South Africa’s municipal elections: Finally, basic services for the masses?

Patrick Bond


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

Western Cape.


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

and DA.


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.


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)


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