After enduring years of deteriorating municipal infrastructure in Pietermaritzburg, residents in the province’s capital are threatening a rates boycott.
Durban: After enduring years of deteriorating municipal infrastructure in Pietermaritzburg, residents in the province’s capital are threatening a rates boycott.
Residents say the city has been poorly managed and is now unable to function properly. Adding to their frustration, over the festive season they had to endure several days without electricity.
At a community meeting on Christmas day, Ashin Singh, a community activist, raised the issue of a boycott. He addressed Ravi Pillay, the KZN MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs who was present at the meeting along with the deputy mayor and the ward councillor.
Singh lives in Pietermaritzburg and is a founding member of Samrem, the South African Minority Rights Equality Movement.
The crisis meeting was called following an attack on a police officer who tried to protect an electrical substation in Northdale by angry informal settlement residents.
The meeting was called tried to defuse tensions between the informal and formal communities, and to explain what was being done to restore power.
Singh said: "If the municipality continues to treat the northern suburbs like this, there will be a non-payment of rates. I will tell the people to stop paying rates and we will claim our power back. You can help the poor but not at the expense of people who are paying and who are suffering."
He added: "In the 20 years I have lived there, there has been no improvement. There is no drainage, the lights don't work, the garbage is not collected.
"If you drive through these areas, it's worse than the city. The roads haven't been fixed for 20 years. Poverty and inequality is being created by the government and that's the problem.”
Singh said the issue was not about race and the fight should not be between communities but against those in power.
He added that if a boycott was called, residents would be asked to pay monies owed for rates and utilities into the account of an attorney while their issues were being resolved.
Singh told the POST that the government had failed minority communities.
"The only way to get their attention is for ratepayers to pay rates into an attorney's trust fund approved by a court order and to use those funds for service delivery as well as to relocate informal settlements.
“I can see no other way to balance the interests of a minority against a corrupt and racist and divided ANC."
His call was met with mixed reaction from other parties.
Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi, leader of the Minority Front, said her late husband, Amichand Rajbansi, had also called for a rates boycott in the early 2000s when the ANC allowed informal settlements to develop in former Indian areas.
"Properties became devalued although property rates were inflated. Crime increased and light and water outages started creeping in. The MF held the balance of power then and together with the support of a string of ratepayer associations in these areas, the government intervened and slashed inflated rates.
"Currently, the ANC is the majority party. The MF did not get any seats in areas like Copesville and the northern suburbs and these areas have gone to the dogs."
Thakur-Rajbansi said councillors, and even the mayor, had failed to respond to residents complaints.
"So, under such dire circumstances, the only option left for the people is to boycott rates. The residents should open a fund, run by strong ratepayer associations, and invest in green, renewable energy and water infrastructure for each household. This will lessen the burden of the municipality which is not coping due to mismanagement.
“The late Mr Rajbansi, during the apartheid era, used the Chatsworth Communities Facilities Fund to build key infrastructure like the Chatsworth Stadium, swimming pools, etc. It can be replicated by the Msunduzi residents," she said.
Visvin Reddy, leader of ADeC, said the points raised by Singh were valid and applicable to other municipalities.
"Service delivery is non-existent and ratepayers are having to pay exorbitant tariffs without getting value for their money. To make matters worse, municipalities are funding communities that do not contribute to the municipal fiscus through crisis subsidisation. Ratepayers' monies are mismanaged.
"Free water and lights, RDP housing, and developments in informal settlements yield no return on investment."
Reddy said those who pay rates were in the minority and overburdened.
"Squatter settlements, constant water and electricity interruptions plague paying residents. This is a recipe for disaster.
"A rates boycott has to be a final resort and must be a culmination of a series of events involving all ratepayers. I have seen too many of these boycotts become a huge embarrassment for those that call for them, especially when a few heed the call and the majority do not."
He said as a starting point, residents should demand that the responsibility for providing services to the disadvantaged lay with the national government and not ratepayers.
"No municipality must use ratepayer funds to service non-rate paying areas. This has to be done through an inter-governmental grant. Given the current economic climate, municipal tariffs must be lowered and the grant increased.
"Furthermore, areas and wards need to be ring-fenced according to the rates income derived and services allocated accordingly. If this demand fails, then a rates boycott becomes necessary. We cannot protest without putting clear demands on the table."
Imtiaz Syed, leader of the Active Citizens Coalition (ACC), said Pietermaritzburg had been under administration by COGTA since 2019. He said it was clear that the municipality was dysfunctional and had many irregularities.
"On one hand, we could all call for a rates boycott and through the courts make applications to create a separate collection and payment of services through ratepayer associations.
“However, how does that impact on the functionality of the municipality in its totality? "If a rates boycott needs to go ahead, then so be it, but let us be sensitive to the impact."
As an alternative, he suggested that ratepayer associations unite and lobby on having a say in how the city spent the money.
Ganief Hendricks, leader of Al Jama-ah, said a rates boycott would further harm the municipality.
"If there were more affluent suburbs, there would not have been a delay in service delivery. Voters must not vote for losers. I will also ask the premier to get the mayor to establish a hotline so Pietermaritzburg residents can get service delivery."
Patrick Pillay, leader of the Democratic Liberal Congress (DLC) said the DLC will not encourage or support any rates boycott.
"It will be reckless for any leader to lead a community into a rates boycott that may have a negative outcome and ultimately lead to people's houses being auctioned for non-payment of rates. However, what is needed is for elected politicians to stop politicking and start working for the community."
Mergan Chetty, Democratic Alliance (DA) MP and a Pietermaritzburg resident said the threats of a rates boycott stemmed from frustration.
"The recent electricity outages that crippled the Northern Areas of Pietermaritzburg, was caused by the negligence and incompetence of the municipality. Residents were frantic, as they had just purchased their Christmas groceries, and had to discard meat and vegetables as they were without electricity for up to 16 days."
He said residents should be entitled to claim from the council for their losses and expenses incurred.
"The fact that the Fire Department did not have the necessary equipment to put out the fire initially, caused the extended period of electricity outages.
"We are supportive of the community's initiatives to hold the council accountable. These areas have been paying for services that the council has failed to deliver on a regular basis for far too long. The residents have no option but to now demand the Mayor and his cronies' attention by whatever means that gets their attention, including the courts," he said.
Councillor Thinasonke Ntombela, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) caucus chairperson for the Msunduzi Municipality, said there was a lack of communication or consultation between the City and residents.
"The number of informal settlements around the neighbourhood is also a major problem since it results in illegal connections. People were promised houses decades ago, nothing is happening up to now.
"People should be treated equally, every individual should pay for the services rendered by the Municipality to him /her, but it's difficult to pay for something you don't receive."
MEC Pillay said the meeting had been a platform for community leaders to express their grievances and frustrations about service delivery issues, and feelings of marginalisation and neglect.
"There are certainly serious challenges with service delivery on various fronts but we dare not fracture on racial lines. I welcome the civil society activism that seeks to hold government accountable but always (remains) patriotic and committed to our constitutional values.
"I was very encouraged by those who sought solutions and a progressive way forward. The meeting concluded with several resolutions including a follow up meeting with officials in charge of implementing an electricity restoration programme."
The Msunduzi Municipality and Msunduzi Mayor were given an opportunity to comment but opted not to.