Ethnicity is not public service destiny: The political logic of service distribution in South Africa

Porten, John / Rhee, Inbok / Gibson, Clark


Millions of South Africans have protested the unequal allocation of public services in thousands of demonstrations. Despite the African National Congress's (ANC) promise to reduce the disparities generated by apartheid, the level of public services remains highly uneven across the country. Most studies of service provision in Africa argue that politicians will target their coethnics; others support the “diversity deficit” hypothesis, which predicts that high levels of ethnic diversity undermines service provision. Instead, we argue that explanations of service provision should first examine how political institutions incentivize politicians to choose whether, what, and how to distribute services. Even in an ethnicized polity, ethnic targeting may not be a politician's best strategy. We seek to explain the variation in service levels across South African municipalities and advance three hypotheses: 1) municipal councilors in more ethnically diverse municipalities will form policy coalitions that produce higher service levels; 2) South African mayors will decrease services when they enjoy electorally safety due to their extensive powers and the possibility of being a residual claimant to municipality resources, and; 3) the strategic interaction between councilors and their mayor helps to account for the variation in service provision across South Africa's municipalities. We test our hypotheses with data from more than 1.37 million households and aggregated municipality level measures and find strong support for our hypotheses. Political institutions – not just ethnic demography – can influence policy choices and service outcomes.

Issue Date
Pergamon Press Ltd.
Keywords Plus
Public Services; Ethnicity; Africa; Distributive Politics; Development Policy
Journal Title
World Development
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