Fiddling While Rome Burns

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

It's pretty easy to see that people are unhappy about the way that some local municipal departments are failing to deliver. Service delivery protests are generally ignored by most of us, regardless of how many tyres are burnt in the streets. Sadly, however, it appears that this is the only way unhappy residents can get the attention of those in power.

Fiddling (and partying) while Rome burns may all be very well, but what is going to happen when the money runs out - and sooner or later, it will, unless the municipalities concerned jack up their debt collecting processes.

Can we really blame those who take to the streets? On the face of it, many municipal officials in their fancy and expensive cars seem to have forgotten about the needs of the people and are more concerned with spending money on non-essentials. Million rand vehicles are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are countless officials who relish in lavish lifestyles and have a seemingly never-ending urge to party.

It easy to bandy around figures in millions and billions, but how much is R81-billion in real terms? In relation to luxury items, perhaps not too much, but in the case of giving back to the people, it is a small fortune. To put things in perspective: the Gauteng Provincial Government has budgeted a mere R25-billion for infrastructure investments in 2013/14 in an effort to improve on delivery.

It is important to remember that there is a vast difference between an unwillingness to deliver services and the financial inability to deliver these services. There are undoubtedly a number of local municipalities that simply cannot afford to fix the roads, maintain the water pumps and process the sewerage because large numbers of ratepayers are not paying their bills. On the other hand, an increasing number of people are unwilling to support municipalities which, if not out-and-out corrupt, are wasting massive sums of money on non-essentials and these people are refusing to pay their rates. There are also those who simply cannot afford to pay rates.

Regardless of the reasons, why has the situation been allowed to reach such epic proportions? Is it a general malaise: the inability to collect debts coupled with the inability to deliver services on top of the inability to do anything properly? Quite frankly, it doesn't really matter. In a functioning society, services need to be delivered and municipalities need to be paid for such services.

Municipalities can improve their debt collecting abilities all they like, but until they actually focus on what they are being paid to do and give the people what they are paying for, the problem isn't going to go away.

There are, of course, two sides to every story and from a ratepayer's perspective, the municipality is first in line to party and the last in line to deliver. From the municipality's perspective, ratepayers are first in line to complain and last in line to cough up.

How can we expect service delivery if we don’t pay for it? Perhaps those with a genuine gripe should at least cast a cursory glance at rates defaulters and not direct all their frustration at municipal bodies.

That said, is it fair on those who do pay their rates to have to suffer under an ineffectual municipality? And let's face it, there are more and more municipal officials who are simply not up to the task of running a local authority.

Surely the time has come for those who cannot deliver the very basics to shape up or ship out before the whole system sinks. Assuming that central government or the already hard-pressed citizens are going to bail them out of trouble is bound to end in disaster.

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