South Africa's municipal elections: Finally, basic services for the masses?
December 5, is a national election in South Africa, as nearly 9,000 councilors
in 284 municipalities seek the support of ten million voters. The African
National Congress (ANC), which since 1994 has won three national, provincial and
local polls with nearly two-thirds of the total vote, will no doubt again be the
big winner. President Thabo Mbeki has campaigned aggressively, attempting to
make up for the extremely uncharismatic nature of the party's mayoral
growing popular alienation from the ruling party has forced the ANC campaign to
the Left, especially in relation to low-income citizen demands for access to
basic services. Services comprise the single biggest issue in these elections,
with billboards and full-page advertisements by the ANC and its two main
opponents offering new policies and better implementation in the delivery of
water, sanitation, electricity, roads, healthcare and other state aid.
official opposition is the Democratic Alliance (DA), a recent merger of the
liberal Democratic Party and the former apartheid-promoting Nationalist Party.
The latter controls the Western Cape province and its majority "coloured"
(mixed-race) population, which has voted for the former oppressors for fear of
losing second-class privileges to black Africans. But everywhere else in
suburban South Africa, the Democratic Party threatened the Nationalists with
oblivion, as disgruntled white voters came to view its youthful leader, Tony
Leon, as a far more effective lobbyist on their behalf than the lacklustre party
led during most of the 1990s by FW de Klerk, and since then by non-entities.
the two white-oriented parties polled less than 20% of the national vote in the
last election, but will do far better this year now that their alliance allows
them to concentrate resources not on picking off each other's natural
constituents, but instead on seeking more coloured, Indian, and even African
votes. It is quite likely that the DA will win the crucial race for mayor of
Cape Town, on a strongly populist platform aimed mainly at the coloured working
class, but it is not expected to take any other major municipalities outside the
the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi is regionally grounded,
in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal province. But not even strong loyalty
amongst the country's largest ethnic group (Zulus) will lift Inkatha much above
5% of the national share of votes. The Inkatha bid to win control the country's
second largest city, Durban, will fail, thanks to the ANC's popularity amongst
the urban proletariat.
other small opposition parties polling 0.5-2% include two with leftwing
inclinations--the Pan Africanist Congress and Azanian Peoples Organisation--and
two centre-right groups (United Democratic Movement and African Christian
Democratic Party). Finally, in at least a half-dozen sites of municipal
struggle, explicitly leftist independents are running for council positions in
black townships, with fairly good prospects of unseating ANC candidates here and
main ANC fear is apathy, since the previous municipal elections attracted less
than half the eligible voters to the poll, and most black township voters are
objectively worse off in socio-economic terms than in 1994. The main cause of
ongoing decay in living standards is structural, as South Africa continues to
suffer under neoliberal economic development policies designed in part by
visiting World Bank missions. As a result, intense grievances by low-income
people regularly take the form of local demonstrations and even riots, with ANC
councilors at the unhappy intersection of fiscal austerity and social protest.
six weeks ago, Thabo Mbeki authorised the ruling party's campaign committee to
change course from prevailing municipal practice, quite radically. The ANC now
unequivocally promotes a universal "lifeline" supply of free basic
services, following a six-year period in which unaffordable tariffs and services
cut-offs wreaked disaster in many poor areas.
illustrate the importance of the change, a national policy definition of the
word lifeline drafted by bureaucrats in 1994 had called for water to be priced
so as to cover operating and maintenance costs, on the grounds that "It
is... not equitable for any community to expect not to have to pay for the
recurring costs of their services."
as a result of worsening poverty in both urban and rural areas, this definition
proved self-destructive. By cutting off services to households-- and in some
cases, entire townships--which couldn't pay the full recurrent cost of water or
electricity, vast unanticipated expenses emerged, such as the millions of rands
spent by the KwaZulu-Natal health department trying unsuccessfully to contain
6,000 cases of cholera (and three dozen fatalities) since an August outbreak.
The epidemic followed an Inkatha-run rural council's decision to turn off what
had been a 17-year old free supply of clean water to impoverished peasants.
Similar outbreaks of diarrhoea and other water-related diseases have occurred
across the country for the same reason, in areas controlled by the ANC, Inkatha
it took another factor to draw attention to potential solutions: the South
African Constitution's socio-economic rights clauses. In a landmark October
decision in favour of a low- income woman (Irene Grootboom) and her colleagues,
the Constitutional Court mandated the Western Cape's Wallacedene municipality
(run by the DA) to urgently provide emergency services to the poor.
emergency plans are vital, of course. But the widespread lack of access to
services can only be truly resolved through a dramatic policy shift away from
the neoliberal premise of full cost-recovery. The ruling party recognises this,
finally, in its manifesto promise that "ANC-led local government will
provide all residents with a free basic amount of water, electricity and other
municipal services, so as to help the poor. Those who use more than the basic
amounts will pay for the extra they use."
the wealthy to thereby "cross-subsidise" the poor--presumably at both
municipal and national levels (since many outlying municipalities don't have
rich residents, and will require ongoing national grants)--is the only way to
ensure access to all, backed by the ability of low-income citizens to haul
municipal officials into court if they don't deliver the free lifeline supply.
