A very poor policy

2013-03-18 00:00

MSUNDUZI Municipality stands accused of treating its poor with contempt and its handling of the indigent policy has been described as a tragic comedy of errors.

Peter Miller, chairperson of the Pietermaritzburg and District Council for the Aged (Padca), and John Wingfield, chairperson of the Board of Allison Homes, have tried for a year — with the help of councillors Naleni Atwaru and Dave Ryder — to get rebates rightfully due to pensioners and the poor implemented.

They’ve hit a blank wall with the municipality. Letters, e-mails, petitions and telephone calls have all been ignored.

Miller, a former KZN finance MEC, described the situation as an unfolding tragedy.

He said people had permanently switched off geysers and many had stopped cooking, living on raw fruit and vegetables, which were giving rise to health problems. (See story on page 3).

The last straw is a question the municipality asks on new application forms to be filled in. On the forms, those applying for indigent status are asked: “Do you have any physical or mental defect?”

The form also indicates that the application is for “resignation”, [instead of registration].

While pensioners and grant-holders battle to make sense of the forms, it turns out that neither the forms nor the indigent policy has been passed by the council.

There was heated debate on the matter in last week’s Exco, when DA member Mergan Chetty accused officials of handing out the forms before council had approved the policy.

He reminded councillors that Mayor Chris Ndlela had said the previous week that the forms were grammatically incorrect and should not go out. Ndlela had asked for certain changes to be made, including changing the word “defect” to “impairment”.

ANC councillor Eunice Majola accused Chetty of delaying the process and standing in the way of the poor benefitting.

However, Chetty said it was the council’s job to make policy.

“They [municipal officials] are there to recommend, not take decisions for us. We need to probe these recommendations and not simply rubber-stamp what officials decide,” he said.

Chetty believes the indigent policy in its current form will harm rather than help the poor.

“Previously we had a threshold household income of R3 000 for a person to benefit from the policy.

“Now, with inflation standing at 5,8%, and with tariff increases, we are reducing the ceiling for the poorest of the poor from R3 000 to R2 400,” he said.

Other recommendations needed to be discussed, he added.

It was decided that the officials would make the necessary changes to the draft policy, including the form, and the matter would be discussed and a decision taken at the next council meeting.

Pensioners and grant-holders say there is no point filling in new forms when applications submitted last year have still not been processed.

Miller and Wingfield say they have watched pensioners fall ill as the increased electricity bills eat into their R1 200 pensions.

Wingfield said Allison Homes caters for some 450 pensioners, most of whom subsist on government social pensions. All are on council’s initial lifeline policy, which previously saw basic charges waived and the pensioners only paying for power used. Electricity bills averaged about R40 per month. However, this was changed without warning, with bills increasing to over R300. More than R160 of that relates to fixed charges, meaning pensioners are paying more in fixed charges than for actual usage.

Fred Wagner, of the Eastwood Community Forum, said most poor residents of Eastwood and Glenwood had given up on having electricity. “There are people here who have not had electricity for five years or more. They just cannot afford it.”

“Our view is that since the municipality went under administration, by not applying its indigent policy properly it was robbing the poor to fill its empty coffers,” Wagner said.

Msunduzi spokesperson Brian Zuma said municipal manager Mxolisi Nkosi acknowledged “challenges” in the policy and was proposing a new policy in terms of which basic service charges would be waived for the indigent, and they will be provided with 60 kWh of electricity and seven kilolitres of water free per month.

Nkosi has also undertaken to write off debts accumulated over time unconditionally, “but we cannot refund pensioners for past payment for services”, said Zuma, adding that the subsidies would be available from July.

• nalini@witness.co.za

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