It was an alarming sight. I looked out through my front gate one afternoon last month to see a hysterical neighbour about to attack a meter reader.
Insults flew as she railed against the R30?000 bill she received from the council, a few weeks after another account, for more than R30?000, landed in her postbox.
The attitude of the City of Joburg staff in dealing with her complaint was that she should pay now and ask questions later.
Her house’s peeling paint and her smashed car windscreen, broken for weeks, testify to the fact that she can’t. She already paid the first one, she says.
Two weeks ago, a friend living in the next street received a R31?000 municipality bill.
The two women may be surprised at the inclusion of this line: “empowered customers enjoying the highest standards of customer care and responsiveness” in the 2011/12 integrated development plan.
The city’s likeable executive mayor, Parks Tau, looks appalled when I tell him about last month’s meter drama.
Although Tau doesn’t tell me this, I reliably learn that during a meeting with staff from the city’s finance department a few months ago, he told them in no uncertain terms to get their act together on the billing front.
The billing disaster began with a move to a new financial IT system, called Project Phakama, about four years ago and the executive mayor says those “system-related issues have now stabilised”.
“The first thing we needed to resolve was the customer query environment. Reduce the levels of queries received and then prescribe standards about how we deal with them, including turnaround times, giving staff 30 days to deal with customer queries,” he says.
“The second is about ensuring the legitimacy of data.”
That exercise is being conducted by the metro’s electricity utility, City Power, which will be conducting a meter audit of each home by next June.
But it’s being hampered by about 10% of residents who have refused them access to their properties.
Some appear to have been undercharged for years.
Says Tau: “As we continue to audit we find that the number of disputes as a result of meter information is increasing. And we now need to resolve those issues in a way that is responsive to community needs.”
Tau hints at how difficult it is to get the city’s staff to be “customercentric”.
He is trying to draft a customer service charter that prescribes query-resolution times and customer-recourse mechanisms and which holds officials responsible for service failures.
“This is taking longer to negotiate with management than we had anticipated, for obvious reasons, because the standards are very high and we want to hold people accountable,” he says.
One of his solutions for high utility bills is managing demand.
“High users”, who use more than 1?000kW hours a month, will from next month be able to install a new smart meter.
These devices, for which R100?million has been budgeted this financial year, can inform them how much power each of their appliances uses.
The meter is connected to their smartphone, from which the customer can switch them off.
For poorer households, the city is rolling out 110?000 solar water geysers.
These innovations, which enable a more sustainable use of electricity and water, are part of Joburg 2040, a growth and development strategy that Tau says is the prou dest achievement of his tenure so far.
Joburg 2040’s stated aim is to create an “equitable African city” that “provides real quality of life” and “sustainability”.
Or, as Tau puts it, a “different city from the one we’ve inherited”.
First up on the agenda is amending the city’s bylaws.
Tau says: “One of the issues we are grappling with is the question of the paradox of legalising the poor, against the reality of not wanting to legalise illegality.
“The poor in the City of Johannesburg and most urban centres find that their activities are generally defined as illegal. They live in informal settlements, they have acquired the land through a process of land invasion, the house they live in is a corrugated iron shack not governed by any regulations?.?.?.? and they don’t have adequate location(s) to be able to trade and they find themselves at odds with the law.”
The only solution, says Tau, is accepting “you need different levels of regulation for different parts of the city”.
The city, he adds, is taking on more responsibility for the built environment of the poor to “manage issues of shack fires and flooding”.
Municipal IQ’s 2012 Annual Review of Local Government, which was released last week, shows how well the city makes provision for the poor.
Census 2012 results also reveal that 94.8% of residents have access to four key services: water, sanitation, refuse removal and electricity.
Johannesburg put Cape Town (94.2%) into second place, and eThekwini and Ekurhuleni (at 90.2% each) into third.
“It must also be acknowledged that while Johannesburg often gets a bad rap in the media, it is without doubt the top performer,” the report states.
What the City of Joburg has been less effective at is provisioning for the mid dle classes.
Asked if this is because the suburbs have been seen as a cash cow to fund development in historically deprived townships, Tau says no.
He insists the city has a responsibility to build social infrastructure as another way of overcoming its apartheid past .
“If you are to create Johannesburg into a functional city, it is these new areas in which integration can best be achieved,” he says.
“But integration is not just about living side by side, it’s about community and social infrastructure which brings the community together.”