Date: 04 December 2017 By: Isabel Venter
Residents relying on the Vhembe District Municipality (VDM) for water may soon be facing water restrictions.
This follows an announcement on Monday by the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Ms Novula Mokonyane, that the VDM owes the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) millions in unpaid water bills. If the municipality fails to meet the demand and not pay its debt that has been outstanding for 60 days, the department will close local taps on 8 December.
Mokonyane’s announcement made national news headlines, as VDM was among the 32 defaulting municipalities that were rapped over the knuckles for non-payment. Her department also did not beat around the bush. Municipalities that do not settle their combined R10.7 billion debts, will face the termination of their bulk water supply. Mokonyane also said that the National Treasury was approached to intervene, without delay, and asked to halt the defaulting municipalities’ grants.
The VDM topped the list of defaulting municipalities, owing the DWS an amount of R642 877 million.
This amount, however, is challenged by the district municipality. Following the minister’s announcement, the VDM said that they believe they owe the department half of what is claimed. “On 10 July this year, a delegation from the DWS, led by their director general, came to our offices where they informed us about R300 million we allegedly owed,” said VDM spokesperson, Mr Matodzi Ralushai, on Tuesday. Even this amount, said Ralushai, was challenged by the municipality’s account officers. The meeting was concluded with the DWS promising to quantify VDM’s bill. “However, that never happened until this week when they threatened to cut off the bulk water supply to us,” says Ralushai.
Ralushai, however, stressed that the municipality is more than willing and committed to pay its bill. “… but first we must be clear about the figure after the department has justified this bill that we are disputing,” said Ralushai.
But, according to Mokonyane, her department has exhausted all their options to get the municipalities to pay their debt. The defaulters, said Mokoyane, find themselves in their current predicament largely due to their own relaxed approach to outstanding debts. “… we will not be merciful against those who cannot do their proper business of billing in an appropriate way, of generating revenue by collecting and most importantly, of maintaining the infrastructure so that we don’t have huge water losses,” said Mokonyane.
Puzzlingly enough, this was also what the National Treasury had to say about the DWS. According to a report from the South African Water Caucus (SAWC) released on Monday, the DWS is strapped for cash and facing severe financial management challenges. Issues that were raised in the report focused on the mismanagement of their accruals, their overdraft (owed to the Reserve Bank and the department’s failure to collect money owed) and over-spending.
A further bit of irony is that the report comes only a week after the VDM admitted to the Zoutpansberger to having several financial challenges, specifically regarding the issue of correct water accounts. The VDM also said that they have problems with the company that collects the water consumption data.
This week, Ralushai added to the list of challenges by confirming that the municipality had to appoint a company to help with the collection of outstanding accounts. “We have not been billing our community for the past three months, because we were still busy with the process of appointing a service provide who would help us to collect information,” said Ralushai.
Ralushai was not able to say if the VDM would be able to finalize matters before the DWS’s deadline, which if missed, will see residents facing water restrictions during the festive season. It was also not clear how the VDM will go about raising the funds needed to pay any outstanding debts.
In the meantime, Mokoyane’s announcement has been slammed as unconstitutional and unfair punishment towards ordinary residents. The South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU) said it would be immoral, unethical and evil for anyone to even think of interrupting water supply to coerce municipalities. “This is the same department which owes billions of rands to contractors and has shown no commitment to paying those contractors, essentially leaving workers without a pay check,” said SAMWU in a press statement released in answer to Mokoyane’s announcement.
SAMWU reminded Mokonyane that municipalities were not there to make profits, but instead exist to perform their constitutional mandate of delivering services. “Municipalities are by the way heavily underfunded and expected to deliver services to South Africans on a shoestring budget of less than 10% of government expenditure,” said SAMWU.
Isabel joined the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror in 2009 as a reporter. She holds a BA Degree in Communication Sciences from the University of South Africa. Her beat is mainly crime and court reporting.