SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
FAILURE IN THE TOWNSHIPS?: THE DEVELOPMENT BOTTLENECK
BY GREG RUITERS AND PATRICK BOND
Greg Ruiters is senior tutor of political science at University of the Witwatersrand. Patrick Bond was, until recently, assistant professor of social policy at Johns Hopkins University. He is currently associated with NIEP, the National Institute for Economic Policy in Johannesburg.
"They make a path directly to my door, asking me for money, healthcare, jobs, housing," says Trevor Ngwane, a newly-elected ANC councillor from Soweto. "But I don't sit on the committees where the big decisions are made. And I don't have the power to do anything."
Like their apartheid predecessors, the ANC councillors of South Africa's impoverished, violent townships are beginning to bear the brunt of popular frustration. This is ironic perhaps, for one of the prime scapegoats for the lack of Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) delivery between May 1994 and November 1, 1995 - the date of the country's local elections - was that previous municipal governments lacked legitimacy.
Today, if freshly-minted local councils are the RDP's "hands and feet," in Minister Jay Naidoo's words, what are the prospects for breaking the townships' so-called "culture of entitlement," and for the implementation of the expansive social policies promised by the ANC during its national campaign two years ago? More broadly still, what are the prospects for building robust participatory democracy at the local level, revitalising civil society, and ensuring that South Africa's political transition begins to make a socio-economic difference to the lives of at least millions of urban (and rural) residents still trapped in unemployment and the ghetto?
Not good in the short term, we must conclude after reviewing the society's structural contradictions, political compromises and mainstream ANC reactions to both. Consider first the highly-constrained ("low-intensity," as some call it) nature of South Africa's local democratic transition. We are all too familiar with the late 1992 "sunset clauses" that paved the way for a Government of National Unity, for an excessive degree of federalism (even big business now concedes), and for the absurd job guarantees that protect apartheid-era civil servants. But there were also several rather less understood local-level corollaries as well, which together mean that the new-found legitimacy won't run terribly deep:
* the far higher voting weight accorded to whites in the recent election (30% of municipal seats were reserved for formerly white residential areas - or wards - at the outset, added to which is the white proportion of the total vote);
* the lumping of so-called coloured and Indian residential areas into the white wards, hence splitting the unity of "black" South Africa;
* the extraordinary veto power that white councillors now enjoy (with just a third of the local council seats, they can prevent passage of local budgets and town planning bills);
* the failure to develop coherent, fair systems for rural local government (here the voting weight given white farmers was even greater than in the cities);
* the persistence of white bureaucrats at many local government points of contact with the public;
* local government's intensifying budget constraints, accompanied by neo-liberal cost recovery principles and municipal privatisation programmes; and
* the sometimes undemocratic process by which local candidates had been chosen, which led to enormous acrimony and numerous independent candidacies (some by progressive local SA National Civic Organisation leaders).
Add to this two somewhat more subjective political features:
* a surprisingly widespread corporatist commitment by national and provincial bureaucrats to the enforcement of "social contracts" - meant to involve all "stakeholders" (i.e., government, business and NGOs) - as a precondition to the project-level dispersal of housing and many other developmental goods and services; and
* a wariness by even ANC politicians regarding former allies in civil society that sometimes borders on paranoia.
These conditions are not universal throughout the country, and we would not want to discount courageous efforts by sincere, competent and sometimes radical politicians (like Ngwane) drawn from the rank-and-file of the ANC and SACP, the unions, civics, churches, women's groups and the like. But these women and men are quickly learning the limits of their power, which are not only technical and political in character but also social (all local councillors had to endorse a formal "code of conduct" that prohibits them from participating in mass action). In particular, there is danger that the best councillors will be split from their social base, as is evidently the case with nearly all national and provincial ANC politicians.
Maintaining strong South African traditions of consultation and accountability will be no mean feat, for the local government elections failed to energise and mobilise the masses of township dwellers. Voter registration and turnout were less than reassuring, as no more than a third of potential voters bothered to vote. Far from greeting local government elections with enthusiasm, many expressed the view that if central government cannot deliver under conditions of the power-sharing compromise, how is local government going to.
