Claim your rights

2009-03-19 00:00

The positive outcome in the recent KwaZulu-Natal High Court case of the Water Crisis Committee and others vs the Uthukela District Municipality is reason for celebration.

It clearly shows that (a) the law does work and can protect disadvantaged communities; (b) civil society organisations can help people to claim their rights by providing legal advice and facilitating legal assistance; and (c) that there are advocates and attorneys who are willing to provide pro bono legal assistance to those who can’t afford litigation.

The applicant in this case, the Water Crisis Committee, is a voluntary association that was formed when the Uthukela

District Municipality (UDM) in KwaZulu-Natal drastically and unilaterally increased the community’s water rates in July 2004. Sixty percent of the community were unemployed and could hardly afford the daily cost of living, let alone exorbitant increases in the cost of water. Despite this, the UDM no longer provided the first six kilolitre of water free; it increased the cost for the first 1 000 kilolitres by 800% and the cost of consumption above 1 000 kilolitres by 300%.

The Water Crisis Committee complained to the UDM and to other relevant government authorities, including the Durban division of the Human Rights Commission. However, there was no response and nothing was done to rectify the situation. When some of the residents refused to pay their water accounts in protest against the increased tariffs, the UDM cut off their water supply, removed water meters and restricted their access to water. In desperation, the Water Crisis Committee approached lawyers Rashid Patel & Company for pro bono legal assistance, who in turn approached the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CFCR) for legal advice. The CFCR provided the requested advice and also managed to arrange pro bono representation from Adv John Pammenter SC.

Following the institution of legal proceedings — and probably in reaction to them — the UDM finally responded by withdrawing the excessive tariffs and by implementing new tariffs in line with statutory requirements. Even though a judicial determination was no longer required on the question of the tariffs, the court still had to rule on costs.

On February 6, Justice Malcolm Wallis confirmed that the Water Crisis Committee was entitled to bring the application as the excessive tariffs that the UDM had charged were indeed unlawful and invalid. He also ordered that they were entitled to all of their application costs (save for those of a replying affidavit made after the change in tariff) and half of the appearance costs.

The Constitution guarantees and protects our fundamental rights and articulates our national goals. Among these goals is the commitment to “[i]mprove the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each citizen”.

It is important that the Constitution and the law should be seen to be protecting the rights of all our people — including those who live in the most disadvantaged communities. The Water Crisis Committee’s case shows that if citizens are sufficiently motivated to demand their rights, there are civil society organisations, law firms and advocates that are prepared to help them on a pro bono basis.

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