Whether the conservative ANC minister of finance, Trevor Manuel, complies by
raising central-local state subsidies by more than the 15% he recently promised,
remains in question. But ANC municipalities will now justifiably demand more
resources to deliver services to the ground.
remain, however, important problems of detail with the ANC's promise of 6,000
free kilolitres of water per household per month. The use of
"household" instead of "person" favours small homes--classic
(white) "double-income, no kid" yuppies--over large (black) families
dependent upon a grandmother's pension. And the ANC's reluctance to embrace its
1994 campaign promise of a medium-term target of 50-60 litres per person per day
(six kilolitres per month is around half the target) is worrying, limiting poor
people to the equivalent of two toilet flushes a day. The World Health
Organisation recommends the higher amounts, and there is no reason South Africa
can't achieve this given its middle-income status.
while the ANC promises that the public sector will be the "preferred
provider" of such services, there remains intense ideological and financial
pressure on municipalities to privatise. The ANC-aligned SA Municipal Workers
Union and its civil-society allies have been waging a heroic, but mainly losing
battle against French and British firms, and last week embarked upon intensely
confrontational strikes against ANC councils in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
the ANC's cross-subsidy breakthrough is long overdue, and must be applauded
(partly because it provides an enormous disincentive to further privatisation).
The ANC promise compares well to the confusion and silence found in the
manifestos of the other two main parties. The DA guarantees "basic services
like water and electricity for *all*" through "the apportionment of
equitable share funding to DA municipalities." DA municipalities will offer
"basic tariff rebates where the administrative capacity to do so exists, or
in another cost effective way, for example delivering water by the volume. In
practice this means that *all* households will receive a lifeline supply of a
particular service--for example their first six kilolitres of water
*free.*" Yet later, the DA also insists on "sharply targeted
subsidisation of consumers at the point of delivery where it is warranted on the
basis of a means test," which contradicts its emphasis on the universal
paradoxical is the DA's concession that "some cross-subsidisation is
inevitable... [but] must be aimed at service delivery to the poor, elderly and
infirm"--in other words not in the way the ANC proposes, so that higher
levels of consumption are penalised in order that rich and poor citizens alike
get their first lifeline bloc of water or other services free, as the
Constitution implies (the Bill of Rights is for *all*). Lacking details, it's
impossible to know how divergent DA financing systems for services can be
reconciled, and who will bear the burden of subsidy.
DA also emphasise more efficient municipal management (including more robust
debt- collection practices) plus privatisation. Ominously, however, the DA cites
the SA's oldest case of water privatisation, Queenstown, as a "success
story," even though tariffs rose dramatically when the French firm Lyonnais
des Eaux took over shortly before democracy was won in 1994. Within five years,
a municipal official was quoted in a local paper complaining that "despite
continuing cutting off of services, little money was coming in," resulting
today in permanent water-mains cuts and a major social crisis.
the DA also complains about "unfunded mandates," noting that
Johannesburg, for example, received R250 million (US$33 mn) "but year after
year this was reduced and in 1999 it stood at a mere R40 million" (US$5.3
mn). Unstated is the pressure that the DA and its business supporters have put
on the Department of Finance to reduce the national budget deficit, which is the
main reason that central-local grant funding was cut by 85% from 1991-99.
is surprisingly silent on services issues, with no formal position on free water
in rural areas notwithstanding the cholera tragedy. The IFP's Durban manifesto
calls for a "daily minimum quantity" of water for
"household-based survival activities" based on "affordable and
progressive" tariffs, but the ill-prepared IFP communications office could
provide me with absolutely no details about precise amounts or financing.
left-wing independents are gaining support largely because they oppose municipal
privatisation, water and electricity cutoffs, and municipal council corruption.
The most important is Soweto councilor Trevor Ngwane, fired from the ANC a year
ago because of his strident opposition to Johannesburg services privatisation.
Ngwane has become an icon of the SA Left, which hopes to launch a potential
workers' party of some sort within the next decade if the ANC's alliance with
the main trade unions and SA Communist Party continues to fray.
inability of municipalities to deliver services to all South Africans dominates
debate in today's poll, as it should. Only the ANC appears decisive in
advocating more substantial redistribution plus universal lifeline access, which
is the only system that can work in this terribly unequal society. But a variety
of hostile forces--half-hearted politicians, neoliberal and old-guard
bureaucrats, transnational corporate interests seeking municipal privatisation
contracts, and resistance from rich residents and business to cross-subsidisation--make
it likely that in five years' time, today's vigorous campaigning around services
will be viewed in retrospect as yet another set of broken promises.
(Patrick Bond teaches at Wits University in Johannesburg, where he co-directs the Municipal Services Project: http://www.queensu.ca/msp. His urban articles were recently collected in the book *Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal,* published by Africa World Press: http://www.africanworld.com)