The primary vehicle for restoring government's links to alienated township residents was meant to have been Operation Masakhane - "let us build" - launched in February 1995 by President Mandela and three key ministries (RDP, Constitutional Affairs and Housing) to reverse the "culture of non-payment" that was alleged to have emerged as a cancerous side-effect of the 1980s ungovernability struggle. Masakhane was aimed at both improving services (through the injection of R700 million, a piddling amount compared to the R1.7 billion the defense ministry is requesting to buy four high-speed "corvette" ships) and goading more residents into paying the rent/service bills (as well as, in the process, atomising residents as consumers and deradicalising township organisations). But it was not to be.
In August 1995, Tokyo Sexwale, the leader of Gauteng (Johannesburg-Pretoria-Vaal) province, proclaimed, "The people of Gauteng have rallied behind the call to implement the Masakhane campaign as a vital step in the reconstruction and development process." In reality, official statistics released a month later showed that Gauteng townships from Mamelodi outside Pretoria, to Ivory Park in northern Johannesburg, to Daveyton in eastern Johannesburg, to Sebokeng and Sharpeville in the Vaal Triangle, were all recording payment rates of less than 5%. Masakhane seemed to be having the opposite effect to that desired. In most townships, the R10 million spent on publicity coincided with a 15% drop in rate payments. Following a crisis meeting in January 1996, Department of Housing director-general Billy Cobbett commented, "The campaign and the ideas behind it are correct but it needs to be politically reinvigorated. It's not just about getting people to pay for services but a social contract between government and the people in terms of rights and responsibilities on both sides."
But social contracts - which under South African conditions boil down to a weak appeal for corporatism - are not only untenable in townships, they have not succeeded in the boardrooms either.
To illustrate, by all accounts government's housing programme is a national tragedy. This is mainly the case, we argue, because the RDP's more progressive, decommodified, "people- driven" policy framework was rejected in favour of an all-in attempt at a social contract in October 1994 (see Bond, "Undermining the RDP," SAR July 1995). The official policy relies entirely on developers to provide serviced sites (i.e., put in pipes and toilets), and on banks to hand out subsidies to low-income blacks whom they really did not want to see in their branches. Not surprisingly, the system crashed, and fewer than 15,000 houses were delivered during the national housing programme's first 18 months.
Most embarrassing was the grandiose mid-1994 claim by Sexwale that with the assistance of the developer Stocks & Stocks - garish builders of Sun City's R1 billion Lost City complex) - Gauteng province would witness construction of 150,000 homes in the coming year. By January 1996, millions of rands in government subsidies earmarked for Stocks & Stocks were withdrawn, since the developer had delivered only 1,000 of 10,000 serviced sites (not even full houses) that it had contracted for during the previous 18 months. Stocks & Stocks was also deemed ineligible for future funding as a result. Lost City indeed. With what effect on local morale?
Physically and psychologically, the housing crisis contributes to township degradation and continuing unwillingness to pay. And this is not merely due to broader government fiscal constraints, as many policy wonks argue; more than three quarters of the state housing budget goes unspent. Indeed, it remains eminently feasible to subsidise an Affordable Housing For All programme within present budgetary limits. Hence we would probably conclude, at this stage, that the philosophy of the social contract applied to housing - that is, the developer-driven, bank-centred, fully-commodified, inadequately-subsidised, gender-insensitive, geographically-segregated provision of sites, with the hope of "incremental" housing construction later - constitutes the prime delivery bottleneck.
In contrast, barriers identified by Cobbett and his colleagues in January 1996 included housing industry "perceptions" of differences between the Housing Department and Ministry. (In July 1995, Minister Sankie Mthembi-Nkondo had publicly criticised the programme she had inherited from the late Joe Slovo as unacceptable "toilets-in-the-veld," generating much hand-wringing amongst fiscal conservatives, but she was brought back into line.) Symbolic blame-shifting aside, Cobbett also identified actual bottlenecks in the operations of the nine provincial housing boards. But these multi-stakeholder boards reflected the social contract mentality brought from national to provincial level, and Cobbett had a major role in their constitution and membership.
