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In various South African municipalities, a notable trend is emerging as parallel government organizations, operating de facto as municipalities, are established by volunteers.
Primarily seen in small holiday towns along the coastline, this phenomenon also extends to larger cities, where suburban residents’ associations bridge service delivery gaps.
The residents’ groups, often initiated for security purposes, gradually assume responsibilities such as pothole repair, park maintenance, and public lighting, essentially providing services that municipalities should deliver.
The Western Cape remains relatively immune to this trend, with some functional municipalities, though exceptions exist, as seen in Knysna, where the alliance between the PA and the Charterist parties (ANC/EFF) has led to widespread looting and evaporation of services, leading to an intervention by Liberal parties (DA, ActionSA) to place the municipality under administration.
However, in the interior, where municipalities are persistently dysfunctional, residents’ associations are becoming integral in maintaining public spaces.
These volunteer-led entities, often well-organized, demand annual levies from residents, leading to the question of how long homeowners will accept paying additional fees for essential services.
As property rates are rather steep, needed to pay for the endless haemorrhage of free services to non-taxpayers and land invaders, homeowners may reach a threshold where the cost of private contributions becomes a burden, potentially leading to rate boycotts and challenging the sustainability of this parallel governance model.
This has already happened in Durban, as the Westville Ratepayers Association led a boycott which withheld over R1.2 million from the metropolitan administration over mismanagement of electricity and other services.
While most other cases have been small coastal villages, a recent development has achieved a major legal victory for the urban district of Mangaung, which could change the face of governance in South Africa.
On the 13th of December last year, a case in Mangaung highlighted the dilemma, when Judge J. Molitsoane delivered a verdict in the garbage disposal case between the Woodland Hills Wildlife Homeowners Association and the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality.
In the judge’s final statement, he highlighted the absurdity of the government’s gatekeeping of services they refuse to provide:
“In the Heads of Argument, Counsel for the Applicant submits that ‘it is trite that the provision of refuse removal services is a municipal executive and legislative competence and a service which municipalities usually render’ but stresses that it is not a right. ..”
As the local ratepayers’ association explained:
“Garbage removal, therefore, is a function of the Metro, but it is not their exclusive right – the judgment of Judge Zondo in the Constitutional Court in the Rademan case clearly states that residents do not have to pay for a service that was not provided to them. This ruling therefore paves the way for consumers to choose their own service providers.”
These entities, stepping in where local municipalities fall short, are sustained by residents’ financial contributions, posing questions about the sustainability of this model.
After all, previous court cases had not taken the side of the ratepayers, instead voicing fears about “chaos” if the municipalities could not continue to assert their service monopoly.
But with this firm legal precedent in hand, the power of civic organisations and ratepayers alliances to substitute taxes with own-financed services of greater efficiency and at a lower cost will make this sort of organisation increasingly powerful and autonomous.
Click here to read the article on The Cape Independant.