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Grand notions of apartheid may be absent form South Africa but it appears to have resurfaced locally with the implementation of externally-led neo-liberal economic policies. The Local Government White Paper (LGWP), for example, which favours free market conditions, fails to recognize the despondent state of affairs faced by over half of South Africa’s municipalities. Under these disadvantaged conditions, protests and civil unrest threaten to flourish unless social forces come together in unity against neo-liberal notions of development. (dkc)

vol 13 no 4

Urban betrayal: the ANC in the townships
Patrick Bond and Mzwanele Mayekiso

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 4, August 1998
Page 4
"South Africa"



South African activists and authors Patrick Bond and Mzwanele Mayekiso, are frequent contributors to Southern Africa Report.

The deterioration of municipal services and declining standards of infrastructure have become commonplace in post-apartheid South Africa and housing has become a policy farce. All of this is not because South Africa is now under "black rule," as many conservatives would have it, but on the contrary because a combination of factors reinforcing residual white power remain. These factors are evident in the profoundly anti-redistributive, market-oriented policies on municipal services designed in late 1994 by the World Bank and inexplicably adopted by the Reconstruction and Development Programme (or RDP) Office in 1995 and Department of Constitutional Development (DCD) in 1996 once the RDP Office was closed and local infrastructure became DCD's responsibility.

Led by Minister Valli Moosa, a core United Democratic Front strategist during the 1980s, DCD had the misfortune of carrying over to the New South Africa some of the country's worst bureaucrats, the white men who designed complex systems of racial segregation. Equally unnerving is the fact that some of Moosa's newly-recruited bureaucrats have, in challenging the legacy of apartheid planning, chosen to do so by invoking neo-liberal principles, an alternative approach that merely compounds the problem for the poor.

Some are quite brazen about this latter choice. In late 1996, for example, the government's main infrastructure bureaucrat, Dr. Crispian Olver - who during the 1980s was a leading white student activist and member of the ANC's underground armed forces - was challenged about his failure to adopt the RDP provision that services such as electricity and water should be cross-subsidized. Reminded that Alusaf, the big aluminum plant in Richard's Bay, receives electricity at roughly R0.02 per kilowatt hour while rural consumers often pay as high as R0.48, Olver responded to the Mail and Guardian that "If we increase the price of electricity to users like Alusaf, their products will become uncompetitive and that will affect our balance of payments." More recently, in a Port Elizabeth seminar on municipal water, Olver blamed opposition to privatization by the trade unionists present for "the failure of the RDP"!

In both cases, however, Olver was simply articulating principles established by World Bank teams who have come to South Africa not only to design national policy but also to invest in privatized municipal infrastructure (through a US$25 million equity stake made by their subsidiary, the International Finance Corporation, in a fund that promises a 28% US$ rate of return). This clearly generates conflicts of interest as, for instance, when Bank staff went to Port Elizabeth in 1996 to study the capital expenditure on household water supply and after a week produced a plan with only one option: privatization. (The tenders for establishing a formal privatization policy have just been reported back to the Port Elizabeth City Council, although the SA Municipal Workers Union vow to fight the plan.)

Beyond the shrinkage of the state through privatization - supported, ironically enough, by former radical community activists of the SA National Civic Organization (SANCO), whose near-bankrupt investment fund allied with the British water firm, Biwater, to bid for the first big municipal contract, in Nelspruit - another sign of declining standards suffered by low-income black South Africans is the level of essential services they can expect when new infrastructure is built in coming years.

Services surprises

For those with below a R800 per month income who live in municipalities with no other means of topping up the subsidy, services will be reduced to a pit latrine (not flush toilet), low-voltage electricity (not enough to run a heater or hot plate), a yard tap (not even in an internal sink), high-mast lighting, and gravel roads.

Again, thank the World Bank for these declining standards - far lower than under even the worst formal apartheid planning - which were established in a March 1995 infrastructure investment report and which are justified mainly by the refusal of both the DCD and the Department of Finance to cross-subsidize the provision of reticulated water and electricity. These services are now considered so expensive at non-subsidized costs that low-income families will be denied the ability to flush their excrement or to turn on an appliance that requires more than 5 amps to run.

