I returned to work today after the wonderful Easter break to be greeted by the shocking news of the National Consumer Tribunal’s judgment http://bit.ly/I2WckF on the City of Johannesburg’s billing crisis.
The Tribunal found in favour of the City and cancelled the National Consumer Commission’s 45 compliance notices against it for failing to resolve consumers’ billing disputes.
The City had objected to the notices, arguing due process was not followed and each complaint had not been investigated before the NCC issued its compliance notices.
The Tribunal quoted the NCC as saying that due to the volume of complaints it hadn’t been practical or possible to investigate each billing complaint. It issued the notices as a last resort after the City allegedly failed to respond timeously after agreeing to resolve individual complaints. The NCC believed the CoJ was not co-operating and said consumers were growing impatient.
In its 44-page judgment the Tribunal said that the fact that the NCC knew that the City was experiencing difficulties with billing and consumers were complaining did not mean is was entitled to “cut corners”. It quoted from the recent Supreme Court of Appeal ruling in Democratic Alliance v The President of the RSA & others which dealt with the right of the President Zuma to appoint the National Director of Public Prosecutions:
”To ensure a functional, accountable constitutional democracy the drafters of our Constitution placed limits on the exercise of power. Institutions and office bearers must work within the law and must be accountable. Put simply, ours is a government of laws and not of men or women“.
My question now is where this leaves the downtrodden consumer? If the Tribunal wants to talk constitutional rights in defending its ruling, what about a consumer’s constitutional right to a functional, accountable municipality? What about muncipal officials working within the law? Or are the rights of institutions and office bearers more important than those of the ordinary citizen?
I get that procedure needs to be followed. I get that corners shouldn’t be cut. But I don’t see how the rights of a powerful – and clearly incompetent - institution like the CoJ trumps the rights of the vulnerable. Isn’t the CoJ there to serve the people?
I also think it’s disingenous to suggest an NCC investigation of each and every complaint around billing is required to detect wrongdoing. The fact there’s a billing crisis and that it’s widespread and has affected thousands of consumers is not, and has never been, in dispute.
It’s also rich to suggest an under-resourced, under-funded entity like the NCC should take on the added (and arguably not necessary) burden of individual investigations following mass complaints into the same widespread problem.
The Joburg Advocacy Group, which represents many of the city’s billing crisis victims, is equally appalled, saying in a statement today http://on.fb.me/Acnslt that it’s “ironic” that the tribunal cites the rule of law and SA’s constitutional democracy when ruling in favour of the city’s application.
“This especially as there is substantial evidence to suggest that the City of Joburg itself is in violation of S 33 of the Bill of Rights, which guarantees just administrative action, and, indeed, of many of the provisions laid out in such legislation as Municipal Systems Act,” the group said.
I doubt the NCC has the resources to have this Tribunal finding reviewed. So the City will get away with gross neglect, incompetence and abuse of the very people who fund it. So much for a “functional, accountable constitutional democracy”.
Just to be clear: although the constitution establishes and circumscribes the powers of a municipality, it is incorrect to refer to a “constitutional right” to a functional and accountable one.