Most striking about the housing boards were the heightened conflicts of interest implicit when banks and developers were granted a decisive role in doling out the subsidies. Banks, for instance, were vigorous opponents of situating low-cost developments in the (generally well-located) apartheid-era buffer zones between black and white areas, for fear of dragging down property values (i.e., their collateral) in the latter. The solution that Cobbett now favours is to give more responsibility for housing facilitation to local government, an artful bit of buck-passing.
Again, there is no chance for this incremental reform to a fundamentally-flawed policy to deliver the goods, given enormous local-level fiscal constraints and power imbalances. Effective control still largely lies in the white bureaucracy, with white councillor vetos standing by. In short, the real social problems - mass poverty, intensifying income inequality and the ongoing cementing of apartheid geography - are simply not being recognised and grappled with. Hysterical demonisation of those low-income South Africans allegedly suffering a "culture of non-payment" - coming as it usually does those from those white, petty bourgeois and bourgeois South Africans who exhibit what Mzwanele Mayekiso has termed a "culture of privilege" ( SAR, January 1995) - is no substitute, though we can expect the whining to increase. And for progressives committed to a sustained campaign for social justice, there is no substitute for the back-breaking work of rebuilding mass organisations. Now that official racial oppression is being supplanted by neo-liberalism, those organisations - perhaps with a few sympathetic councillors - will have to tackle South African urban capitalism head on.
WHY RENT BOYCOTTS CONTINUE
If you lived in a South African township during the 1980s and early 1990s, there were any number of compelling reasons - related, but not exclusive, to the legacy of undemocratic local government and the 1985 ANC campaign "Make South Africa Ungovernable" - for not paying the monthly bill for rental or service (mainly electricity, water, sewage) charges.
Indeed, sporadic rent boycotts in the Western Cape, East Rand and other sites pre-date the 1983 launching of the United Democratic Front, and represented not merely anti-apartheid campaigning pressure, but a more durable mode of informal struggle based on the survival mechanisms implicit in the township moral economy. This was logical given that the black township was, as SACP intellectual Jeremy Cronin once remarked, "essentially a creation of Colonialism of a Special Type." And the township political economy remains financially barren. Although monthly charges are often less than R100, the vast majority of black South Africans today survive on less than R300 per month, according to a recent World Bank study. Poverty and mass unemployment are the simplest and most durable rationales for not paying the bills.
If authorities responded to non-payment by cutting individual accounts or threatening eviction, then a supply of electricity or water could simply be stolen (with the help of informal electricians and plumbers) or mass action by civic association street committees would prevent a forced removal. Moreover, the quality of the services - and of the decades-old matchbox houses for which residents paid rent without any secure urban tenure rights - was generally abysmal. This was also the case for many of the 150,000 or so houses built by the private sector and financed by banks during the late 1980s, leaving homeowners little choice but to refuse to pay their loan, so as to compel the banks to force the original developers to repair their shoddy work.
Aside from resistance politics, the waning household budget and poor quality homes and services, there were - and in many cases remain still today - other important structural contradictions contributed to the success of the rent and service boycotts. Today, it would not be surprising if these add, in many residents' minds, to their own justification for disowning Operation Masakhane:
* We must never forget that blacks historically subsidised white residents' rates, because blacks worked and bought goods in white towns from firms and retail outlets that paid their rates to white town councils, thus generously supplementing residential rates (while black townships had only the beer hall for revenues). This reverse-Robin Hood phenomenon was well-understood in the townships, and formed the basis for the civic movement's "One City, One Tax Base" demand.
Only a few municipalities - Johannesburg stands out - have begun to redress the black-white subsidy by introducing progressive tariffs that would allow redistribution to occur in the other direction.
* Due to the effectiveness of earlier boycotts, many local authorities simply neglected to send township residents their accounts (published reports suggest billing rates in many large townships are still at just 50%). This is only beginning to change, and naturally is a high priority for the new government, but it will require accurate township residents' rolls and the identification of addresses in informal settlements, which will not be easy.
