It's time to pay up, ANC tells township dwellers

After years of rates boycotts South Africa's poor can't get used to coughing up, writes Mary Braid
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THABO MLONDOLOZI allows himself a wry smile at the irony confronting South Africa's former liberation guerrillas, now turned elected representatives. "During the struggle we told people not to pay their rates and taxes," he says. "Now we tell the same people if they do not pay for electricity and water we will disconnect them."

Mr Mlondolozi, 28, an ANC activist, is responsible for cutting off electricity and water to hundreds of the 10,000 residents in Refilwe, a black township west of Pretoria. The afflicted families are less inclined to see the funny side, but then no one denies the situation is deadly serious.

Three years ago, President Nelson Mandela's government launched a national Masakhane (Zulu for "let us build together") campaign to persuade a population, raised in a culture of non-payment during the liberation struggle, to cough up rates and taxes. The campaign, which aims to persuade people that new rights come with civic responsibilities, has been launched, relaunched and, recently, launched again. Despite the advertisements and Masakhane awards presented by Mr Mandela, the money is barely trickling in.

In many townships - including Refilwe - less than 30 per cent of the population is paying for services; even then, most are only making partial payment. In the worst areas the rate is just 10 per cent. Non-payment has helped take Johannesburg's council to the brink of bankruptcy and has blighted the government's election promises of houses, jobs and basic services.

White ratepayers have refused to pay up, complaining that they are subsidising black non-payers. But while Mr Mlondolozi, the Masakhane co-ordinator in Refilwe, says "whites are selfish" he does not let blacks off the hook. "Every person has individual responsibility," he says.

Until recently, Masakhane relied on persuasion, but a tougher line is now being adopted. Even poor townships such as Refilwe, where the local diamond mine has laid off thousands of workers and three in every four people are unemployed, are going for a more punitive approach, despite subsequent outbursts of violence in a few townships. For Mr Mlondolozi, there is no choice if the local council is to stay afloat. "Those who can afford to pay are hiding behind the poor and jobless," he says.

Sniffing out the able non-payers is a grassroots effort, left to party men and patriots. Which is why Robert Manzini, a 75-year-old pensioner and just 4ft 8in tall, goes knocking on his neighbours' doors in Refilwe's poorest shack settlement.

Hundreds live in this neat but poverty-ridden little neighbourhood of corrugated iron shacks. Today Mr Manzini calls on Elizabeth Mathebula, 27, who is pregnant with her third child. In the corner of the two-roomed home her sick grandmother rustles under heavy bedclothes, her body racked by a fit of violent coughing. Thirteen people - including eight children - share this space, all surviving on the grandparents' combined pensions of pounds 100 a month.

The council recently brought water to Ms Mathebula's home, though electricity has yet to reach her. Surely there is no hope of payment here? But Mr Manzini did not devote his life to the struggle to see the dream die now; he argues that even Ms Mathebula's family can contribute something to the building of a new nation. And occasionally, he says, they do.

Residents like Piet Sebopela, 58, must surely test Mr Manzini's patience. Standing outside his blue metal home, cunningly constructed from oil drums dumped by the diamond mine, Mr Sebopela is feeling sorry for himself. His electricity has just been cut off and the meat he sells from his home is rotting in the fridge.

Still, by township standards, Mr Sebopela is doing well. There is his pension and investments in the bank. In the yard his son is washing a bakkie (pick-up truck) which he hires out. Ever the entrepreneur, Mr Sebopela has already branched out. While the fridge is down he is clipping a neighbour's hair in the yard. Miraculously, he has suddenly found the money to clear his council bill.

Mr Manzini struggles to suppress a smile. If it is a game, Mr Sebopela knows when he is beaten. "I don't blame the council or the government," he insists. "A lot of my neighbours are also cut off. Some are angry, some are not." The truth, he admits, is that some who do not pay can easily afford to do so.

There are distinct generational differences, according to Mr Manzini. "It's the older people who are paying," he says. "The young are buying settees on hire purchase." He shakes his head. "The young do not understand where they are coming from or where they are headed."

Despite valiant local efforts, nationally Masakhane is proving a complete failure, according to Dr Gavin Lewis, who monitors the government's reconstruction and development progress. "The government is in deep trouble if it cannot persuade people to pay," he says. With local government relying on service payments for 80 per cent of its income, a crisis has developed. A new local-government White Paper is already recommending that the number of local councils be cut.

But there are limits on how tough the ANC can get, particularly in an election year. In Refilwe, and elsewhere, disaffected ANC members and opposition parties are reported to be capitalising on local discontent over disconnections. Despite bringing water and services to millions of blacks, the ANC's election promises have proved hopelessly over-optimistic, particularly in housing, leaving it vulnerable to criticism from its own radicals, such as Winnie Madikezela-Mandela.

Scare stories abound about rising dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, Mr Manzini is waiting, like the other shack dwellers, for new houses being built by the council. In five months he hopes to be in his first brick home.

Asked about his dream house, he fetches his tape. Carefully he measures the length of his one-room shack, crammed with bed and cooking stove. It is just 3 metres (9ft). He lets the tape out another metre. Four metres, he says, with quiet, solid determination, are all he needs to contain his worldly possessions. How long can the government rely on such patient, humbling expectation?