Joburg Advocacy Group (JAG): February 2011

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Small Breakthrough

We're pleased to hear via the media that the report on the Joburg billing crisis requested by the Minister of Cooperative Governance has been completed, and is due to be handed over to both the department and the Public Protector. We applaud Minister Shiceko for ensuring that this report was, indeed, speedily produced, and hope that appropriate measures will now be taken to resolve the crisis.

It has, however, been extremely difficult for JAG to manage its campaign and to respond in an informed way to resident complaints and media queries, as we have received no formal feedback from any level of government about the billing crisis. Everything we know about the measures being taken to address the serious problems within the municipal billing system has had to be gleaned from the media.

We would therefore like to suggest that the city appoints an experienced communications company with crisis management experience to issue daily updates to both the media and to interested and affected parties should a situation like this arise in the future.

We would also like to suggest that the city conducts a weekly media briefing, followed by a Q&A session. This would help to keep residents and community groups informed about important issues, developing problems and the measures being taken to address these issues - and to mitigate against the kind of confusion that has arisen during the billing crisis campaign.

Also, as many residents are still in a desperate situation, and as there are still very concerning reports coming in from both individuals and businesses about how their complaints are being dealt with, we will continue to publicise specific complaints in order to illustrate the nature and extent of the situation. And we will, needless to say, be keeping a very watchful eye on developments.

We will also shortly be publishing an updated and more comprehensive version of the information leaflet for residents that we published in November, and we will make that available here as well as on our Facebook page. The new leaflet will provide information not only about avenues for redress within the government system and through such agencies as the Public Protector, but will also provide information on the legal steps residents can take should they need to. The leaflet will replace the current information leaflet and previous resident advisories.

NOTE: Regular updates are being posted on our Facebook page (Joburg Advocacy Group) and @JoburgAdvocacy on Twitter (billing crisis tweets are tagged #jbills).

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Misplaced Optimism

Well, fellow Joburg residents, it seems our optimism about local, provincial and national government working together to solve the Joburg billing crisis was misplaced.

After we started our billing crisis campaign on 14 January, there was silence for about a week. This despite the fact that we'd called on the provincial MEC for Local Government to institute an official investigation into the billing crisis in terms of the Municipal Systems Act, which he never even bothered to acknowledge.

Then the Minister of Cooperative Development confirmed there was a serious problem with Joburg's billing, but the Mayor and senior city officials soon came out and denied that this was a crisis (approximately 90,000 affected residents would disagree).

The following week, the Minister committed to an investigation into the crisis and the new billing system that has cost taxpayers approximately R80 million.Then the ANC called a summit of all the mayors in Gauteng to discuss widespread billing problems throughout the province and the Chair of the Finance Committee for the city said on a radio show on MixFM 93.8 community radio that anyone with unresolved complaints could mail him and he would get them resolved (he only problem with this is that his mailbox is always full) .

We've heard nothing since.

We see mouths moving, but we don't see ANY action either to assist desperate residents or to resolve the deeper issues at play here.

So it's up to civil society organisations and residents themselves to continue to take PEACEFUL DIRECT ACTION in order to get this and other pressing issues resolved.

Please have a look at our latest advisory for residents for further information.

Also, please be advised that there is a billing protest planned for 18 February at 08:30. This will take place outside Thuso House, on the corner of Simmonds and Stiemens Streets in Braamfontein (opposite the Joburg Theatre, previously the Civic Theatre). Note: this is the billing queries entrance and not the main entrance in Jorissen Street. Limited parking is available at the theatre or nearby at Constitution Hill. Marshalls will be on duty and a memorandum will be handed over to the city by "irate" city councillor, David Dewes.

While we understand that most residents are working people, we urge you to ask your employer for the morning off so that you can support this important democratic process.

It's easy to complain, but unless we all take continuous, meaningful direct action, nothing is going to change.

And don't forget to keep up the pressure on Joburg Connect, senior city officials, the Public Protector and the National Energy Regulator (NERSA). Further details are available on our latest advisory note and also on the information leaflet we published on 14 November.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Some Good News on the Billing Crisis

We're pleased to see that the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, whose department is tasked with monitoring the implementation of such legislation as the Municipal Systems Act and the Local Government Municipal Finance Management Act, is moving decisively to address the Joburg billing crisis.

Photograph courtesy of The Times

First came the news early yesterday afternoon of Minister Shiceka's intention to launch an official investigation into the billing crisis in the city, and then of the fact that he had called a summit with the mayors from all 14 municipalities to address more widespread billing irregularities in Gauteng.

JAG has expressed cautious optimism about the Minister's intervention, but continues to advocate for short- and medium-term relief for residents while the proposed investigation gets underway.

We've proposed a three-tiered approach to address the billing issue in the short-, medium- and long-term:

The first step was to call for an official investigation into the Joburg billing crisis in terms of the Municipal Systems Act because that's the only way to get to the root of the problem and to ensure that something like this doesn't - and can't - happen again.

But investigations take time and, in the short-term, we've called for a moratorium on power cuts until the billing system can be proved to be stable and functioning correctly. We'd also like to see power restored to residents whose accounts are currently in dispute until these disputes can be resolved.

In the medium-term, we'd like to see a "closed" complaints system being introduced off existing Joburg Connect capacity. A closed complaints system allows for logged tickets (resident complaints) to be closed off only if the original complainant agrees that the problem has been appropriately addressed. This, we believe, would prevent complaints from falling into a huge black hole of inaction, incompetence and corruption.

We've also suggested that it become mandatory for all city employees to wear name tags that reflect their employee numbers. This will enable residents to log complaints about inefficiency, poor service and corruption - all of which is widespread - more efficiently and effectively.

So again, we're cautiously optimistic about yesterday's developments, but continue to keep a vigilant eye on the billing situation in the city.