The City of Johannesburg has finally met its match. Hopefully.
From Wednesday to Friday this week, the public will witness city bosses trying to explain its shoddy handling of the billing crisis and other gross incompetence that has caused ratepayers so much stress — and distress — in the last two years.
It’s all going down at the Braamfontein Recreational Centre, Harrison Street (between Juta and Smit Streets) where the Consumer Tribunal will sit to hear the city’s objections to being told to toe the line by consumer watchdog, the National Consumer Commission.
Last year, the commission served a compliance notice on city fathers — mostly for breaching the Consumer Protection Act in terms of of Section 54 (delivering quality goods or services). But other matters involve Section 40 (shocking conduct) and Section 48 (unfair, unreasonable or unjust agreement terms).
Most of the breaches arise from the billing chaos that has affected ratepayers since 2010.
“At the center of most of the complaints is the failure by the City of Johannesburg to attend timeously and meaningfully to complaints,” commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala said.
She said there wasn’t a single complaint received by the NCC where a complainant had not tried everything to resolve the problem. They had approached the Commission not because they had a billing problem but because the city hadn’t attended to it, Mohlala said.
Complaints against the city include:
- water and electricity meters read upside down, leading to incorrect bills.
- meter readings not tying up with the reading issued on the account
- meters not read for more than 20 months
- electricity disconnection while a discrepancy is still under investigation
- delay or failure to provide clearance certificates
- delay of up to three years in paying pension rebates
- charging interest on incorrect debit balances
- if bills are corrected (rarely), charges not credited back to customer
- failure to explain to consumers how electricity is charged and how tariff applied
- charging ratepayers business rates instead of residential rates
“People have also been told to pay now and complain later which is prohibited by Section 40 as unconscionable conduct … the city is actually abusing its bargaining power in the supplier-consumer relationship,” said Mohlala.
The city (surprise, surprise) has objected to the compliance notice. And not by denying the claims or by assuring the problems have been resolved. No, it seems it’s going to waste time arguing jurisdictional issues. What a convenient distraction from the real issues.
Part of the city’s objection is that the commission doesn’t have jurisdiction to deal with some of the complaints because they happened before 1 April 2011 when the Act came into force.
Truth of the matter is that even though many of the complaints arose before April 1, most of them have still not been attended to up to now, which makes them very relevant.
Another city objection is the claim that the commission does not have jurisdiction over issues of quality water and electricity. It’s an argument that completely misses the point, which Mohlala is quick to point out.
“The Commission does not contend that the city has failed to provide quality water and electricity, but that in cases where there are problems, the existence of which is not disputed by the way, the manner at which the City handles such complains fall short of the requirements of Section 54,” she said.
Yet another issue raised by the city is that the commission acted unlawfully because it did not afford the city an opportunity to first deal with complaints.
Mohlala said this argument was “flawed” and “disingenuous” because the complaints had been lodged with the city before being brought to the Commission. Besides, she said, there had been an undertaking by the city to deal with such complaints in bulk without needing to go the compliance notice and tribunal route but it had reneged on this.
I say all power to Mohlala and her team. If they succeed in getting the Tribunal to confirm the compliance notice forcing the city to provide a decent service to ratepayers, they’ll be nothing short of heroes.
If you can, show your support for the consumer watchdog and the work it does (under major capacity and budget constraints), by attending some or all of the hearings from 10am – 1pm and from 2pm – 4pm Weds to Friday.
The ruling won’t be immediate — the Tribunal will first need to deliberate on the arguments put forward.
But let’s hope the days of muncipal arrogance and misuse of power are about to end. It would not be a moment too soon.