War over poor ser­vice takes hold

Will sit­ting around a ta­ble dis­cussing ser­vice de­liv­ery prob­lems ease ten­sions be­tween govern­ment and un­happy ratepay­ers? Asks Lea Ja­cobs

Business Day - Home Front - - HOMEFRONT -

NOT all South Africans are tak­ing to the streets to voice their dis­plea­sure about the lack of ser­vice de­liv­ery. Many have cho­sen a qui­eter, more pow­er­ful route — with­hold­ing money due to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties by pay­ing sums owed on rates ac­counts into trust ac­counts. It seems that ac­tions speak louder than words and the prac­tice is be­gin­ning to draw fire from the govern­ment.

In a re­cent re­port, fi­nance min­is­ter Pravin Gord­han slammed the prac­tice say­ing, “if you live in SA, you are us­ing mu­nic­i­pal ser­vices and you must pay for them. This kind of non­com­pli­ance with the law is not ac­cept­able at all”.

Read­ing be­tween the lines it ap­pears that more ratepay­ers are no longer will­ing to sit back and lis­ten to empty prom­ises made by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and are ei­ther putting the money owed in trust un­til the sit­u­a­tion im­proves or

One would think that these is­sues would be fairly easy to re­solve with a lit­tle govern­ment in­ter­ven­tion

pool­ing the money and do­ing the job them­selves.

Although the prac­tice may be grow­ing in in­ten­sity, this con­tentious is­sue is cer­tainly not new. In 2009 the tele­vi­sion pro­gramme Carte Blanche aired a re­port on the sit­u­a­tion in Sannieshof, a ru­ral town in North West prov­ince. Ser­vice de­liv­ery in the town had ground to a halt and while money was be­ing spent, it al­legedly wasn’t be­ing used for ser­vice de­liv­ery.

Raw sewage was run­ning in the streets, there was no water and the town was fall­ing into dis­re­pair. Res­i­dents de­cided to take mat­ters into their own hands. They formed the Sannieshof Ratepay­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion and de­clared a dis­pute with the Tswaing mu­nic­i­pal­ity.

Realising that they could do the job bet­ter them­selves, the as­so­ci­a­tion took over and paid for the day to day op­er­a­tions pre­vi­ously un­der the mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s con­trol. At the time, they main­tained that not only were they able to get the job done, they were able to do so at a frac­tion of the price the mu­nic­i­pal­ity was be­ing charged by con­trac­tors.

Of course this is not the ideal sit­u­a­tion. Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are there to keep sub­ur­ban houses in or­der and in an ideal world you would pay your rates and re­lax. Un­for­tu­nately, in SA many lo­cal govern­ment in­sti­tu­tions are sim­ply not up to the task and a grow­ing num­ber of ratepay­ers are voic­ing their ob­jec­tions through their wal­lets.

Gord­han be­lieves the prob­lem should be solved “the South African way.”

“We sit around the ta­ble, we say what the chal­lenges are, and we find prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions to them. We are the great­est in the world at do­ing this. Ten­sion and an­tag­o­nism doesn’t help. You can’t just sit back and crit­i­cise.”

How­ever, in many in­stances the South African way doesn’t ap­pear to be work­ing. You have to won­der whether the av­er­age South African ratepayer re­ally has the time or in­cli­na­tion to con­cern him­self with mat­ters that oth­ers are paid a great deal of money to han­dle.

Are res­i­dents sim­ply be­ing ar­ro­gant, be­liev­ing that they can do a bet­ter job them­selves, or is the sit­u­a­tion so out of con­trol that they feel they are left with few op­tions? The lat­ter ar­gu­ment seems to hold water and the ques­tion that needs to be an­swered is: what does the govern­ment in­tend do­ing about it?

One would think that these is­sues would be fairly easy to re­solve with a lit­tle govern­ment in­ter­ven­tion. In­stead of crit­i­cis­ing those who refuse to pay, per­haps the govern­ment should be ask­ing why ratepay­ers have taken such dras­tic ac­tion and whether the is­sues are af­fect­ing the daily lives of those in­volved, then in­ter­vene and try to re­solve the prob­lem.

We are not talk­ing about the odd pot­hole here. In the case of Sannieshof, we are talk­ing about a break­down in ser­vices that could have af­fected the health of an en­tire town.

Gord­han is cor­rect — ratepay­ers should pay for ser­vices. But what hap­pens when those ser­vices don’t ex­ist? The prob­lem will not dis­ap­pear overnight and un­less mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties take de­ci­sive ac­tion, the sit­u­a­tion looks set to re­sult in an un­ten­able stale­mate.

Pic­ture: © The Times

A bro­ken sew­er­age pipe at the water treat­ment works in Sannieshof, a ru­ral area in North West prov­ince.

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