Msunduzi: who are we targeting?

2015-09-23 10:38
Pietermaritzburg City Hall.

Pietermaritzburg City Hall. (File)

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SINCE 1994, government leadership has focused on the promotion of constitutionally protected freedoms and socioeconomic rights through the use of grant allocations and policies to protect vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.

The Municipal Indigent Policy was drafted to ensure that impoverished citizens do not pay for municipal services such as water, electricity, refuse removal and sanitation, but are able to use this money for other necessities.

However, in Msunduzi, officials cater more for doubtful debt, use mechanisms which ineffectively target the poor, side-line destitute citizens and provide too little allocations. It is therefore worth asking: “Who are we targeting? How do we define someone who is poor? Critically, how do we implement this policy in a way that is pro-poor?”

Msunduzi has a population of 618 536, of which 60% are indigent. Realistically, a majority of that 60% would apply for indigent status. However, the municipality does not appear to have awarded such status to more than 10% in recent periods. Given that Msunduzi is funded by Treasury for these services, one is justified in asking: “To what extent are poor community members excluded on the grounds of an improper implementation of the indigent policy?”

In addition to an income-based mechanism and property values, the municipality uses a system known as consumption-based targeting to identify the poor. The municipality now stipulates that indigents should consume no more than 11,2 kl of water and 550 kWh of electricity if they want indigent status. Given that indigent households are usually large and that middle-class citizens are unlikely to be similarly constrained, I believe that this stipulation is inconsistent with the aims of the indigent policy. Based upon monthly consumption, can we definitively say that poor households would consume a certain level, and on what evidence would such be based?

Another issue arising from the implementation of this policy centres on the municipality’s step tariffs. The second block of tariffs for water is too wide as it includes the very first litre of water in excess of six kilolitres up to 30 kl. The question is thus: “If someone applied for an indigent status because he or she cannot afford to pay for the first block tariff, how then can he or she be expected to pay for escalated tariffs in the second block?” According to a study by the Socioeconomic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri), Msunduzi indigents faced a 49,55% increase in water charges based on second-block tariff structures alone during the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 periods. Citizens who are awarded FBS find it very difficult to live within the stipulated allocations.

The municipality therefore views itself as running at a loss. The reasons appear twofold: studies have highlighted the fact that the allocation of six kilolitres of free water is ineffective if the recipient is using a waterborne sewage system or when household numbers are in excess of eight residents. Even though the discretion concerning the amount of water/service level allocation is with the municipality, we seem to be bound by an outdated study which shows that a person requires 25 litres of water daily versus recent studies which show that citizens struggle to live within these allocations. Assuming that the Msunduzi Municipality obtains about R280 to provide each household with free basic services from the Local Government Equitable Share, why are its users finding it difficult to live within stipulated allocations? According to my calculations, such an amount of money would cover at least nine litres of water plus other services under the normal 2015 tariffs.

How can development therefore be achieved? Does it require a pencil pusher who is just there to tick boxes or is something more required? I believe that something more is required in terms of the calibre of people we put in positions of responsibility, as leaders or implementors: passion driven and not pocket or party orientated, innovative, result driven and committed to catering to the needs of constituents, able to use rules meaningfully to strengthen policy by using effective mechanisms so that indigent citizens are able to benefit.

To achieve this, the municipality needs to adopt people-centred approaches and precedents (seen in other municipalities) so that the rights of all its citizens can be realised equally.

• Dean Naicker is a UKZN graduate and independent researcher whose focus is community advocacy and access to human rights

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