDG targets to include historical racial inequality issues that BEE supposedly also seeks to address. The Ministry of Water and Sanitation has thus prioritised improvement of services for the vulnerable, and considerable upskilling of staff and institutions.
Post-apartheid municipalities took on responsibility for service delivery in areas that had never been as well connected and managed as the previous white-only areas. This still hinders the bridging of these gaps.

To address such governance issues, it is worth mentioning that even the water sector reform after the political transition of 1994 has largely stuck to the direct municipal WSS delivery model from the apartheid era. A major difference, though, is that post-apartheid municipalities took on responsibility for service delivery in areas that had never been as well connected and managed as the previous white-only areas. This still hinders the bridging of these gaps.

From fiscal and management perspectives, the new institutions still face massive challenges to catch up. Lately, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) leadership has been working on new reform for a wider range of service delivery mechanisms beyond direct municipal service provision. Trade Unions and many councils, however, remain critical or opposed to escalated contracting out of WSS services. The legacy of misgovernance and debt that has emanated from the municipal delivery system, and the earlier deliberate exclusion of poorer areas under apartheid before the late 1990s, still haunt water service delivery and governance in many jurisdictions.

Why this matters

The current DWS drive to introduce new reforms has been frustrated by continued service failures in many locations, declining voter confidence, unemployment, poor services, housing shortages and continuing corruption. An Afrobarometer poll3 in June 2021 found that 67% of South Africans would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing and jobs. This increasingly alienated constituency may prove to be a major wild card in water and sanitation and other critical sectors measured under the SDG logic.

Aside from the hard and costly infrastructure issues at stake, it is even more critical than ever that politicians, officials and citizens take these institutional and governance failures seriously. More than pipes and taps are at stake here.

  • Chris Heymans is an independent advisor, specialising in the political economy of cities, urban development and infrastructure management, especially water and sanitation.

End notes

1 StatsSA, 2023,

2 DBSA and the World Bank, 2024, Going Beyond the Infrastructure Funding gap: a South African Perspective, Johannesburg.


Also read:

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South Africa's water crisis

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Durban’s water crisis: far more than pipes and taps at stake

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