Statement on Johannesburg City Council’s ’Indigent’ Arrears write-off

Monday 16 May 2005 by Dale



Last week, the City Council of Johannesburg announced a limited write-off of service arrears for those that ‘qualify’ (a figure of 100 000 people has been given and officially refers to account holders whose total monthly income is less than two government pensions + R1 - i.e., R1501 - and specifically includes poor pensioners, those with full-blown HIV-AIDs or their orphans and those with disabilities). This announcement, which the Council says will cost R1,5 billion, has been met with positive and widespread media coverage and is now being hailed as a shining example of the ANC-controlled City Council’s commitment to helping the poor. Little or no mention was made of the fact that this move effectively institutionalises the provision of inadequate amounts of ‘free’ water and electricity, that it will not reach many poor Johannesburg residents and that people will only ‘qualify’ if they accept the installation of the much-despised pre-paid meters.

The APF has, for many years now, been calling upon the Council (and by association the national government) to write-off the service arrears of the poor unconditionally, alongside the provision of free basic services. The fact of the matter is that the there is an endemic affordability crisis around basic services for the poor - the result of the government’s privatisation/corporatisation of service delivery and cost-recovery approach. It is not the poor who are ‘freeloading’ and who do not want to pay - as many in government and the media have so arrogantly claimed - they simply cannot afford to pay.

The write-offs come under the rubric of the Council’s Municipal Services Subsidy scheme and this is being touted as a major new contribution to ‘alleviating poverty’. Yet, previous ‘social packages for the ‘indigent’ have offered the ‘free’ allocations of water (6kl per month per household) and electricity (50kWh per month per household), the suspension of sanitation and refuse charges as well as doing away with assessment rates on properties valued at less than R20 001. These previous ‘packages’ have not had much impact precisely because the ‘free’ amounts are totally inadequate, there has been far too much bureaucratic bungling and red tape surrounding ‘indigent’ registration which also demands demeaning ‘means-testing’ (there were only 4000 registered ‘indigents’ in Johannesburg in 2004) and most importantly, because the overall framework for service delivery continues to be embedded in an ideological foundation that views basic services as (market) privileges and not human and constitutional rights.

The City Council claims that this ‘new’ programme will make it possible for poor people to have no charges on municipal accounts. However, given the hopelessly inadequate amounts of free water and electricity being provided, this will only happen if people cut back on their basic needs. Those few that do manage to sign up as ‘indigent’ applicants, like those that did so under similar ESKOM schemes (but without the condition of pre-paid meters, which is what is really new in this latest scheme), will be forced to survive with inadequate basic amounts of services or find ways to organise water and electricity for their needs by breaching the pre-paid meters - which a large portion of those who have already been ‘blessed’ with these meters are currently doing.

This latest initiative to link an arrears write-off for some with pre-paid meters should be seen for what it really is. In the first instance, a politically opportunistic act designed to curry favour with the poor prior to the upcoming local government elections. After all, the ANC is smart enough to have recognised that it is vulnerable at municipal government level given poor service delivery, corrupt and uncaring councillors, declining national votes in communities like Soweto and the potential for opposition from community organisations and social movements have been organising around issues such as arrears and pre-paid meters. Secondly, a desperate measure to force pre-paid meters onto poor people so that government can wash its hands of actually delivering adequate basic services to the poor. This comes in a context where research conducted for ESKOM showed that 75% of Sowetans had negative perceptions of pre-paid electricity meters (most of the pre-paid meters rolled out by City Power are currently breached), where internal research done by a department of the City Council found that 61% of respondents in Stretford 4, Orange Farm (the first community in Johannesburg to be ‘blessed’) did not want pre-paid water meters and where current installations of pre-paid water meters in Soweto have had to be carried out by court interdicts and a massive security presence.

The whole publicity stunt of announcing the write-off and the favourable publicity given to it, has to be contextualised against the overall treatment of Johannesburg’s poor by the City Council. It is being sold as providing a major benefit for the poor without examining why:

• The Council hides the fact that according to Census 2001, there are an estimated 387 000 households - not individuals - in Johannesburg with a monthly income below R1 100 (of which 180 000 households have no formal income at all - a quadrupling since 1996, whilst average Johannesburg household income doubled to R160 000 in the same period); • The Council has been cutting-off, and continues to cut-off, the poor; • The Council is evicting poor people in the Inner City (with the aim of “increasing property values” for capital), without providing any alternative accommodation; • The Council continues to try and forcibly remove poor people living in ‘informal settlements; • The Council has budgeted R1.3 billion in 2004/5 for services that are contracted out to private capital and that are set to eat up increasing amounts of operating costs over the next few years; • A majority of the Council’s expenditure on service infrastructure (housing, roads, pipes, etc) goes directly to the private sector; • The Council continues to privatise land that it owns; • The Council’s long-term development programme (Joburg 2030) is centred on a plan to facilitate increased profits for the private sector as a means to ‘deliver’ a ‘better life’ for the poor.

It is in this context, that the ululations and back-slapping that has greeted the announcement of this ‘new’ programme has to be seen as a reflection of how cruel and small the dream of a ‘better life for all’ has now become, and how successful the programme of demobilising and depoliticising mass organisations has been.


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