Unfortunately, the excrement will often seep into ground water through Johannesburg's dolomitic rock or down Durban's many hillsides or into Cape Town's and northern Pretoria's high water tables. Water purification costs will increase, diseases will multiply, and women will bear the brunt of the heaviest burdens. But these and many other socio-economic costs of the planned standards - as well as the prospective countervailing benefits of the "alternative" strategy foreseen in the ANC campaign platform, the above-mentioned RDP - were never seriously factored in by Bank staff and DCD consultants.

Housing policy offers no relief from this grim prognosis either, with official figures showing the construction of less than 50,000 units built over four years on the currently operative subsidy plus bank credit formula - notwithstanding nearly 300,000 subsidies granted. This in part reflects the fact that the prescribed subsidy, at R15,000 and with no inflation adjustment since 1994, is roughly half the amount required to build a proper house as mandated by the RDP - providing just enough shelter to qualify as "kennels," as recipients described them recently to Australian journalist John Pilger. Meanwhile at least 200,000 new families search for houses each year, as the backlog soars.

The ecological, public health and gender-related problems associated with shortfalls in housing, infrastructure and services will become even clearer once project developments are more advanced. But already South Africa has witnessed its share of urban protests since the November 1995 elections, protests not unlike the "IMF riots" that grip so many wretched Third World cities.

Urban protest

Most strife has come in the deregulated field of urban transport, where instead of the massive provision of public transport mandated by the RDP, Minister Mac Maharaj expanded the neo-liberal policies of the National Party regime, thus failing to stem the ubiquitous taxi violence and accidents bred by overtrading and an intense speed-up of drivers in search of profit. On public rail lines, as well, transport restrictions and higher commuter prices in Tembisa (just east of Johannesburg) sparked riots that left nearly a dozen people dead at the hands of a (privatized) security company in mid 1996.

In early 1997, even more intense riots broke out in El Dorado Park, the low-income coloured township of Johannesburg whose local political leaders have regularly taken up populist, quasi-ethnic campaigns against the ANC. During a day-long protest, four people were killed over resident demands for lower municipal rates. In August 1997, several protests over service payments shook East Rand and Pretoria townships, the Mpumalanga town of Secunda, and even Butterworth in the distant ex-Transkei (where after three straight days of protest against municipal officials one resident was shot dead before crowds dispersed). In KwaThema, east of Johannesburg, the houses of three ANC councillors were, tragically, burned down by angry residents.

The protests were sometimes marked by a high level of sophistication. Thousands of residents of Tembisa went on a march that left R13 million worth of electricity meters destroyed one winter afternoon in August 1997, in anger about the installation of a "pre-payment" system that, in the words of local Communist Party leader Tebogo Phadu (writing in the journal Debate), was "being pushed by transnational corporations - Siemens and Sony in particular [and that] would have a profound impact on our tradition of community organization/mobilization as it promotes `everyone for him/herself' (i.e. individualizing payment), further marginalizing the working class, particularly the unwaged."

The last three months of 1997 witnessed an intensification, not amelioration, of local grievances. During that time the pace of water disconnections, on grounds of non-payment, soared, while the number of households that could afford to reconnect was very small - with the number of summonses issued (geared ultimately to kicking defaulting consumers out of their houses) also rose dramatically. By mid 1998, the conflicts had reached even deeper into East Rand townships and smaller rural towns. In the townships of Witbank and Tsakane, municipal offices and a post office were burned after evictions and summonses stripped residents of their personal property. In Amersfoort, community residents kidnapped a leading councillor in anger over mass cut-offs of water which had led directly to the death of an infant. Tembisa saw more strife over evictions from houses where commercial banks declared foreclosure. Everywhere, urban alienation and rural despondency were on the increase.

White Paper whitewash

At precisely the same time, a Local Government White Paper (LGWP) was being drafted by DCD consultants. Released in March 1998 the LGWP has managed to avoid any mention of the above problems. Alongside these and other omissions, it also manages to contain serious contradictions and an overall surrender to neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Of course, depoliticized analysis invariably characterizes orthodox "developmental" white papers, and the LGWP is no exception. The numerous precedents for municipal social struggles prior to the early 1980s are ignored, and 1980s struggles are reduced in import to a questioning of the legitimacy of apartheid political structures - not township socio-economic conditions. The theoretical approach underlying the ANC's "National Democratic Revolution" (the concepts of municipal dual power and organs of people's power, for instance) is evacuated. And the LGWP fails to recognize the subsequent inability of local negotiations processes to resolve deep-rooted municipal problems during the early 1990s, or to discuss why that has occurred.

