Opposition parties call for moratorium on debt

Councillors at the eThekwini Municipality full council meeting held at the Durban ICC. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya

Councillors at the eThekwini Municipality full council meeting held at the Durban ICC. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya

Published Feb 16, 2024

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Durban — Opposition parties took on the eThekwini Municipality over erroneous billing that has left thousands of residents in debt even though most did not have water in their taps.

At the full council meeting on Wednesday, a notice of motion was brought by IFP councillor Jonathan Annipen, who recommended an immediate moratorium on the disconnection of the water supply of all residents in eThekwini until the meter-reading department had a standard operating procedure in place.

He recommended that the city conduct an audit of water meters in stock and an audit of properties without water meters. Annipen said that thousands of water meters had gone unread in eThekwini for more than a year and residents were being billed estimated charges for usage.

“This does not accurately translate to water usage versus billing and violates the council’s control and debt recovery policy,” Annipen said.

He said that a number of residents did not have water meters because they had been stolen, vandalised, or never had water meters.

Visvin Reddy, the leader of African Democratic Change (ADeC), said: “It is a shame that people are disconnected because of fake bills.

“If the city was concerned about residents’ lives they would take action. I know of many with exorbitant estimated bills and are unable to pay, only to face being disconnected,” Reddy said.

Political parties supported the motion.

However, a motion by IFP councillor Jane Naidoo went unsupported. She had recommended that the municipality prepare a report on the number of participants and how much debt had been recovered since the programme went live.

The motion proposed a moratorium on disconnections while the city sorted out the meter reading. The votes were 99 to 99, with the speaker Thabani Nyawose casting the deciding vote against the motion.

“If they voted otherwise, residents of Durban would have been winners,” Reddy said.

Naidoo said a significant number of ratepayers have already taken advantage of the city’s debt-relief programme and that a large degree of people wanted to settle their debt with the city.

IFP councillor and exco member Mdu Nkosi said he was not happy with how the vote turned out. Nkosi said those who voted against the motion had done an injustice to residents.

DA exco member councillor Thabani Mthethwa said the city was in a state of crisis because of a lack of management.

“While we appreciate the need for the city to collect revenue, residents should not suffer as a result of failure by the municipality,” Mthethwa said.

Staying with the debt discussion, Active Citizens Coalition councillor Imtiaz Syed tabled a motion to seek relief for about 49 000 households affected by increased water tariffs billed erroneously in December of 2023, for free basic water that was granted to them historically.

“All properties under 50m2 in size should qualify for free water. Indigent families living in higher-value houses may apply to gain access to free water. All water meters connected to standpipes via a relevant flow meter shall be provided free of charge,” Syed suggested.

“The Covid-19 pandemic compounded with the insurrection and flooding has left many households wanting financially and otherwise. It should be the position of this council to grant relief to those consumers who continue paying their bills diligently, and to not prejudice them further,” Syed said.

He added that the municipality had lost about 60% in revenue from water bought from uMngeni Water – that accounted for about R2 billion in the current financial year.

Syed recommended that all homes valued at less than R650 000 be relieved of the debt completely and be granted at least three months from the date of notice to apply for free water, as per the standard level standard.

“All households that fall in a certain category must be billed at 50% of the value of the service since 2020, payable over a period of 36 months without interest,” Syed suggested.

The president of the People's Freedom Party (PFP), councillor Mohamed Tariq said they had voted against the blanket moratorium because the municipality had established protocols and processes for addressing water billing disputes.

He said the motion proposed a sweeping moratorium on water disconnections without requiring residents to file disputes.

Tariq said the recent auditor-general's report highlighting concerns about eThekwini’s finances underscored the urgency of prudent decision-making.

Slow debt collection was flagged in the auditor-general’s report, which it stated was resulting in delayed payments to creditors.

Asad Gaffar, the eThekwini Ratepayers Protest Movement (ERPM) spokesperson, met city officials on February 6 and proposed a public-private partnership to assist the city in managing and kick-starting the process of regeneration of the water infrastructure.

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