Joburg Advocacy Group (JAG): June 2011

Monday, 6 June 2011

What the SABC wouldn't tell you about the Joburg billing crisis

During the course of the past week, JAG received a call from SABC TV News, asking us if we'd be prepared to comment on the on-going Joburg billing crisis. According to the journalist who contacted us, although the city claims it has made considerable progress towards resolving the crisis, communities all over the city are claiming otherwise. Our own experience leads us to agree that the situation is far from resolved.

Suffice it to say, we supplied the SABC with twelve cases studies of unresolved complaints from our substantial archives, gave an on-camera interview raising some of the most concerning issues related to the billing crisis, and even set up an interview with one of the complainants.

The resulting coverage, which aired on Thursday 3 June, made no mention of the issues we'd raised, did not include any of our on-camera commentary and, in fact, came across more as a PR plug for the city than anything else.

So, in case you're wondering how things stand, here's some background that will put the situation into perspective: 
  • JAG first published a billing crisis information leaflet for residents on 13 November 2010 in response to the growing number of complaints we were receiving about grossly incorrect municipal accounts.
  • Over the next two months, however, the crisis did not abate and, in fact worsened.
  • JAG therefore launched a full-scale billing crisis campaign on 19 January 2011, calling on the Gauteng Provinicial MEC to intervene in the crisis, as provided for in the Municipal Systems Act.
  • On 26 February, under pressure because of the extensive media coverage of the billing crisis, the city convened a media briefing. At this briefing, then-Mayor, Amos Masondo, said that 8% of the city's bills were incorrect. Even if this figure can be trusted, which we question, it equates to approximately 80,000 erroneous bills. At the time, many had been in dispute for a year or more.
  • Despite an intensive advocacy campaign conducted over the next two months, affected residents continued to report that their disputes were not being resolved. Further, new disputes were arising with every new statement run.
  • We therefore eventually approached the President, asking him to intervene on behalf of affected residents.
  • The correspondence was not acknowledged, but the Public Protector and the MEC hastily convened a media briefing on 14 April to brief the media on the progress being made to address the situation.
  • At the briefing, the MEC and the Public Protector assured the media that the crisis was being addressed, and the number of complaints had been reduced to approximately 30,000 in number.
  • JAG queried this at the briefing, and susequently wrote to the MEC asking for verification of these figures. The correspondence was not acknowledged.
With this in mind, here are some of the facts the SABC felt weren't worth reporting:
  • The city's claim that the number of billing complaints has been reduced from approximately 80,000 in February to approximately 30,000 (a figure which appears to have remained constant for nearly two months) cannot be verified. The figures reported by SABC TV News were therefore simply those released by the city.
  • Residents continue to report that their disputes remain unresolved, and new disputes continue to arise every month.
  • Some of the case studies we supplied to the SABC include:
    • The case of a deceased estate that has been billed R250K for electricity. The executors have been unable to have this reversed since it was billed several months ago, and the estate therefore cannot be tied up.
    • The case of a pensioner who was billed R1.7m for electricity and, when she eventually managed to have this reversed, was then billed R41K