Time for vigorous debate

2013-11-06 00:00

COUNCILLORS who fall asleep during a debate or in council chambers may be dozing off because there is no need for them to open their mouths. Decisions have already been made at the party caucus meeting and all they have to do is nod in agreement, or wake up to cast a vote if the situation calls for it.

This is one of the disappointments of our democracy, especially at local government level. Seldom do you hear a ward councillor arguing vigorously on behalf of his or her constituents. Instead, they toe the party line. This is one of the consequences of our current electoral system, which is party based, rather than constituency based. There are, of course, benefits to the party proportional representation system, in that smaller parties get a place in the council. However, issues do come up where you would expect more of the ruling party’s ward councillors to speak out. Instead, it is left to the opposition parties, which come off sounding like champions of the citizenry. This is a pity, because off the record, journalists get to hear about vigorous debates within the ANC caucus meetings, with ward councillors often asking how they are going to sell decisions to their communities.

Such a scenario is currently being played out in the Msunduzi council chambers. The officials, in their wisdom, based their entire 2013/14 budget on getting a 10% electricity tariff increase. The National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) deemed otherwise and pegged the increase at seven percent. This was after representations from various sectors, including the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business. Clearly, for many people, a 10% electricity hike was unpalatable in the first place. Now the officials will have to find ways to make up for the drop in revenue in many of the projects they have budgeted for. They must be given credit for finding ingenious ways to do so. At the last Executive Committee (Exco) meeting, there was a suggestion that while the actual usage tariff hike would be brought down to seven percent, the fixed charges increase would remain at 10%. The ink was hardly dry on the Exco minutes when, at the council meeting the following week, councillors heard there was a possibility that rather than a three-percent decrease on their electricity bills, residents of Pietermaritzburg could face the possibility of an increase of up to R183 on their basic electricity charges, which currently stands at R17.

There must have been hot debate at the ANC caucus meeting. The officials lost at yesterday’s special council meeting, and did not get their R183 basic charge increase.

There are two sides to every coin and, as has often been said, setting tariffs is about balancing affordability on the one hand and being able to fund projects on the other.

The problem is that electricity revenue is not used just for upgrading the electricity networks, with municipalities usually using profits from electricity to fund other projects.

While the officials need to balance their books, what has not been sufficiently debated is the issue of affordability. According to statistics on the Integrated Development Plan, Msunduzi has a debt book of over R1 billion, most of which is owed by households. The city has a population of 618 536 people and 163 993 households. The average household size is 3,6 people. The official unemployment rate is 33% and the average household income is R108 926 per annum. According to Statistics South Africa, out of the population of 618 536 people, 43% have no income, 71% earn from zero to R1 600, 77% earn from zero to R3 200 per month; 23% of households earn between R3 201 and R12 800 a month, and nine percent of households earn between R12 801 and R25 600 a month. Eight percent of households earn above R25 600 a month.

This means that overall, the majority of ward councillors represent poorer communities, so rather than go along with the officials, they need to question them and push them to find other means — perhaps cost-cutting measures — to make up the deficit.

It is all very well to say that the projects are for the poor, but when funding the projects makes marginally poor families poorer because of exorbitant municipal bills, this is self-defeating.

Affordability is not just an Msunduzi issue; it is a country-wide municipal concern.

It is time for more vigorous debate, not behind closed doors, but where citizens can see alert public representatives speaking up on their behalf.

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