Yet the municipal quagmire, partly associated with the tragic inheritance of the Local Government Transition Act (LGTA), is at least conceded: "Real transformation has yet to occur ... The compromises reached during the negotiation of the LGTA, such as the delimitation of wards in a manner which skewed representation and the requirement that municipal budgets must be approved by a two-thirds majority, will remain in force until the final phase of the transition ... Huge infrastructural disparities and inequalities resulting from apartheid local government remain ... Delivery on new municipal mandates cannot be achieved within the existing institutional framework."

But having conceded the injustice and practical failure of this arrangement, the LGWP lists only a series of technical challenges that remain: "skewed settlement patterns and extreme concentrations of taxable economic resources ... huge backlogs in service infrastructure ... great spatial separations and disparities between towns and townships and urban sprawl ... new municipal institutions which recognize linkages between urban and rural settlements ... entrenched modes of decision-making, administration and delivery ... inability to leverage private sector resources for development ... substantial variations in capacity ... need to rebuild relations between municipalities and communities."

These are all vital challenges, to be sure, but only at the end of this list are readers informed, obliquely, that transitional municipal governance has had a deeply alienating affect on the ANC's local-level constituency. The next question is whether the kinds of provisions made in the LGWP begin to offer relief to "formerly disadvantaged" but still very much oppressed township residents.

Redistribution: from rich to poor

Our own sense of the neo-liberal formulations of municipal development policy lead us to the opposite conclusion: that the next period will see intensified protest, largely because of the failure of DCD (as well as other departments) to decisively redistribute national and local-level resources to low-income people.

The LGWP offers at least lip-service to the idea of redistribution, as well as three specific (if relatively minor and localized) techniques: "service subsidies"; "... support to community organizations in the form of finances, technical skills or training"; "... linkage policies to directly link profitable growth or investment with redistribution and community development." But in its failure to grapple with questions of macroeconomic policy (GEAR), the LGWP implicitly toes the government line that trickle-down policies will ultimately benefit locales. The LGWP doesn't mention GEAR's budget cuts, nor their implications for local-level service delivery. Nor is there a recognition that under the export-oriented logic of GEAR, competition between cities for new investors is likely to get out of hand.

More specifically, the LGWP fails miserably to prepare South Africans for the shock of receiving extremely low levels of infrastructure and services, as described above. There are, to be sure, vague promises that an "equitable share" of central government revenue will "enable municipalities to subsidize the operating costs of providing basic services to poor households" - without, as seen, discussing the option of cross-subsidizing higher levels of services (rejected by the World Bank) or acknowledging the 85% real decline in such intergovernmental transfers since 1991. Here, in Finance Minister Trevor Manuel's office, lies the real "culture of non-payment"!

Local democracy: too expensive

Likewise, there is no explicit mention of the bankruptcy or forced rationalizations of approximately half the 850 municipalities in South Africa, notwithstanding the fact that this has often been mentioned by DCD officials in the press. The LGWP offers only a justification of "amalgamation" (and this based on a theoretical "harmonious relationship" between urban and rural municipalities rather than the reality of bantustan settlement patterns which have left most rural towns without recourse to a neighbouring wealthy city).

The LGWP does acknowledge that income differences threaten to generate a neo-apartheid urban form, for "inadequate service levels may perpetuate stark spatial divisions between low, middle or high income users (particularly in urban areas) and jeopardize the socio-economic objectives of the Council." Yet there is no official recognition that precisely the DCD's low levels of service delivery - especially pit latrines which cannot be incrementally upgraded to water-borne sanitation - for low-income people will permanently relegate the poor to far-away ghettoes from which any upwardly mobile residents desiring higher infrastructure levels will have to emigrate.

