Saying sorry will not cut it

2014-01-22 00:00

SINCE last year, this newspaper has been covering in great detail the twists and turns surrounding the Msunduzi Municipality’s basic charge hike, which has seen businesses in Pietermaritzburg hit with over 900% increases on part of their utility bills.

The impact of this move has been profound.

Veteran reporter Nalini Naidoo has brought to life the stories of the crippling impact on a number of local concerns. We spoke to people like Naresh Singh, who said he was going to have to retrench four of his workers to cover his bill, and to Michael Selby, who put up a sign outside his Mayor’s Walk Internet café, announcing its closure at the end of January.

Popatlall Kara’s — one of the city’s oldest sari and Eastern-wear fashion houses  — was having a closing-down sale and Nafique’s Boutique has already closed.

These are the victims of what can only be described as one of the most idiotic decisions I have had the misfortune to witness.

On Monday afternoon, I attended a packed meeting of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business at Chamber House, to hear CEO Melanie Veness who, along with PCB president Paris Dlamini, has done an outstanding job of fighting this billing lunacy on behalf of the Chamber’s members.

I was interested personally, and also as the Editor of the paper, to get a first-hand sense of this story from those who have been most affected, as I anticipated that it would be a long-haul story for The Witness, which we would be covering for months to come.

But at the meeting there was good news as Veness revealed the contents of a letter written by Nersa, the national electricity regulator, to the municipality at the end of last week.

The letter made it clear that the basic charge hikes were irregular and instructed the city to reverse the charges.

The relief from those attending the PCB meeting was palpable. Now it’s up to the city to reverse these charges at the council meeting due today.

But this story is not over yet.

It is important to understand how this happened. As the Nersa letter to the municipality pointed out, the tariff increases had always been implemented correctly in previous years, so why this dramatic change with the 900% hike in the basic charge?

There are only two possibilities. Either it was an honest mistake or it was a deliberate deception. If it was an honest mistake, it suggests a breath-taking level of incompetency that demands officials be held accountable and that heads should roll.

If it was a deliberate attempt to unlawfully extract income from the city’s citizens, the same should occur — and more.

The municipality and its political leaders are employed to serve us and a simple shrugging of the shoulders and a reversal of the charges are not good enough.

The people of this city are owed answers.

Those business owners who shut their doors deserve answers.

Those people who lost their jobs deserve answers.

Saying sorry will not cut it.

It’s the job of this newspaper to help you get those answers, so yesterday we filed an access to information request to the city, demanding all documents and records surrounding the decision, and the deliberations that led to it.

We hope these records will shed some light on this bizarre decision and those behind it, and we will continue to chip away at and scrutinise this until as much information as possible is brought to light.

This dark chapter will be felt in Pietermaritzburg long into the future.

The confidence of business in this environment has been significantly hurt.

But this is not only about the business community and goes to the heart of an intrinsic relationship of trust which should exist between the citizens and those who run this city.

The damage done on this front is incalculable.

A community meeting due to be held in Pietermaritzburg’s northern suburbs last night was fuelled, the organisers say, by a growing feeling that there is a serious breach in this trust relationship.

Under the circumstances, I think those sentiments are quite understandable.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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