Now, the government is using an ad campaign to prod people into paying. But the solution might not be just a matter of persuasion, but of providing people with the infrastructure to make payment possible.
It has been nearly a year since last April's elections swept President Mandela's African National Congress into power. But the township rent and service boycott, started in the 1980s to cripple local governments, is still alive.
Today, with arrears approaching $280 million a year, the boycott threatens to bankrupt the new government's Reconstruction & Development Program. That would undermine the ANC's election promise to build 1 million houses in the next five years, to bring electricity to townships and to improve the general quality of life for 30 million blacks neglected under apartheid.
The ANC had assumed that voting for the country's first truly democratic government would inspire blacks to reassume civic responsibilities. But ANC officials were shocked by surveys showing that payments of rent, electricity and other bills in townships crept from 19% to just 33% of residents in the six months following President Mandela's inauguration.
The group acknowledges that unemployment (near 50% for blacks) and poverty are rampant, and that ragged township services remain inferior to those provided in former whites-only areas. But ANC officials maintain the boycott is mainly driven these days not by political motives but by the fact that the two-thirds who don't pay are used to getting away with it.
"Non-payment today hurts those who have nothing and who are waiting for houses, electricity and sewerage," a stern President Mandela told residents at a bricklaying ceremony for new housing at the Marconi Beam squatter camp near here in February.
The ANC is hoping the solution lies in a new $2.8 million, six-month ad campaign titled "Masakhane" (the Zulu word meaning "Let us build each other"). The goal is to persuade blacks that political empowerment doesn't mean a free ride.
A Masakhane TV spot, produced on a non-profit basis by Sonnenberg Murphy Leo Burnett, Johannesburg, started running Feb. 24 and features Roman Catholic Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In the commercial, Archbishop Tutu cites successful implementation of free healthcare for pregnant women and children under age 6 and school food programs as evidence that democracy has already improved township life.
But the cleric, chosen as a national spokesman because of his political neutrality and widespread credibility, also urges people to pay for rent and electricity if they expect further development.
Radio and TV spots targeted to specific communities will feature local activists who once mobilized residents to support the rent and services boycott calling for the creation of a culture of payment. A logo, showing young people of all races building a house together, will be displayed on outdoor boards and in back windows of taxis, the most popular form of township transportation.
The campaign will also feature a Masakhane road show consisting of rallies with political leaders, street theater, other entertainment and town meetings.
"We need to train people to be good citizens," said Chris Ngcobo, a Soweto resident who was jailed for five years in the '80s for promoting the rent boycott and who now manages the road show. "We'll form street committees, speak to church congregations, pensioners, burial societies [township groups that pool money for burials] and women's groups. The tactics that we used to destroy apartheid should be used to restore our confidence in government."
Analysts warn that the success of the campaign hinges on the outcome of next October's provincial and local elections, and the re-establishment of legitimate township administration. Despite a registration campaign, however, a disappointing 1% of eligible voters so far has registered for the upcoming election, generating concern about the credibility of the vote.
A major problem from the collapse of local authority during the apartheid era is the absence of a mechanism to serve people who actually want to pay bills. In many townships, postal service is either non-existent or so bad that mail is rarely delivered. According to the government, 65% of blacks never receive bills in the first place.
"It doesn't matter how many times Mandela goes on TV and says you must pay," said Andrew Borraine, executive director of the Institute for Local Governance & Development, a private consultant to local governments. "You need to restore the entire system and not just the culture of payment."