Many residents of Makhado are furious after receiving a notice from the Vhembe District Municipality (VDM), urging them to contact the municipality about their water accounts that are in arrears to “avoid further action”. In some cases, the arrears amount to hundreds of thousands of rands. However, residents argue that the VDM’s request is ludicrous as they rarely have running water in their taps and, in some instances, have not received an account from the VDM for months or even years.
By now, Makhado residents are familiar with the VDM’s water problems and their struggle to maintain a consistent water supply as a result of ageing infrastructure and poor maintenance. Despite this, the VDM seems to have intensified efforts to collect water-account payments, citing necessity.
In response to a media enquiry about the notices sent to customers regarding their outstanding accounts, VDM spokesperson Matodzi Ralushai stated on Tuesday that the municipality had engaged a service provider for billing accounts. According to Ralushai, sustaining service delivery requires communities to pay for services. “Without revenue collections, service delivery demands won’t be met,” Ralushai remarked.
Ralushai indicated that the amounts some residents were now being charged were not estimates. “The service provider appointed is visiting households. It is not done through estimates. In case there is a billing error, the complainant has the responsibility to raise his or her concern with the municipality revenue office with evidence for his or her matter to be attended to,” said Ralushai. He did not respond to questions regarding the issuing of monthly accounts and when last they had issued these accounts.
However, not everyone accepts this explanation or deems the VDM’s actions reasonable. “The underlying principles of the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA), Chapter 8, Section 64 (2B and 2C), which form the basis of reforms and customer care within a municipality’s financial operations, are clearly not being upheld,” said Pierre Smalle, local ward councillor for the Democratic Alliance (DA).
Smalle pointed out that the VDM’s own credit policy stipulates communicating monthly accounts to residents and entering service-level agreements with consumers. “This is either intentionally or unintentionally not being implemented by the municipality,” Smalle added.
Regarding the VDM’s billing substantial amounts now, Smalle stated that the DA “condemns in the strongest terms the weak or non-existence of administrative systems of the VDM to bill citizens of Makhado Local Municipality for water - water not being supplied at residential sites for months, and in extreme cases for years, as well as for faulty or no water meters.”
Regarding the above, Smalle said the DA therefore supported the initiative taken by some residents to lodge a dispute against the VDM for incorrect water billing and services not being supplied. “The DA will further petition the VDM to rectify, or validate, the water-billing account and to adhere to the MFMA guidelines and to ensure that monthly billing is being implemented and is delivered or communicated to consumers,” Smalle said.
The latest report of the auditor-general (AG) on the Vhembe District Municipality’s (VDM) 2021/22 audited financial statements, as reported by the newspaper in May this year, also highlighted the lack or inadequacy of the VDM's administrative systems.
In the fiscal year 2021/22, the VDM billed consumers R515.08 million for water and waste management. However, this appeared to be a complete guestimate, and the AG's report noted several discrepancies. Local consumers can attest that the VDM’s billing system is, frankly speaking, chaotic. Accounts are not sent out to consumers, and water-meter readings are either not performed or unreliable.
The AG also took note of the disparity in charges from the previous financial year. In 2020/21, the total for service charges amounted to R309.28 million. The VDM's explanation for the more than 66% increase in billings the subsequent year was simply attributed to an “annual CPI increase and increased billing”, which the AG did not accept. The AG pointed out inconsistencies, mentioning understatements in one year and overstatements in another. “I was unable to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence for service charges, due to a lack of proper record keeping of the meter readings,” the AG stated.
Despite this, the VDM writes off a significant portion of its consumer debt, even after portraying it as income in its annual budget to balance the books. By the end of the fiscal year, the balance for consumer debtors stood at R1.197 billion (up from the previous year's R611 million). However, the VDM made an impairment provision, totalling R1.195 billion, leaving a balance of only R2.64 million. Adding to the complexity, the VDM seems to rely on interest charged on overdue accounts. The municipality’s second-largest source of 'own' revenue is indicated as interest received on investments, which surged from R29.02 million in 2021 to R59.04 million in 2022.
For those wishing to lodge a complaint or dispute against the VDM for incorrect billing, Ralushai mentioned that this could be done at any of the four strategically positioned municipal revenue offices in the district. These offices are the VDM Head Office in Thohoyandou, the Makhado fire station in Louis Trichardt, the Musina municipal offices, and the Vuwani Fire Services.
Date:17 November 2023
Andries joined the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror in April 1993 as a darkroom assistant. Within a couple of months he moved over to the production side of the newspaper and eventually doubled as a reporter. In 1995 he left the newspaper group and travelled overseas for a couple of months. In 1996, Andries rejoined the Zoutpansberger as a reporter. In August 2002, he was appointed as News Editor of the Zoutpansberger, a position he holds until today.