Voices

Debate: Should township residents pay for municipal services?

2015-10-15 18:15

The report by Treasury is quick to caution that the amounts owed are inclusive of the historical debt that has accumulated over an extended period, including interest on arrears and other recoveries.

This points to a perpetual pattern of defaulting by South Africans. It’s the debt that has accumulated as a result of an inherent culture of nonpayment over a long period.

Historically, nonpayment for municipal rates, service charges and other tariffs began in the townships in the 1980s.

This was partly a political strategy to undermine the government and its system of separate development.

It was taken for granted that this would wane after the political transition to a democracy. However, more than 20 years after this transition, nonpayment for services continues to be a serious financial challenge for municipalities.

The features that fuel nonpayment include the weakening economy and the triple challenges facing consumers – inequality, poverty and unemployment.

Debt continues to deepen as a result of accrued long-term interest. Interest on existing debt further diminishes residents’ willingness to pay for services and decreases the possibility of ratepayers catching up on arrears.

But others say the widespread unwillingness to pay is due to an “entitlement culture” and the “culture of nonpayment” inherited from the apartheid era.

Post-1994, we have seen a plethora of community movements mobilise around such diverse demands as more and better water and electricity supplies and access to housing.

This poses greater challenges to the municipalities’ ability to collect revenue. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee established in 2000 is one example – communities became formalised around the common cause of not paying for municipal services.

Recently, City Press journalist Sipho Masondo told of how, while he was growing up in Zola, he and many other Sowetans benefited from the culture of nonpayment for years.

“I felt enraged when I had to start paying for electricity in 2004,” he wrote. “It happened when I got my first job and left my mother’s house in Zola North. Like many Sowetans, we did not pay for electricity at home, which is why we could afford to have the heater on 24/7 during winter ... I have never heard any of my friends in the neighbourhood talk about paying for electricity, rates, taxes or utilities.”

Consumers reject the notion that it is necessary to pay for services because they see others ignoring Eskom and the municipalities with impunity. Those who used to pay willingly join these people over time. Some consumers say they will not pay for electricity because suppliers “only send bills to those who pay”.

If it continues, this bleak picture has the potential to collapse local government. We need a different attitude towards our role of ensuring that local government continues to deliver better services.

Championed by African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Agenda 2063 calls for a paradigm shift in the way Africans do things.

It challenges citizens to take collective responsibility in the advancement of the continent. It is a call for a change in attitudes and mind-sets to inculcate the right set of African values, ie, discipline, focus, honesty, integrity, transparency, hard work and love for Africa and its people.

Perhaps it’s time South Africans rise up and take collective responsibility to ensure local government doesn’t collapse. Somehow, somewhere, we have lost our love for this country. Maybe we have betrayed the discipline, focus and hard work on which our democracy was built.

While many South Africans complain about the slow pace of service delivery, there is a deafening silence about customers who neglect their responsibility and do not pay for municipal services. It’s not surprising that many Joburg customers would rather keep up their pay TV subscriptions than pay for municipal services.

Part of the solution lies with an integrated campaign involving civic organisations, councillors and communities to champion the culture of civic pride.

Residents, schools, parents, civic society formations – including churches and nongovernmental organisations – politicians, street and ward committees, role models and municipalities should all work together to inculcate a culture of payment.

Maphologela is spokesperson for the City of Joburg’s group finance

Residents of Orlando West in Soweto march to the Eskom offices in Diepkloof to hand over a memorandum on power blackouts in their area

PHOTO: Felix Dlangamandla


Trevor Ngwane writes:

The problem with spin doctors like Stanley Maphologela is that their reference to history is selective because their job is to protect the interests of the rich and powerful on whose behalf this city and country are run.

They talk about a “culture of nonpayment” that began in the 1980s. What they don’t tell us is how much money South Africans were paying for services in those days. The apartheid government heavily subsidised the provision of services, especially to white areas. White South Africa was paying next to nothing for water, electricity and municipal services.

In black, working class townships, service payments were included in “rent” charges. This meant people were paying a flat rate on subsidised services. As the regime got into deeper political and economic trouble, it was unable to enforce such payments. Many people started getting water and other services for free.

The dying apartheid regime talked about, and attacked, the “culture of nonpayment” in its fight against civic associations that were organising service payment boycotts and other campaigns against it.

Joe Slovo, the new South Africa’s minister of housing, inherited this phrase from the apartheid spin doctors. He first used it in 1994 when condemning the bond boycott in Joburg. He wanted to reassure the banks that the ANC government supported the repossession of houses owned by black people who were defaulting on their mortgage payments.

Nelson Mandela campaigned in the 1994 election with the slogan of “free water, electricity, education and housing for all”. But the first thing the ANC government did once it was in office was to move away from subsidised services to full cost recovery.

In 1994, with 40% of black people living in poverty, 35% of them unemployed and the Gini coefficient at 0.68, those who had enjoyed the benefit of subsidised and plentiful services under apartheid were meant would continueto continue receiving these in the new South Africa.

The ANC government used the discourse of a “culture of nonpayment” to legitimise the shift to cost recovery, a policy that amounted to a crime against humanity and a violation of human rights. Mandela, the ANC (and the SA Communist Party) leaders pulled off one of the biggest political and ideological frauds in the history of the national liberation movement in Africa.

In his visit to South Africa last week, French economist Thomas Piketty expressed surprise that, since 1994, inequality had risen at a faster rate than under apartheid. South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. The richest 10% of the population own 60% of the country’s wealth. Despair set in when Piketty could not get the basic economic data he needed for his analyses because they were hidden from public scrutiny.

It is a lie to say municipalities are failing because of the “culture of nonpayment”. Among other things, the problems are privatisation, outsourcing, corruption, incompetence and cadre deployment. In short, it is ANC rule. Money meant to provide and extend basic services has become the ANC’s political football.

It is hypocritical of Maphologela to call on civil society to be responsible and tell people to pay for services. The views of the people go largely ignored by the mayor and his mayoral committee.

In 2012, the Auditor-General (AG) said 89% of service-delivery targets set through the Integrated Development Plan process, which supposedly involved the public, were not met.

He found “evidence of widespread fraud” in the City of Johannesburg’s administration and gave a qualified report for the third successive year. He found the billing system was a “mess” and inaccurate billing queries took up to a year to resolve.

He said the council had overcharged residents by R258 million for refuse removal. People feel that if you pay, your money goes into a black hole. This is how many residents feel when doing financial transactions with the municipality.

I sincerely hope there have been some improvements since the AG’s report. I also hope the council will stop paying lip service to “poverty, inequality and unemployment” and run the municipality in a way that rolls back the legacy of apartheid oppression and capitalist exploitation.

The government should stop talking about a “culture of nonpayment” and embark on a massive programme of redistribution from the rich to the poor. We don’t owe them anything – they owe us a decent life.

Ngwane is political officer of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee

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