Too poor to pay for water

2017-12-03 06:00

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After Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane threatened to cut off 30 municipalities that haven’t paid their water bills, City Press travelled to the Free State, where the Maluti-a-Phofung Local Municipality owes more than R200m to its water utility.

If the municipal water gets cut off, Tshepo Mofokeng will no longer be able to support his six-month-old daughter.

Mofokeng (24) has been running his carwash in Mandela Park, Phuthaditjhaba, for more than a year. It is his only means of survival.

“I told myself that I want to be the best dad I can be for my daughter. I’ve been doing well, I think, but if the water is cut, I don’t know what I will do,” he said on Thursday.

“If they provide tanks for residents, I won’t be allowed to use that water for my business because it will only be for cooking and bathing.”

On a good weekend, Mofokeng makes between R300 and R400. Week days are a bit slower, and garner him about R200.

“I buy nappies, clothes and food for my daughter with the money I make,” he said.

Mofokeng was one of the braver residents City Press spoke to this week; others didn’t want to speak for fear of intimidation. But he’s not the only one worried about Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane’s threats to cut off the municipality, which owes R233 925 396 to its local water authority. Besides this, Maluti-a-Phofung also owes R2.2bn to Eskom – out of a total R8.2bn owed by municipalities across the country.

A quick look at Treasury portal Municipal Money reveals why. The municipality, based in Phuthaditjhaba on the border of Lesotho, which also includes the towns of Harrismith and Kestell, failed to submit its financials to the Auditor-General for the 2016/17 financial year. Since 2013, it has received disclaimer opinions from the Auditor-General – the worst possible judgment.

The municipality, which is home to 335 784 people according to the last census, racked up 57% in irregular expenditure in 2015/16, and overspent its operating budget by 41.1%.

Although it relies heavily on ratepayers, licence fees and service payments for almost 85% of its budget, with the remaining 15% coming from equitable shares and grants from Treasury, less than three-quarters of its residents (74.28%) pay their bills.

City Press tried to secure an interview with Maluti-a-Phofung Mayor Vusi Tshabalala, but his officials turned down the request because of his “busy schedule”. Responses to our questions were promised by 13:00 on Friday, but none arrived.

Another resident, Seth Sedenane, said his Mandela Park neighbourhood was already suffering due to water restrictions. Water outages, he said, had been instituted without announcement on certain days between 09:00 and 19:30.

And if their water is cut off completely, the residents, almost all of whom survive on social grants, will suffer.

“They won’t afford to buy bottled water,” Sedenane said.

Mandela Park lies in Ward 33 of the municipality, where only 28% of residents are employed and where households, according to census information site Wazimap, earn an average of R14 600 a year.

Buying bottled water is also not an option for Riverside resident Mathapelo Tsotetsi (65), who says she is already battling to take care of her family.

“I live with my unemployed son, his four young children and his girlfriend. I use my social grant to buy food, electricity and pay for municipal rates, including water. If they cut off the water, they will have to give me at least a food parcel,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.

“Why is this government treating us like this? I won’t survive if they cut off the water. I try to pay rates monthly, but now this?”

Sello Masounyane, a councillor from the All Unemployment Labour Alliance, which has two seats on Maluti-a-Phofung’s council, said most residents did not pay for water because their families were poor.

However, he said that corruption could not be ruled out as a reason for the municipality’s failure to pay.

“We hear about it, but there’s no evidence to prove it. It’s difficult for us, the opposition, because we are not involved in administration,” he said.

Mlungisi Johnson, chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on water and sanitation, said on Thursday that it was not a viable solution to cut off water to municipalities.

“Considering the needs of citizens, the portfolio committee resolved that alternative solutions must be found,” he said, and he reassured the public that water cuts would not be implemented. The committee, he said, had given the department of water and sanitation, Treasury, and the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs 14 days to come up with a plan.

Local government expert Fikile Bili – whose company performs debt collection services in municipalities across the Free State, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Northern Cape – blames cadre deployment for the fact that municipalities around the country cannot pay their bills. Of those he has dealt with whose administrative and governance systems have collapsed, corrupt politicians and officials were at the heart of the problem.

“I have come across officials who write off white farmers’ water debts and the debts of others living in suburbs, as well as businesses that bribe officials to keep their electricity debts low. This is evident in huge usage but low bills,” he said.

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Read more on:    nomvula mokonyane  |  drought  |  water crisis

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