A revolt is brewing among ratepayers as frustration grows at service delivery failures and the ongoing crumbling of municipal infrastructure.
Resident’s associations are keeping a close watch on a court action brought against the eThekwini municipality by the Westville Ratepayers Association (WRA) after five of its members had their services disconnected following their refusal to pay because of abysmal service delivery by the metro.
Their protest action is not a boycott, said WRA spokesperson Rose Cortes. The overvaluation of property values and consequent demand for huge rates increases was the trigger.
And that, too, is the defiant viewpoint of many municipalities in the country, including Knysna, Oudtshoorn, Ekurhuleni, City of Joburg, and Tshwane.
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Montgomery Park in Joburg has raised its head above the parapet. Under its rallying banner of “Operation Gatvol”, petitions and protests have been organised. But as spokesperson Mike O’Donovan said, these have “fallen on deaf ears”.
“We sent a list of our grievances to the Gauteng premier, the mayor and the municipal manager. So far not a peep out of any of them.
“So we will move to the next phase and start by withholding rates payments for a month.” Why such drastic action?
“Simply the years of neglect of the city’s infrastructure, the non-provision of services, the corruption, misappropriation and the disappearance of funds, and the illegality of many of the city’s actions – in our view – have finally forced our hand.”
In Durban, the court has reserved judgment.
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Asad Gaffar, WRA chair, said: “If the court sides with the five and orders reconnection, then all monies due by ratepayers to the eThekwini municipality will be placed in an account held in trust with the Durban metro as the beneficiary, pending a further conclusive legal judgment.”
The standoff started in June when the metro’s 2023-24 budget included massive across-theboard increases.
The WRA, along with other organisations, was enraged by this unilateral action and Gaffar demanded a meeting with eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda.
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At the meeting, supported by about 100 residents and representatives from 25 different ratepayers’ associations, they expressed their outrage and refusal to accept the new budget. Kaunda was blunt.
The withholding of due payments or rates and services was illegal. However, he was in for a rude shock. Gaffar set out the ratepayers position: “The (Municipal Property Rates Act) declares that ‘withholding payment is illegal under normal circumstances if the city is providing you with all the services. But this is not normal. We’re not getting the services, nor has there been any public participation whatsoever, as required by law.
“Moreover,” he continued, “the municipality has lost R50 billion over the past five years. And they want us, the ratepayers of Durban, to bail them out.” So what were they demanding?
“We want a renegotiation of the 2023 tariffs; we want the setting aside of all rates increased on properties pending valuation appeals; a moratorium on interest owed on overdue accounts; simplified billing; accurate meter readings and an end to all estimates; the writing off of arrears rates owed by ratepayers over the age of 65 and the establishment of an oversight board of city officials and ratepayers.”
Other ratepayers concurred: “Our position exactly,” was the consensus. An impasse ensued as the city refused to countenance any of their demands. It was only then that the WRA declared a rates and utilities bill revolt and a ‘diverting’ nonpayment strategy.
On the eve of the implementation of the new budget, this defiance started to excite others. Thus it was that the representatives from about 25 ratepayers’ associations in the city clamoured to be part of the rebellion.
Phoenix Civic Movement leader Vivian Pillay said: “Service delivery in eThekwini is at an absolutely dismal level, resulting in major water and electricity outages.
“The flowing of raw sewage into our rivers, streams and the ocean are damaging – and already has damaged the environment.
“Huge amounts of (residents and ratepayers’) funds are leaving the administration frivolously whereas these should be used for the effective running of the city.”
The mayor warned: “The municipality will not hesitate to implement its credit control policy, including disconnections”.
As good as his word, five householders in Westville (the so-called Westville 5) were disconnected from the electricity supply and on 8 September the eThekwini Ratepayers’ Movement took the municipality to court and asked the judge to order immediate reconnection of the five householders’ services and to bar it from further disconnections.
Are such rates boycotts legal?
Legal expert Tinashe Carlton Chigwata of the Dullah Omar Institute wrote two years ago that the effectiveness of service delivery protests and rates boycotts was “debatable”.
Organised groups, he said, “should go to court to force a municipality to do what the law says it must do. “There are many legislated opportunities available to the community, including local businesses, to get involved.
“For instance, section 4(2) of the Municipal Systems Act requires every municipal council to consult the community … on the level, quality, range and impact of municipal services as well as the available options for service delivery.”