Is it ethical to withhold municipal property rates?

Is it ethical to withhold rates when services are not rendered by local municipalities? Ethics SA CEO, WA Landman answers this sensitive question:

The town of Sannieshof has become synonymous with rate payers’ fight against poor or non-existent municipal service delivery.

Some 280 towns are in various stages of declaring disputes with municipalities.

Of these towns, 30 are withholding municipal property rates and certain service fees in order to get municipalities so far as to respect residents’ constitutional rights.

Withheld payments are paid into trust accounts for safe keeping. Sannieshof ratepayers use a portion of the funds in their trust account to finance essential services and purchases themselves.

Is this ethical?

One can argue that we all have an unconditional or absolute ethical duty within a democracy to pay our taxes and service fees. This duty is not abrogated by poor or non-existent service delivery.

A mere appeal to ethical absolutes, however, is tantamount to intellectual sloth. Complex ethical issues require thorough analysis. Even the ethical prohibition on the taking of a human life is not absolute, because it may be justified under certain circumstances.

It does not at all follow that ethical right and wrong may be taken lightly. For that matter, a heavy burden of proof to justify such action rests on anyone transgressing an ethical principle.

Thus, the Sannieshoffers have a duty to show that their action meets at least three requirements and, therefore, can be justified ethically.

Firstly, there must be convincing grounds for withholding payment, such as a state of emergency.

They can indeed argue that they had to intervene urgently to resolve a state of emergency, or had to act in self-defence to protect themselves against a threat to their health.

Sannieshof’s sewage system, for example, has disintegrated to such an extent that sewage is bubbling from septic tanks everywhere, and even flowing from toilets. Borehole water, drinking water, marshlands and rivers are being contaminated in the process.

Secondly, the municipality’s dereliction of duty must have caused the state of emergency – rather than, for example, a natural disaster, or other circumstances beyond the municipality’s control.

As has been the case repeatedly in the past, Sannieshof has again been without sewage services for the past seven weeks. Extractors and suction dredgers are in a state of neglect and decay. When this is brought to the municipality’s attention, merely empty promises are made.

Thirdly, withholding of payment must be the last resort.

Over the years, all channels have been tested – meetings; letters, which remain unanswered; and warnings that dispute declaration or withholding of payment will be used as a last resort.

Would the residents of Bloemfontein, Pretoria, Johannesburg or Cape Town tolerate sewage in their streets or contaminated drinking water? Like the Sannieshoffers, they would probably, and with ethical justification, take the same action.
Whether the Sannieshoffers also have the law on their side is another question.

But if the Tswaing municipality were to summons them, they would probably be able to appeal to legal grounds for justification, similar to the ethical grounds – such as a state of emergency or self-defence.

They would be able to argue that their basic human rights are being disregarded, with serious consequences for all residents and the environment.

A counterargument of the municipality is that withholding of payment is tantamount to civil disobedience against a democratically elected government.

Civil disobedience is usually exercised against an illegal government or unjust laws. Withholding of payment as a result of dereliction of duty could certainly also be tantamount to a form of civil disobedience.

But merely calling non-payment civil disobedience does not make non-payment wrong. The residents’ reasons deserve consideration.

The municipality, furthermore, argues that it cannot remove sewage without precisely the monies that the residents are withholding. This is untrue. Not only does the residents’ withholding represent a miniscule 0.25 per cent of a budget of R159 million, but the municipality actually did not manage the sewage properly before payment was withheld.

With its unsavoury arguments about insufficient money, the municipality is moving onto moral quicksand.

The auditor-general’s qualified audit report on the Tswaing municipality is damning. Just one of many alarming examples from the report is that unauthorised expenditure of R37 million was made in the 2008 tax year.

Furthermore, there are several allegations – by a whistle blower within the municipality – of large-scale corruption, which has not really made news yet.

Thus, the problem is not a financial one, but one of dereliction of duty, incompetence, poor work ethic, irregularities, lack of political will, disregard of human rights and deployment of political cadres.

We are living in times in which lawlessness has become such a part of our culture that combating it is becoming almost impossible. This includes not only criminal violence, corruption, illegal and violent strikes, but also payment boycotts and violence against poor municipal service delivery.

The question thus is: Is the action of the Sannieshoffers not dangerous precisely for that reason and thus unethical?

Does it not feed on – and feed – general lawlessness?

This is most unlikely, because there is a radical difference, which anyone can appreciate.

Criminality is driven by own interest, parasitic greed or lack of respect for the person or property of others. It is destructive.

Disciplined withholding of payment on the other hand is motivated by an intention to preserve infrastructure. It is constructive. It is evidence of a sense of civic duty.

If ordinary citizens become indifferent in this regard, we’ll be in even greater trouble.

WA Landman

Sannieshof is not alone in the fight against poor service delivery. Whilst the main centres of the country have relatively good services, the smaller outlying cities are not as fortunate. The legality of witholding payment is a very contentious issue.

Water Rhapsody offer a proactive solution called the Garden Rhapsody. This system removes grey water from the main sewer system and uses the greywater for watering of the garden. Not only do you water your garden for free all year round but you also reduce the volume entering your septic tank or sewer system by 80-90%. You would need to empty the septic tank far less frequently.

Grey water is the water from baths, showers, hand basins and washing machines. This is water you have already paid for but is normally sent “down the drain”! With thousands of Garden Rhapsody’s already installed throughout South Africa, they have proven themselves to show reductions on municipal accounts of up to 35%. Why pay for water to water your garden when you don’t need to?

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