* Those townships residents who received electricity accounts from the parastatal Eskom - which had simply left black townships without power until the 1980s - were often most justified in boycotting. Their complaints about much higher average payments per unit of service than in white areas were based on the fact that whites had long ago paid off capital charges. For blacks, capital charges were internalised because services were newer, and that infrastructure provision was far more costly in peripheral areas of the metropolis where most blacks reside. Then, when Eskom began installing individual pre-paid metering points in an effort to break the payment boycotts, these also cost more than ordinary hook-ups, and the interest on the pre- paid funds went to Eskom.
While some progress has been made in equalising the unit rate of electricity in Johannesburg, this is not true in most other areas, and even Johannesburg has not begun to cross-subsidise from rich to poor consumers as is called for in the RDP.
* The state of a township's housing stock signals to residents the merits of paying the rent and service charges. During the 1980s, the apartheid state simply stopped building new township houses, instead turning to banks and developers to take over. Today, notwithstanding detailed policy attention to the housing crisis and huge increases in the state housing budget, fewer than 800 new low-cost houses are being built each month (4% of the rate the ANC RDP promised). Government departments at all levels are failing to construct, or even facilitate construction of, proper houses, and instead - in contradiction to RDP provisions - channel subsidies to for-profit developers. Their developments are, in the words of a Business Day journalist, "remarkably like the discredited site and service schemes advocated during the apartheid era."
* Government subsidies are insufficient to finance a house, and it is nearly impossible to build a solid structure on the serviced sites because of the lack of affordable credit. Commercial banks not only charge 22% for low-cost township housing loans (compared to 17.5% on home loans to the petty and haute bourgeoisie) they also still formally "redline" more than a quarter of all townships. Both these practices ensue with the explicit approval of the government, whose timid goal is simply to have the banks involved at all.
* The long-awaited transfer of existing council houses to long-term residents has been extremely inefficient, with just over one-third completed to date in even the advanced, wealthier provinces.
* In addition to housing policy failures, most household investments in township homes (and hence greater willingness to pay for services in order to avoid cut-offs or eviction) will be financially fruitless because there is still nothing much of a secondary housing market to ultimately recoup the investments.
* Apartheid spatial location and the high cost of (extremely dangerous) transport - the single largest component of the urban black household budget - together have meant that the average township resident pays far more of her household budget on commuting than do whites (incredibly, most new developments are still being sited on the periphery of cities).
* Schools, clinics, creches, libraries, recreation and other publicly funded facilities are of very low quality in townships, if they exist at all, and the physical environment (air, water, hygiene, etc) is lamentable.
* Police are far worse at combatting township crime - which in any case is far more extensive and violent - than they are at tracking criminals in well-fortified white neighbourhoods.
* Promises made by government to those community-based organisations (especially the civics) that were charged with implementing Operation Masakhane - promises ranging from financial support for organisational capacity-building and basic infrastructure, to funding for explicit projects - were mainly broken, and most community organisations are still overlooked by the major non-governmental donors.
* Perceptions of racial, class and gender injustices run very deep. Reports (and public perceptions) of increasing inequality between low-income blacks and upper-income whites contribute to these, and feed a general social alienation that is entirely understandable if one considers what hell it is to live in apartheid townships. In many cases, such rationales for rent/services boycotts flow easily from the apartheid era to the present day. No amount of multimillion rand Operation Masakhane advertising campaigns (featuring the likes of Archbishop Tutu and former SANCO leader Moses Mayekiso) can change the material realities and the psychological aversion many township residents have to spending declining take-home pay on inferior services and rented matchbox homes.
To reverse these causes will require far more serious policy and financial commitments by the new government and by society at large than appears possible in the near term. A tough first question often posed by our own sources is this: in a middle-income country like SA, why should anyone pay anything to live in a typical township? Reviewing a list of reasons for the legacy and durability of rent boycotts - or merely taking a close look at one of South Africa's open township sores - makes it difficult to argue. Yet at this stage of the country's political development, to even pose such a question in policy circles is to run the risk of being labelled "dangerous ultra-leftist" by ANC politicians.
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