/ 25 March 2024

Is it time for a rates boycott in Johannesburg?

Borehole Collection 1853 Dv
Borehole water collection in Johannesburg. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

This is not the first time residents of Melville have been here. Every six months or so we are plunged into a Mad Max post-apocalyptic fight for water that lasts for weeks, because the local Hursthill 2 reservoir recovers incredibly slowly from any dip in inflow.

Like power, many people are looking for ways to bypass the metro by going off grid, but the solution is still difficult and expensive and, in most cases, won’t help with more than flushing a toilet.

This crisis is the last straw for most who are watching service delivery and a city crumble around them, and lately the cry for a rates boycott is echoing even louder through the empty pipes.

We live in a water scarce country, and climate change is accelerating, but the Joburg water crisis is man-made, with a lack of maintenance and investment in infrastructure at its core.

The future of the water supply in the city also looks dire with an ever-increasing demand the result of increasing urbanisation and a rise in water loss. 

What is causing the crisis?

It starts with Rand Water, the bulk water supplier, which can only draw a limited amount of water to provide to Gauteng and provinces as well as industries such as mining. This limit has not increased in years, despite a rise in development and population in its delivery area. The last phases of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, intended to step into this gap, are delayed. All water supplied needs to be processed and made safe, but because of the  limited capacity of treatment works, it isn’t that simple to increase water during a crisis.

Investment in expanding the woefully maintained reservoir and pipes system in Joburg is years behind. While the City of Johannesburg needs to replace 185km of pipes a year they are managing only 117km every five years. 

After dips in supply, reestablishing flow means very high-pressure water is forced back through the system. This breaks open any cracks in an old pipeline, resulting in fountains and streams popping up everywhere. 

The metro is not collecting enough revenue to jump start an urgent repair scheme, because 44.8% of all the water shoved through the city is non-revenue. Almost half of our precious water is poured down the drain through leaks or lost through bypassed metres and non-payment. Joburg Water is owed R30 billion by customers, and Rand Water is R3 billion in debt from non-paying municipalities, mostly in Gauteng.

Is a rates boycott the answer? 

A rates boycott typically refers to a form of protest in which residents or groups refuse to pay certain rates or taxes (such as property rates and utility fees) imposed by a municipality or government authority. 

A boycott is often a way for citizens to express dissatisfaction with government policies or actions or — as in this case — lack of action, or to demand specific changes. By withholding payment, participants seek to exert pressure on authorities to address their grievances or to prompt reforms.

Strictly speaking, a rates boycott is illegal unless it is a measure of last resort with legal protections for the takeover of non-supplied services. 

Property rates are considered to be a tax, not a tariff, meaning it is not tied to the delivery of a specific service but rather to the privilege of being attached to a system of infrastructure and management. Much like you can’t simply decide that you don’t get value for your income tax and expect the South African Revenue Service to understand, property rates are a tax that can be enforced by law.

When considering a rates boycott, one should bear in mind the reality of what it would take to administer one. It is difficult and tedious. If the city can claim acts of God (for example,  lightning) or unfortunate valves that close themselves, it almost seems that the situation is out of their hands, so any other body managing the system would come up against the same problems. 

Residents who want to use a precedent such as the waste management victory of people in Mangaung after the municipality failed to deliver this service, should bear in mind that water delivery is a much more complex task to execute.

Also note that non-payment will collapse the city’s income, meaning even less investment, something which could be catastrophic with decades of repercussions.

Regardless of the frustration, illegal behaviour may also lead to unintended negative and legal consequences, including fines, legal action or cutting off services, depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances. A rates boycott could have you cut off indefinitely, extending your loss of water access, unless you pay a fine and reconnection fee with all back-owed rates and possibly even legal fees. A rates boycott should therefore be a last resort.

What can we do instead?

We have heard from several City of Joburg executives dismissing the likelihood of a boycott in recent weeks.  The mayor, Kabelo Gwamanda, says any talk of withholding rates is a political tool to undermine the council and black leadership. 

For people without water, playing politics is a slap in the face, and this has just amplified calls for cutting the purse strings. While tempers flare, a boycott might be labelled a political response, but it is more an emotionally desperate act.

The main objective of a boycott is to get officials to wake up, listen and act. With power and leadership comes responsibility. As residents, we must take back some agency and demand accountability for a system we feel is either corrupt, inept, or apathetic to our suffering.

We have to step up and own our part of the cycle and be the water warriors we seek. Using grey water for our gardens and toilets rather than throwing away clean drinking water is a start. Tap restrictors, rainwater capture and shorter showers are essential.

As we are expected to have contingency plans, we have to hold officials accountable for not having back-ups for their systems too. Now is the time for people to unite, to get organised and to strategically work with the city. 

We need to do things differently, and demand that everyone uses all the tools at their disposal to get the system turned around before it is too late. 

By “us”, I mean residents and civil society organisations, the billing department (who should enforce revenue collection), and the various water services authorities, and City Power or the Johannesburg Roads Agency as the maintenance partners. 

We have to get on the same page, stop pointing fingers and co-create a sustainable future.

The amazing religious organisations that open their doors for people to collect from their boreholes or the list of residents providing their neighbours with water are also all over my street Whatsapp group, and it is this kind of community spirit that will remind us of how to do things and not retreat behind our walls withdrawing from our collective responsibility.

Julia Fish is the JoburgCAN manager, an initiative launched by Outa to organise and empower a network of associations and businesses in the City of Johannesburg, ensuring responsible collection and use of rates and tax revenues, coupled with excellent service delivery by the city.