Service users

Issues of non-payment are rooted in economic, political and socio-ecological reasons. Regarding the economic situation of these two townships, both Matsulu and KaNyamanzane have a poverty rate of 62 percent with unemployment rates of 36 percent and 30 percent respectively (Census 1996). In many instances people are simply too poor to pay. The regressive tariff system developed by GNUC allows high volume users, predominantly white garden-owners in the town of Nelspruit, to consume between 30 and 100 kl of water for the same cost. Second, the greatest area of tariff increase has been in the second step, which affects low-income households, which cannot limit household water use to a mere six kilolitres.1 Even though service users can access the first six kl of water free, many household water bills are still very high, at times reaching R300 to R500 a month. Given that a monthly household income below R 1,100 is considered below the poverty line, a bill of R300 for just water as a proportion of overall household expenditure patterns is very high.

The company believes residents do not sufficiently understand how service delivery and billing systems work, such as what their rights and responsibilities as service users are. It certainly is possible, however, that people deliberately misunderstand or where they do understand how services work, choose not to translate this knowledge into regular payment.

Politically, many residents oppose the presence of BiWater because of the draconian credit control measures being used against service users for non-payment. Numerous household respondents interviewed for this research claimed they did not want to pay as a form of civil protest against a foreign company that was controlling the distribution of such vital resources. Others that fall within this category simply believed that water fell from the sky and was therefore a god-given right. Certain politicians opposed the concession on ideological grounds and discouraged payment for water services, thus lending legitimacy to the act of non-payment. For instance, a minority opposition party, The Pan African Congress (PAC) said that services should be free and payment is required only because of a profit-driven private company providing it (Councillor Siwela, PAC 2003). Confusion as to whether basic services should be provided by the government free of charge contributes to non-payment in the townships.

With regard to labour's views, the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) opposed the concession since its inception. The views of workers, as well as the presence of the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) in these areas, raised public awareness about the negative aspects of water privatization. There is no evidence that either SAMWU or the APF have deliberately organized payment boycotts but they may well have influenced households' negative attitudes towards the concessionaire.

From the low-income consumer perspective, household interviews for this research show that there was a desire to pay for services if their bills were "reasonable". The inability to pay, the lack of understanding of why household bills were so high and the ability to avoid payment and still get some water illegally highlight the importance of township residents' taking a "bargaining approach" to paying. Perhaps the lesson learnt for the company is that when communities have been excluded for decades from access to quality services through methods of home-grown imperialism, and still find themselves in poverty, it may take more than a few years to ingrain a change in attitudes towards payment. Developing this level of awareness may be a much more difficult and slow task for the service provider than putting in place the infrastructure to open and close a water tap.

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