Additionally, the report's various options for "approaches to service delivery" are highly biased in favour of privatization. None of the arguments for municipal transformation offered by the SA Municipal Workers Union, for example, are considered. The LGWP does at least note that privatization carries risks of "cherry-picking" (refusal to provide services to low-income areas), poor quality services and unfair labour practices. Notably, though, no warnings are made about excessive levels of profit (like the 28% in US$ terms demanded by the World Bank's privatization fund).

Cutting off the communities

The LGWP chapter on Municipal Finance fails to mention numerous indicators of the municipalities' fiscal stress, or to explore adequately the conditions under which roughly half of all municipalities will be found to be financially insolvent. Instead, this chapter proceeds to take the most extreme, conservative interpretation of price policy for water, electricity and other municipal services.

Note the LGWP provisions that there must be "payment in proportion to the amount consumed"; that there must be "full payment of service costs"; and that tariffs must "ensure local economies are competitive" by insulating businesses from cross-subsidies. Taken together these provisions have the effect of preventing municipalities from adopting progressive block tariffs; a universal lifeline service to all consumers; and local level redistribution from often wasteful business users to low-income consumers. In doing so, they directly violate the mandate DCD was given in the RDP, which explicitly calls for all three of these things.

Moreover, the final chapter, on the Transformation Process, virtually negates the roles of communities and municipal workers. Hence the document ends by appealing to citizens to trust a largely technocratic process. This may be entirely appropriate: as an explicitly and implicitly neo-liberal policy document, the LGWP probably requires the demobilization of the two key constituencies (communities and labour) which would be capable of allying with ANC councillors (were they so inclined) to actually achieve transformation.

But what is the result? The transformation envisaged in the LGWP becomes essentially, in its key economic and development components, a neo-liberal amplification of local apartheid. The segregated city will now be frozen along class lines, with a small fraction of black South Africans expected to migrate into white suburbs which in all other respects will remain effectively intact. Township livelihoods and informal settlement survival strategies will decay. Gender and generational relations will become more tense under the pressure of municipal crisis. Unemployment will worsen as privatization takes hold, often entailing (as the World Bank predicted in the case of Port Elizabeth water) a 40% rationalization of municipal workers. People who once had access to close-by councillors in small towns will find their local councils many dozens of kilometres distant following amalgamation.

The DCD has many responsibilities and powers, and could have done far more in the LGWP to right historic wrongs than simply facilitate the free market. Now, given the failure of the ANC state, the struggle to achieve social and economic (and gender and ecological) justice moves decisively to civil society.

A new politics?

Who monitors the likely violation of constitutional rights when municipal water supplies are cut off completely? Who ensures comparability between white residential areas and black residential areas, when vast distortions in standards of living become more not less pronounced? Who intervenes when national government has failed, in many of the most crucial categories, to provide municipalities with the leadership required to bring South African democracy to fruition?

If organizations of civil society do not urgently step forward to address the profound shortcomings of the LGWP and associated housing, infrastructure, water, energy and economic policies, then these questions will be merely be rhetorical. Evidence of the LGWP's shortcomings will then continue to be found in the continued fracturing of traditional alliances between community, labour and progressive political parties which has been underway these past few years, as well as in the periodic riots, noted above, of furious urban citizens responding to the post-apartheid denial of South Africans' rights to live in humane conditions.

Hope lies in the potential unification of two political trajectories now in train. One is the growing strength, militancy and wisdom of the SA Municipal Workers Union in their anti-privatization struggles. The other is evidenced in the attempt, led by dissident progressive activists from the Alexandra and Soweto civic organizations, to establish an alternative community voice at national level. This latter has included a May 1998 launch of the new Association of Resident and Civic Organizations in Gauteng, an initiative that has pulled many civics out of Sanco affiliations. The conditions are excellent for a continued elaboration of such reassertions of a community politics, at once Left and independent, from deep within civil society.

Of course, resources are necessarily scarce for this kind of challenge to the Alliance power structure. Look, however, to a recent Samwu bumper sticker for evidence of the potential for allying production and consumption struggles. It states, simply: "No to privatization! 50 litres of water per person per day free!" There will be more such issues around which community and labour - as well as women, the youth, churches and other social forces - can come together in unity against neo-liberal notions of development.

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