S. Africa's Wealthy Take to Streets
Protests over tax hike raise issue: Who pays for development?
JOHANNESBURG — Same tactic, different era. In the 1980s, thousands of boycotting blacks stopped paying utilities bills to protest apartheid's racist policies.
Last week, dozens of South Africans marched with clenched fists and wagged signs that screamed "Rates, Don't Pay Them."
The similarity ends there. Last week's marchers were mostly well-heeled whites from Sandton, a northern Johannesburg suburb that often evokes comparisons to Beverly Hills.
The protesters, arguing that they use fewer government services than other areas, are refusing to pay recent utility and municipal services rate hikes for Sandton - as high as 300 percent in some cases - that will partly be used to subsidize poorer communities such as Alexandra and Soweto.
Several large corporations with offices in Sandton have joined the "boycott," which appears to be leading to a showdown with the African National Congress-led government.
"To jump on the boycott wagon is very dangerous," warns Mpho Mosimane, a spokesman for the Ministry of Provincial Affairs and Constitutional Development. "People in the [black] townships who boycotted had to make many sacrifices. They didn't get electricity. And the townships collapsed. The question Sandton has to ask is this: Are they prepared to sacrifice?"
The Sandton rates revolt comes at a time when Nelson Mandela's 28-month-old government is hard-pressed to provide adequate services such as running water and electricity to a majority of South Africa's blacks. Collection schemes in rural areas and townships can't work without a developed economy, and much-needed revenues are at dismally low levels.
Mr. Mandela counts on wealthier citizens to foot more of the bill for rebuilding South Africa. But the boycott underscores the apprehension and mistrust that still exists among many whites of their black-led government.
"In South Africa we have to accept the fact that an awful lot of whites think a black government is going to mess things up," says Steven Friedman, who heads the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "Affluent people across Africa don't have any confidence in the state and therefore try to take care of themselves. There is that sort of ethos in South Africa."
Blacks remember the days when rundown townships like Alexandra, created to provide workers for Sandton, bore the expense of building up white suburbs. Though black neighborhoods were crumbling, black money helped to pay for this process.
"The black townships were subsidizing the white suburbs," Mr. Friedman says. "You had black people working and spending in the city. Not a cent of their money went back to the townships. That's the historical reality we're dealing with."
Now, the political shoe is on the other foot. Earlier this year, Alexandra and Sandton were fused into a single municipal entity, the Eastern Metropolitan Substructure (EMS). For Alexandra residents, this meant they would, after decades of neglect, share in Sandton taxes and rates revenues.
"In the past, Sandton, like all other white areas, benefited from the former dispensation," says Nkele Ntingane, chairperson of the EMS executive committee. "Now the time has come for everybody to have equity. We have to bring up many disadvantaged areas in South Africa. And for that we need funds."
SANDTON leaders say they have a "debt" to pay for the past, but they aren't prepared for the huge rate hikes based on revaluation of their properties. They charge that Sandton's homes and businesses were incorrectly valued and are lobbying for a phased increase in rates.
Many residents have refused to pay. Others have paid the old rates plus 20 percent, a sum they say is more just. While Sandtonians are irked by what they see as shelling out huge sums for little in return, ANC critics charge it is currying favor with its core supporters.
"Essentially non-ANC voters are contributing vast sums of money to spend on ANC-controlled areas," says Mike Moriarty, a Democratic Party councillor on the EMS. "Meanwhile 80 to 90 percent of Alexandra and Soweto aren't paying. This is what's causing the [boycott]."
Senior EMS officials say Sandton's rates were extremely low under white rule and that its residents do use plenty of services. Furthermore, they add, the hikes have been uniform throughout Johannesburg. Other suburbs have begun to protest, too.
For many blacks, especially in Alexandra, the controversy is a matter of redress for apartheid's dark past.
"They never paid [much to] the black people who worked for them during apartheid," Benedict Khumalo, an unemployed Alexandra resident, told the Weekly Mail and Guardian last week.
"Now they must pay for their rich life."