Refusing to Pay Bills

EAST LONDON, South Africa -- Any society that tries to draw lines between people rather than drawing them together in a common purpose sets in motion attitudes that create a legacy of fear and loathing.Violence is the one South African legacy that most often occupies the international media, and there's no doubt about its presence.But another legacy that every city councillor in the country is grappling with these days is nonpayment for municipal services like electricity, water, sewage and garbage collection. It's the biggest issue in the country.Blacks, who make up more than 80 per cent of the population, are seized with the culture of nonpayment, a successful strategy devised a decade ago to bring down the apartheid regime. They taunted the regime to cut services off, and the regime relented. It simply paid the costs out of general revenue.And now, three years after Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress have come to power, the culture of nonpayment continues.Service dilemmaMunicipalities are the level of government faced with the dilemma of cutting services when payment is not made. Politically, it's difficult to just cut services to the bulk of the population, so most cities have massive deficits. A number have gone bankrupt.In municipalities around Cape Town, for example, about 95 per cent of black households are not paying. In Durban, where the city has instituted numerous controls for more than a decade, about three-quarters of black households are not paying.A national campaign to educate people to pay has continued for more than two years, generally without success. And last week, Thabo Mbeke, the heir apparent to Mandela, gave his support to the campaign in Johannesburg. But few are optimistic.The culture of nonpayment is now being taken up in white communities, where whites are saying that if blacks don't pay, neither do they. A court case in Pretoria has established that charges for services must be fair and must be levied across the municipality. On their face, these principles seems reasonable, but they are interpreted as meaning that households in black areas will be charged the same rates as households in white areas.A similar court challenge has been brought by a ratepayer group in East London, led by a white member of council.Blacks say (quite rightly) that their services are grossly inferior to those available in predominantly white areas. Why, they ask, should we be forced to pay for water when anyone can hear the gurgle of the leaking pipes between the meter and the house? Make the repairs and we'll pay.Free rideOr they point to the fact that almost none of their neighbours are paying. Why should one family be the first on the block to start paying, when everyone else has a free ride?City treasurers argue that it's only when revenue is available that serious repairs can be made to bring services up to standard. They talk bravely of the city cutting off those who don't pay, but the political problems of cutting off the majority of the population render that approach impracticable. Most councillors simply don't want to see it happen.And with an eye on the law that says councils cannot budget for a deficit, city officials simply include in the annual budget an amount equal to what should be paid, showing an intention to balance the budget, whatever the reality. It's the fiction of the bureaucrat.The debate has turned into a finger-pointing morality play. But by a quirk of fate, East London may find a way out of the dilemma.While there are several smaller black communities here where the culture of nonpayment continues, the city has had the luxury of watching how badly collections have gone in other cities, and now has a chance to try something new in Mdantsane, the township it has been responsible for since last month.The strategy adopted last week by council is deceptively simple -- phase in full payment for services over a two-year period.The first objective is to get everyone paying a small amount. If this is widely successful there will be much pressure to cut services to the few not paying. Instead of people asking why they should pay when their neighbours aren't, they'll ask why others should get a free ride at their (small) expense. Thus begins a new culture of payment.The revenue will help fund improvements to services, and these, hopefully, will be apparent to residents at the time the monthly payment is ratcheted up a dozen or more rand, until they pay the full amount.Black leaders, both on and off council, have endorsed the approach. Some white leaders have given it the nod, but others just see it as an attempt to give blacks special treatment. They seem to react more in anger than in a hope that a way has been found that will produce a consistent and rising stream of money to improve services.Their reaction is an example of the remnants of official policies of the racial divide.The legacy is something no one deserves to be born into, but it unfolds with discouraging regularity, and the energy to seek new ways of looking at the problem -- as East London has done -- is often swallowed in the anger of the birthright.New paradigmIn mid-September the International Olympic Committee will decide whether nearby Cape Town will host the games in 2004. Some hope it will usher in a new paradigm for South Africa and push out the legacy from apartheid. Others argue that the new paradigm will come with something as straightforward as finding ways to fund reasonable water, sewage and electricity services for everyone, whatever their colour or culture.

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