Ratepayers are loudly rejecting bad city budgets, and long may it last

By Jonathan Erasmus

Let us be frank – our municipalities are paying little or no attention to public participation in passing their various draft budgets.

I expect a host of legal actions will flow in the coming months.

Instead, they are ramming their budgets through at such a ferocious pace before the 29 May National Election, that one can only surmise that diktats have trickled in from above from their political party masters that these budgets must be rushed.

The reasons for this are both practical and political. Parties want their members canvassing in May, not fighting residents over tariff increases, and there is probably also a whiff of concern in both Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal that they could have new political provincial leadership come June, and the municipalities want to hold their ground.

In eThekwini Municipality, for instance, the draft budget, a mammoth 800-page document, was only made available for public consumption in the first week of April, and adopted 30 days later

In Msunduzi Municipality, residents have no idea when their public participation process started and when it ended, with no clear public pronouncements made to this effect. I suspect the capital city’s process was deeply flawed.

In Johannesburg, residents were given less than a month to comment, and this included decisions needed on new policies and bylaws. There is already a challenge looming in the megacity to have the budget set aside due to a clear violation of the public participation process.

The level of hostility by local governments to residents has also significantly increased. There is a prevailing sense that local governments hate ratepayers, and that they view them with disdain as mere piggybanks.

The only reasonable assumption one can draw from this attitude is that most ratepayers live in wards not controlled by the ANC.

Simply put – the ANC led councils use the money it collects from the ratepaying areas and ploughs it into non-ratepaying areas where they have support. There is nothing wrong with wanting to uplift previously ignored areas, but what we have now ended up with is a deeply warped system where most funds collected are invested into areas where no revenue is generated.

Meanwhile the areas where the cash comes from have fallen into disrepair and now, they are getting angry.

Ratepaying areas are easy to satisfy: Give them working streetlights, fix potholes, keep law and order, maintain walkways, and clean streets. It is simple stuff. Had these things been done, the rising call for rate revolts and the like may not be so loud.

When I recently attended an eThekwini budget consultation meeting between the city and ratepayer associations, the contempt for rate paying areas was clear.

Dozens of ratepayer representatives stood up and rejected the city’s new budget, particularly tariffs, and presented hard facts for their rejection. They also called out the public participation process as a “farce”, saying it was evident that the budget was a forgone conclusion.

Each speaker said that the city was anything but the reflection of a caring government, and instead was one that cared only for above-market salaries, crooked contracts, theft and bribery.

But despite the reality that their objections would not be listened to, something else important happened – ratepayers stayed in that meeting for four hours and, through the process, found a collective voice.

For the first time in my many years of attending public meetings, I felt the city officials shudder.

eThekwini did eventually slightly adjust the budget and they may have already planned to do so but 2025-26 is not going to be as simple. Residents are ready.

Out of all these engagements there is an underlying thread: communities do not want to go to war with their municipalities, which is counter-productive. Instead, they want to be consulted, heard and treated with dignity and respect.

And it can be achieved.

A community association in the KwaDukuza Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal has over a period of five years built a solid relationship with their municipality, where they can actively engage and influence municipal opinion on the draft budget.

They maintain that influencing a city budget is not a 30-day exercise and requires year-long involvement in council business.

The future of local government does not lie in the courts, although this is a tool of last resort and has its place. Rather, it is in building better co-governance structures where municipalities seriously recognise the role of communities in making municipalities better, cleaner and safer for future generations.

In the spirit of constitutional and collective democracy, that is not too much to ask.

Jonathan Erasmus is the project manager for the Community Action Network (CAN), an initiative of OUTA.(Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse)