Buffalo City cuts off residents in billing fight

Residents were disconnected from electricity for six days after being told to pay high and inaccurate water, electricity and rates bills, some of which were in other peoples’ names.

Many impoverished residents of Mdantsane and other East London communities were recently charged tens of thousands of rands for outstanding debts on rates, electricity and water – and then disconnected from electricity for six days when they were unable to pay.

Hundreds of people, some elderly, on crutches or in wheelchairs, lined up in the January heat outside different Buffalo City Municipality revenue collection offices trying to get the municipality to unblock their prepaid electricity cards. The cards had been blocked the week before, leaving residents unable to buy electricity.

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Following intense grassroots opposition to this, the municipality unblocked the cards. It has now given residents the month of February to pay off their outstanding bills.

But people say they won’t pay incorrect, inflated or estimated bills. In many cases, the city’s residents are also being unlawfully billed for arrears allegedly built up by parents who have subsequently died or by previous tenants of their homes.

Paying others’ debts

The Constitutional Court ruled in 2017 that new owners of properties were not liable for municipal services debts incurred by previous owners. 

But the Buffalo City Municipality has undermined this ruling by refusing to apply it to residents who inherit a house but who cannot afford to have it transferred into their names, even when the municipality accepts that these residents are “indigent”. 

In many of these cases, the municipality simply won’t change the name on the account and continues to issue bills to dead original owners – even when they’ve been given copies of the death certificates.

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Nombulelo Mhaphu of Amalinda who lives in her deceased parents’ house says the municipality told her to “go to court to … register her house in her name” if she wanted to open her own municipal account. But when she went to the magistrate’s court, they sent her back to the municipality.

“I’m not working. I pay electricity every month from my sick grant but now it is blocked and they want R400 just to reconnect it,” she says.

Boniwe Ngwentsu supports her five children under the age of 12 solely on social grants. She wept as she held out a R23 873.23 bill for her mother-in-law’s arrears. The municipality refused to transfer her mother’s account to her name, then disconnected her electricity when she was unable to pay the arrears.

“On 14 January I paid R500 but they still switched it off a few days later. Then I paid another R1 500 that they asked for but they still did not reconnect me. I had to go to rent offices [all over Mdantsane] all day. They were so cruel. Eventually at 5pm I was crying at one of the offices and they agreed to reconnect me. It is very devastating now because I can never pay that bill even though I go around the area selling skop [sheep’s head] and clothes. They will probably disconnect me next week again,” says Ngwentsu.

26 January 2021: Mother of five Boniwe Ngwentsu has been told she must pay her mother-in-law’s bill of R23 873.23 before her electricity will be reconnected.

Activist Anele Mbi is an organiser with the National Union of Care Workers of South Africa and Workers’ World Media Productions. He moved back home to care for his sick mother before she died. Though he managed to convince the municipality to change the account into his name, the bill for his mother’s alleged arrears of R10 000 still arrives at his house. “I’ve got two bills now. I’ve got my bill and my mother’s bill, even though she died,” he says.

The Mdantsane-based Kwanele Peoples’ Movement Agenda Seven campaigns against inaccurate and unjust billing. Organiser Thembani Javu produced two bills for rates and water for his house – one in his name and one in the name of residents who moved out eight years ago.

 “The municipality relocated them but they don’t bill them at their new address. They continue to bill them at what is now my address even though they were relocated by the municipality itself. The municipality gave them a house so they were supposed to transfer their account with them. They actually expect me to pay their bills and my bills too!”

Javu added that the municipality won’t tell people how much they owe – residents have to pay R110 for a statement. 

26 January 2021: Activist Anele Mbi helps residents with high bills outside the main municipal payments office on Oxford Street in East London.

Unreliable connections and inaccurate readings

In the 1960s, the apartheid government forcibly removed 112 000 residents of Duncan Village to Mdantsane, which was then part of the Ciskei Bantustan. The government continued to move thousands more over the next 20 years. Many of those affected by billing issues today are impoverished residents of the old four-roomed houses the apartheid government built in the area.

Prepaid electricity was imposed in 1998. After years of punishing work in Bantustan factories, all many people have are their old apartheid houses, and there is no spare money to pay rates, water and electricity bills.

Mbi says another problem is that the municipality doesn’t provide electricity to newer shack settlements like Nkandla, which was established in 2016, so shack dwellers make connections to the electricity supply in nearby brick-house communities, which then overloads the system and causes blackouts.

26 January 2021: Thembani Javu, organiser for the Kwanele Peoples’ Movement Agenda Seven, receives bills for both his household and for the house’s previous tenants.

“Because of informal connections, there is a shortage of electricity in our houses. Our electricity trips for three hours in the evenings and peoples’ fridges and TVs are not working. When we tell the municipality to add another transformer to service the residents of Nkandla they say the electricity is only meant for us in the formal houses. But we say, ‘Okay, but now those residents are here and they voted for you.’ Before the last elections, the ANC councillor even put toilets in Nkandla to encourage them to vote but after the election, there was no service delivery,” Mbi says.

“The problem is that electricity is not affordable. It is so expensive for people who are also discouraged from paying because their electricity supply is not regular. The ANC councillors don’t respond and they run away. Even if you march against them, they don’t seem to care,” he adds.

Recently, local media reported that the municipality fired 16 of the 56 meter readers in the city for allegedly refusing to work after a dispute over their duties. Meters not being read led to inaccurate bills, says Mandisa Ratya, who runs Ubuhle Bethu, a home in Southernwood for eight vulnerable children, aged from three to 18 years old.

Ratya recently received a bill for the shelter for over R70 000. “We registered as indigent for the past two years so we didn’t get any bill. Now all of a sudden I saw this huge bill! I don’t know where it is coming from. This is weighing heavily on us – it means our property can be taken from us for owing such a large amount. If our electricity is cut it will be a huge problem with Covid. We need hot showers for the children and fridges for their food,” she says.

26 January 2021: Mandisa Ratya runs a shelter for eight orphaned children in Southernwood. She recently received a bill for more than R70 000.

Pensioner Xoliswa Rwexana of Mdantsane was disconnected after being unable to pay a bill of R7 000 she received for the first time last month. “I pay R350 every month. We are really suffering. I don’t know where to turn because the municipality says they won’t open my electricity unless I pay R1 800. They told me even though I’m a pensioner, I wasn’t registered as indigent,” she says.

Portia Mngadi, who runs the Gwebindlala HIV and Aids non-profit organisation says her water bill suddenly went up to R9 000.

“In November my services were just over R1 000 but in January the bill was R12 000. Within two months! I did not know what happened … Now they expect me to pay,” said Mngadi.

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The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) say the municipality has been trying different ways to claw back money from residents for two years and it should now stop supplying electricity and let residents buy directly from Eskom. The municipality has “thumb-sucked billing figures that metro officials themselves cannot explain”, says EFF spokesperson for the city Siya Rumbu.

“We planned to take to the streets to express our displeasure but could not because of the lockdown. Our people have been billed incorrectly and [are] paying for rates when they don’t receive any form of proper service delivery. Meter reading was not done. The municipality relied on estimations. When this [cost recovery] first started they promised they would not cut off electricity or water. But now they cut people off centrally. They even send out bakkies to switch off electricity at the poles. So they have got a lot of options to abuse our people,” Rumbu says.

He estimated that 60% to 70% of the city’s prepaid electricity consumers were affected by the latest round of electricity disconnections.

Partial blocking

Residents have another problem with what the Buffalo City municipality describes as a “partial block” on the services of people who have outstanding debts. This is an automatic 40% deduction off all prepaid electricity purchases. So people who buy R100 electricity get R60 to load onto their meters. In some cases, residents do not know what debt they are paying off with this 40% deduction, how much it was and how it built up.

Municipal spokesperson Samkelo Ngwenya says the city never intended to leave residents without electricity. He says impoverished residents were told to apply for free tokens that would have given them the minimum 50kWh of free electricity per household for the month, even while their cards were blocked.

But opposition to the disconnections led to the council deciding on 27 January to “stop the whole process, unblock everyone and give everyone a month waiver”, while continuing with partial blocking, says Ngwenya.

26 January 2021: Xoliswa Rwexana of Mdantsane suddenly received a bill of over R7 000, and was told to pay R1769.87 immediately if she wanted to be reconnected.

“The suspension of the blocking system is in response to such cries. Council is made up of councillors who have been on the ground attending to the plight of the people. The cries and stresses you are mentioning, they have been felt. We are putting our efforts [into] using this period to process all the account queries and re-register those [who] qualify for subsidies,” Ngwenya says.

But Alana Potter, director of research and advocacy at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, says even partial blocking likely contravenes the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act. Partial blocking must be “reasonable, equitable, fair, rational and proportional”. The municipality must account for what they are charging before deducting money from prepaid purchases, she adds.

26 January 2021: Portia Mngadi, director of the Gwebindlala HIV and Aids non-profit organisation, was sent a R9 000 water bill.

Tsukudu Moroeng of the Legal Resources Centre also says “deducting money off electricity purchases – without informing the debtor on what the payment is for and the balance after deductions – is contrary to the aims of legislation and bylaws. Before money is deducted from prepaid electricity purchases, debtors should be provided [with] a bill containing a detailed account of the debts owed and where they come from.”

Meanwhile, the Buffalo City Municipality will not say what will happen after the month’s waiver has expired. It is unlikely residents will have paid off their enormous bills. The municipality would not say if it would begin another round of disconnections.

Update, 3 February 2021: A caption was amended to clarify that Xoliswa Rwexana suddenly received a bill of over R7 000, and was told to pay R1769.87 immediately if she wanted to be reconnected.

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