Neverland – where everything is for free
Neverland, according to Wikipedia, is a fictional location featured in the works of JM Barrie. It is the dwelling place of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, the Lost Boys and others. The “others” presumably include the late Michael Jackson who named his farm “Neverland Ranch” and also many citizens of Soweto.
We learnt recently that some Sowetans refuse to pay for their electricity and refuse to countenance the installation of pre-paid electricity meters. This is not new; one hears that the portion of Soweto receiving power direct from Eskom (as opposed to others supplied by the Johannesburg City Council) owes Eskom R4bn for electricity supplied and consumed but not paid for. This amount has built up over years – at least since the last write-off.
The justification for non-payment is that some claim that Nelson Mandela promised free electricity, free water, free sanitation and free services, in addition to other promises of free houses, free education and free medical services. In return for these promises, the residents voted for the ANC in 1994. Some of these promises were kept, but many were not.
It is of course possible that Mr Mandela did make these promises but I would like to know how they were kept secret until now, more than twenty years later. Surely not only Soweto residents would know about them; what about the residents in townships and suburbs throughout South Africa? Many consumers have been paying diligently for all this time, not realising that they need not pay – after all, the ANC would give them everything free.
Of course, this is all self-justifying nonsense. People who should have paid, have not paid. Others who are not even registered consumers leech off street lights and neighbours, witting and unwitting, and the culture of lawlessness and non-payment has thrived. That culture has been fed by regular write-offs of outstanding amounts, to the tune of billions of Rand.
It is not only the indigent who have enjoyed free electricity – many people who are employed have obtained free services as an additional perk or entitlement. No wonder they are now vehemently opposed to the installation of pre-paid electricity meters. Pre-paid means just that. Pay and then use. If you have had free services for years, it must be quite appalling to face the fact of having to pay your way. Blaming Mr Mandela is an easy way out.
The culture of non-payment and entitlement is actively encouraged by the Greater Johannesburg Region of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu. I was astounded to see representatives of these three leading a protest march in Soweto on Thursday 14 May. The utter hypocrisy of these leaders is breathtaking.
While Eskom is battling to keep the lights on; while the government is trying to do something about the energy crisis and operating a War-Room; while municipalities are being threatened with financial sanctions for failing to pay their Eskom bills; while the mining and manufacturing sectors are being crippled by rolling electricity blackouts (politely referred to as “load-shedding”) and while the rest of us face huge tariff increases to rescue Eskom, they lead a protest march.
One newspaper reported that this was the day the ANC protested against itself. The fact that as a spectacle it failed somewhat is beside the point. One report noted that the protest consisted of relatively few activists bussed into Soweto from outside by the ANC,SACP and Cosatu whose leaders felt the need to pretend to residents that they “feel their pain.”
No doubt it is easy to feel and fuel outrage about electricity blackouts – most of us are incensed – and it is simple to follow a populist line and take to the streets aiming to persuade residents that somehow, all evidence to the contrary, it is not the fault of the ANC.
Surely the Greater Johannesburg Region of the ANC, together with its Communist and trade union allies, should be doing whatever it takes to get the message across that people have to pay for their services. South Africa cannot afford to supply services on a grand scale, expecting taxpayers (VAT, personal and company) to fund everything, with the beneficiaries of those services contributing nothing.
Of course the elderly and the indigent should be helped wherever possible. The prescribed minimum of free water and electricity must be provided through cross-subsidisation by better off people, but the rest of the population must pay for what it uses. That is only fair.
Why has this culture of non-payment taken hold? We hear that municipal authorities are owed R98.9bn. R5.5bn is owed by government departments to councils, business owes R22bn and households owe R60bn. Minster Pravin Gordhan indicated during his budget vote in parliament that this debt was “spiralling out of control.”
Minister Gordhan announced that a civic responsibility campaign will be run to promote a culture of payment. He called on MPs to support the campaign. Perhaps he should start with the formations of his own party. On the very day he was announcing this praiseworthy effort, the Greater Johannesburg Region of the ANC was in the streets shouting slogans at Eskom. The reason is clear: municipal elections are just around the corner.
Sad to say, one can forecast with some certainty that Minister Gordhan’s campaign will not succeed. It is likely to fail because the populists in the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu will put short-term electoral prospects first and forget about the long term health of the economy and the country. They will ask for more write-offs and more free services.
In the same speech Pravin Gordhan told mayors and officials of small municipalities verging on bankruptcy to stop buying million Rand cars. He said, “Stop this nonsense.” One hopes he will tell ordinary South Africans that this is not Neverland where everything is free for those who do not wish to pay. That nonsense must also stop.