Mandela, de Klerk agree to end boycotts of local government payments

January 21, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela called for an end to boycotts of rent and other payments yesterday, joining State President Frederick W. de Klerk in signing a plan designed to bring peace to one of the most contentious battlegrounds of apartheid.

But even as those agreements were announced, conservatives opposed to the reforms sweeping this country suggested that the fights that have characterized local government in South Africa for the last decade begin anew.

"The history of the boycott of rent and service charges is part of the history of the struggle against apartheid," Mr. Mandela, president of the African National Congress, told more than 1,000 delegates attending a summit on local government.

Yesterday's confirmation by those delegates of agreements reached by a Local Government Negotiating Forum paved the way for eventually establishing non-racial, democratically elected local governments across the country.

"Together with the campaign to democratize local government and to improve the quality of services, we must today launch a campaign to end the rent and service charges boycott," Mr. Mandela said, adding that this should go into effect within 90 days.

Not surprisingly, Mr. de Klerk did not see the boycotts in such a favorable light, saying that one cause of the current crisis in local government "was the decision of some political institutions including radical elements to turn local government into a political battlefield. . . . The main weapons were intimidation at times and rent and services boycotts.

"The result was often the bankruptcy of local authorities, the crippling of local services and the destruction of expensive infrastructure. These campaigns also contributed substantially to the climate of lawlessness, desolation and despair which

tragically characterizes some of our local communities."

It was almost a decade ago that the ANC and its civic organizations launched the payment boycotts in black townships part of the anti-apartheid plan to "make the country ungovernable."

Many observers say that it will be almost impossible to end these boycotts, that a so-called culture of non-payment has enveloped the townships.

Ending the boycotts will test the ANC's vaunted capacities for disciplined organization in the black community. A plan to end the boycott in Soweto, the biggest black township, was approved recently after months of negotiations.

It calls for residents to pay about $13 a month for rent, water and all other services except electricity, which is separately metered. Though the potential revenue from this is a small percentage of what it takes to run Soweto, the plan is running into strong opposition in the community.

Whether this represents a culture of non-payment is not clear. South Africa has suffered a strong recession in recent years. Unemployment in a place like Soweto probably runs close to 50 percent. For many, that $13 payment is a budget-breaker.

The ANC clearly recognized the possibilities as the mutually suspicious, perhaps hostile, black townships and white towns come under a unified government during these years of transition in South Africa. Its negotiators allowed power-sharing compromises on the local level that it would never have agreed to for the new national government.

But even these compromises were not enough for many town councils dominated by the right-wing Conservative Party. They boycotted yesterday's convention and have pledged to set up their own local councils as part of a proposed Afrikaner homeland structure.

Exactly how these recalcitrant councils will be handled by the new government is not clear. That government clearly will have its hands full dealing with those local councils that are cooperating, trying to find the money not only to improve the conditions and services in the traditionally neglected black areas, but also to pay off the huge debts compiled during the years of payment boycotts.

At least one enemy of most agreements between the government and ANC will not be fighting this one. In a surprise, a representative of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party told the delegates that Inkatha would cooperate on a local level even as it continues to oppose the national constitution.

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