Newsmaker: Granny vs State in landmark battle

2013-02-10 10:01

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Meet the octogenarian forced to become a reluctant hero Olga Rademan is the unlikely face of a landmark Constitutional Court (ConCourt) case about whether homeowners should pay municipal rates in return for shoddy service delivery.

The ConCourt documents say the 86-year-old woman from the Free State town of Kroonstad chose not to pay her rates of just under R3?000 because service delivery from the Moqhaka Local Municipality was “nonexistent”.

She, however, continued to pay for her services – electricity, water and refuse – but the council cut her power off anyway.

The retired music teacher initially refused the Moqhaka Ratepayers and Residents’ Association permission to fight the case in her name.

Her municipal bills are also now fully paid up.

“I finally agreed after I had a written undertaking that I do not have to appear in court and that it would not cost me any money,” she said.

When her story hit the headlines this week, she turned down all interview requests because she “did not want to embarrass my children and grandchildren”.

But when City Press arrived at the front door of her retirement village home, she was too polite to shoo us away.

“Who are you? Where are you coming from? How did you get on to the premises? What do you want?” she demanded.

Once detailed introductions were out of the way, she said she never thought her case would land up in the nation’s highest court.

“We read daily about the bad service from the municipality and the problems in our local newspapers. Then we keep on driving through the endless potholes and experience the water problems,” she said.

Rademan didn’t consider doing anything about her complaints until October 2009.

“I saw an advertisement in the paper about the establishment of a ratepayers’ association. It said that the association would negotiate with the municipality on behalf of its members and I decided to join,” she said.

The association then organised a rates boycott and participating residents paid their rates money into the association’s account until the council’s services improved.

The association also undertook to tell the council which of its members were withholding their rates in protest.

Rademan explained to City Press that she also paid her rates into the association’s account for more than a year until her electricity was cut off.

“When I phoned the municipality, I was told that my electricity was cut off because I am not paying my rates and taxes,” she said.

When she went to the association’s offices, she was brusquely told that they didn’t have the time to check who had or hadn’t paid, and they had no record of her contributions.

Said Rademan: “The man was quite rude to me and said that I was supposed to take my proof of payment to their office every month. The way I saw it, my name was never submitted to the municipality.”

So Rademan began paying her rates to the municipality again to get her power reconnected.

“Then one morning out the blue, a local attorney, Ian van Rooyen, phoned me and said he would like to see me,” she said.

“He told me the association was going to take the municipality to court and he was compiling a list of the members whose electricity had been switched off.”

At first, Rademan refused as she felt the association had let her down.

But she was persuaded by principle.

“Service delivery by the municipality is extremely poor, but we are expected to pay for it.”

In court this week, Rademan’s legal aid, Advocate Dennie du Preez, argued that the Moqhaka Municipality’s debt collection bylaws are in conflict with the Electricity Regulation Act.

The municipality argued that the Municipal Systems Act, and its credit control and debt collection bylaws, gave it the right to consolidate all ratepayers’ accounts and terminate any service they wished – even if money is owed for a different service.

The council’s lawyer, Advocate Jimmy Claasen, argued that allowing residents to “pick and choose” the services they paid for would “lead to anarchy and chaos”.

“There is a constitutional duty to provide services, but there is also a constitutional duty to pay for those services,” he said.

But Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke quickly picked Claasen’s argument apart.

“If the customer is only happy with electricity provision and not with the rest?.?.?.?what remedy does the customer have?” he asked.

“It couldn’t be the law that you pay forever and ever, even if services are bad forever and ever.”

Rademan is now awaiting the verdict on her case.

The grandmother of 11 is also worried about the media attention her case is receiving.

“It would be sad that when I die the only thing people would remember about me is that I took the municipality to court. Not a legacy I would be keen to leave behind,” she said. – Additional reporting by Charl du Plessis

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