David A. McDonald, John Pape, eds. Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa. London: Zed Books, 2002. 224 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84277-331-4.
Reviewed by Ian Taylor (Department of Political and Administrative Studies, University of Botswana, Gaborone)
Published on H-SAfrica (April, 2003)
The African National Congress came to power in 1994 promising a "Better Life for All." With the appalling backlog in basic infrastructural services for the vast majority of the country's population, the new government indeed had a massive task on its hands. For instance, whilst the system of heath care enjoyed by white South Africans was regarded as one of the best in the world, the system for non-whites was nothing less than catastrophic. On average, there were twelve hospital beds available for every 1,000 whites in Johannesburg, while in Soweto, fewer than two hospital beds were available for every 1,000 non-whites and on average, doctors responsible for whites had 330 people under their care, while doctors responsible for blacks had 91,000! The situation in the homelands was even worse: on average, three black children died of malnutrition in South Africa every hour under apartheid.
The post-1994 government has claimed that it has supplied an extra seven million people with clean water and over three million people with electricity. This sounds impressive. However, not only are the figures disputed, they are also highly suspect when one looks at both the quality of the services provided and the sustainability of them: quite a number of such provisions are not actually operational anymore. The purpose of the book under review is to explain why this is so and also to point out that millions in South Africa, nearly ten years after "liberation," remain trapped in a life lacking the most basic services. Detailed case studies are provided by the various contributors as a means of laying the groundwork. Hameda Deedat and Eddie Cottle look at how cost recovery is pursued with regard to water metres in a small settlement in Kwa-Zulu Natal, whilst Greg Ruiters examines disconnections in Fort Beaufort, Queenstown, and Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape. Grace Khunou also deals with electricity disconnections, exploring how cost recovery in Soweto has led to extensive cut-offs. Mthetho Xali and John Pape look at two very different residential areas: Khayelitsha and Constantia respectively. One is an impoverished Black township, the other a wealthy White suburb, both in Cape Town (note the language: "township" vs. "suburb"). Hameda Deedat then looks at access to water in the rural Northern Cape. The choice of case studies is geographically representative and enlightening.
At the core of the book's argument, an argument I fully subscribe to, is the point that the government's own policies undermine the whole notion of service delivery and a "Better Life for All." Fundamentally, cost recovery, i.e. charging people the full cost of services received, sabotages the whole idea of provision to the poor. In a country like South Africa the poor, for historically well-known reasons, simply cannot afford to pay. Indeed, up to ten million people (the overwhelming majority being Black Africans) have had their water and/or electricity terminated since 1994. The book points out the rather disgraceful (for the ANC) fact that whilst it is without doubt that the delivery of services to Africans under apartheid was pathetically defective, relatively few cut-offs for non-payment actually transpired. Compare that to the situation now operating in South Africa under the so-called father of the African renaissance, Thabo Mbeki.
Why is this so? Any discussion of South Africa's contemporary political economy needs to look at the rabidly neo-liberal policies being advanced by Mbeki's government. In February 1996 then Deputy-President Mbeki announced a new strategy for the nation's economic development, effectively killing off the Keynesian-tinged RDP. June 1996 saw the government hastily release its new macroeconomic strategy under the name of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan. At the time it was claimed it would increase annual growth by an average of 4.2 percent, create 1.35 million jobs by 2000, and boost exports by an average 8.4 percent per year. The government's finance minister immediately declared that GEAR was "non-negotiable." It is important to note that GEAR was released without any qualification and after very limited discussion within the ANC national executive committee. No prior discussion with the ANC's partners in government--COSATU and the SACP--occurred. GEAR was modelled on a South African Reserve Bank model that was the same used by the Bank during the late apartheid years and exhibits a commitment to conservative fiscal policies, trade liberalisation, and a shift from consumption to investment spending.
GEAR certainly reflected a remarkable shift in the ANC's ideological orientation between 1990 and 1996, and to all intents and purposes, the policy has replaced the Freedom Charter. The ANC's vision of a more equal and progressive order has now been shelved and a Thatcherite discourse of fiscal discipline and market forces has taken over. Mbeki has even arrogantly invited his critics to "call me a Thatcherite." Of course, the business press in South Africa is in general highly supportive of Mbeki's succession post-Mandela and it is evident that capital hopes that Mbeki will prove a decisive, Machiavellian figure, who will use his mandate to break the power of the unions to impede privatisation and block liberalisation of the labour market.
Certainly, Mbeki also reflects the aspirations of the emergent black elite who are strongly supportive of Mbeki and who could not care less about service provisions to the massive under-class in South Africa. Although the ANC still enjoys overwhelming support of the black working class, its policies are more and more aimed at advancing the interests of the black bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie whose interests are integrally tied to that of white capital. Indeed, GEAR reflects and reinforces the dominance of the black bourgeoisie, which has fewer and fewer disputes with the old social order and a greater appetite to join it. This is of profound importance as pressure from this ultra-free-market elite (except, naturally, with regard to affirmative action and "black empowerment") could limit attempts by the government to restore the kind of developmental policies on which an improvement in the lot of the poor would depend.
In short, the ANC's current policies pretend that everyone, capitalist and shanty-town dweller alike, has more or less the same interests and can be served by more or less the same policies. The book under review debunks this myth most convincingly. Cost recovery is inexorably tied to GEAR's agenda, namely the privatisation and commercialisation of public services. Indeed cost recovery is essential within the neo-liberal framework of planned privatisation as the ANC realises that no potential private investor would sign up to a business with around a 40 percent return. The discourse of cost recovery has now pervaded all facets of local government in the "new" South Africa, with "efficiency" the mantra of the day and damn the consequences for the poor. But the consequences have been tragic. A cholera epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal was stimulated in part by the demand for cost recovery on municipal water and, irony of ironies, then had the state having to spend tens of millions of rand more in crisis management than it would have spent providing free water.
It remains the case that most tariff structures for services are barely progressive and there are instances where low-income households actually pay more for their water and electricity than industry or suburban households. As a result of such a scenario, and the obviously negative consequences on the poor of cost recovery strategies, John Pape in his summing up of the volume argues for a paradigm shift in thinking regarding service delivery. According to Pape, an alternative framework would place decision-making in the hands of the needy and argues that the allocation of resources would be based on the priorities of the majority. This sort of democratisation of the economy might then start addressing the huge backlog in infrastructural projects and services. However, any such project--radical to be sure--would have to face the position exemplified by Nico Czypionka, an economic consultant in South Africa, who remarked in 1998 that "if the ANC came out and said: 'Our first obligation is to our people' there would be some very heavy choking by capital." The book makes clear that the ANC has indeed failed this obligation through its cost recovery programmes. It is not capital that is choking however, but the ordinary poor South African, whose right to basic services is denied. David McDonald and John Pape should be congratulated for a job well done and I am sure all readers of H-Net will wish John Pape well whilst he endures his current sojourn in America: this book demonstrates how much of a contribution Pape made to the analysis of South Africa's political economy.
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Ian Taylor. Review of McDonald, David A.; Pape, John, eds., Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa.
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