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What next Vhembe!

Date: 22 March 2024 By: Andries van Zyl

Residents of Louis Trichardt have been left completely bewildered by the Vhembe District Municipality's latest attempt to collect arrears on water accounts. On Tuesday, consumers received an email from a debt collecting company called Risima Shared Services Legal Department, demanding immediate payment of all outstanding accounts. In principle, one cannot fault them for that, but the tone of the letter has left consumers fuming.

The letter states, among other things: "Let me be perfectly clear: your overdue account demands immediate attention. Failure to settle this outstanding balance within 7 days will result in severe consequences", "Please understand that our patience has worn thin. We will not hesitate to pursue every available avenue to recover the funds owed to us if you continue to neglect your financial responsibilities," and "Take this final notice seriously and take immediate action to rectify the situation. Your failure to do so will result in swift and decisive action on our part."

If you fail to pay your outstanding debt for a long time, you can understandably expect such a letter. However, in this case, the letters were apparently sent out to all account holders in Louis Trichardt, including those whose accounts are paid up.

Ms Andel Greyling was less than impressed after opening her email and reading the letter. "They say their patience has worn thin ... I wonder if they have any idea how thin the community's patience is with them!" she said.

"I don't owe Vhembe one cent, and then we get a letter like this! The tone of the letter is extremely arrogant, to say the least. They are threatening us to pay our accounts, which are paid up! So, I really don't know what more they want me to pay!?" said Greyling. Others expressed the view that the letter could be considered defamatory.

Greyling wanted to know how Vhembe could justify their actions. "For years now, there has been no water in our taps, yet the Albasini Dam is 96% full. How does Vhembe justify this? How do you justify Vhembe’s actions by sending out letters like this? I think it is in extremely poor taste. How does Vhembe justify families having to use their milk and food money to buy water, which is a basic human right?" Greyling wanted to know. She said that Vhembe owed residents a public apology regarding the tone of the letter.

To make matters worse, Vhembe sent out the letters well knowing that their bookkeeping systems are in total disarray, a fact pointed out by the auditor-general (AG) in its latest annual report. The AG points out that Vhembe does not read water meters for the purposes of revenue billing on a monthly basis. This results in a significant number of accounts being without variables to enable estimations. Vhembe then estimated consumption for the affected consumers to be zero. This resulted in non-compliance with section 64(2)(b) of the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA), which states that the accounting officer must take all reasonable steps to ensure that revenue due to the municipality is calculated on a monthly basis. "The municipality accounted for service charges revenue based on estimated consumption, whereas actual consumption readings were [not] taken. Consequently, revenue from service charges is understated. I was unable to determine the full extent of the understatement of service charges revenue..." the AG stated.

Amid all the chaos, Vhembe now saw fit to threaten consumers. This follows weeks of Vhembe’s sending out ludicrously high water accounts to residents, some demanding hundreds of thousands of rands in arrears from consumers. In extreme cases, residents received arrears notifications of R500,000 plus!

"The recent crisis by Vhembe in managing their water accounts, as well as ensuring that businesses and residences in Makhado Municipality have working water meters which have been calibrated, has led to a widespread issue of consumers’ being billed incorrectly," said local Democratic Alliance (DA) ward councillor Pierre Smalle. He added that the fact that Vhembe does not maintain and or read residents' water usage on a regular basis was common knowledge. Many of these consumers have lodged complaints or disputes with Vhembe. "Therefore, the lack of understanding from Vhembe in attempting to resolve the complaints or disputes only through their attorneys, in a manner that can only be described as a non-caring government that threatens consumers with information that has not yet been tested or queries yet to be resolved, must be seen as reckless behaviour," said Smalle. Smalle called on all consumers to formally lodge a complaint or dispute regarding their accounts with Vhembe. "Furthermore, we will request the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) to intervene in this matter, as well as the MEC for Cooperative Governance, Human Settlements and Traditional Affairs (CoGHSTA)," said Smalle.

Vhembe was asked to comment on the matter of the letters consumers received and the threatening tone thereof, but judging from their response, consumers will certainly not be getting a public apology anytime soon.

"The municipality appointed a service provider for revenue collection. It is the responsibility of the client to respond to the appointed legal services, because the decision was taken to ensure that the municipality improves on revenue collection, which has been a challenge. But those who have concerns should provide evidence of meter readings or pipes which do not have water. Any enquiries about the appointed legal service provider can contact the Finance Department of the Municipality. We encourage citizens of Vhembe to pay for services because without resources, service delivery will be affected," said municipal spokesperson Matodzi Ralushai.

Ralushai was also asked why the letter had been sent to all consumers, even those whose accounts were paid up. "The matter of sending it to everybody without verification is to be checked for it to be corrected," said Ralushai. He added that Risima Shared Services Legal Department is a registered debt-collection agency, not a legal company, and that the company will investigate any mistakes reported. Ralushai remained mum on the question of the cost at which Risima was appointed to do the debt collection they were supposed to have done themselves.

In the past, Vhembe urged residents to report faulty meters or accounts, but for resident Renier Fourie, this is a fruitless exercise. "We would like to know what exactly we must do. People report faulty accounts, but Vhembe just cannot sort it out!" said Fourie.

In the meantime, many residents are in the dark as to what their next step should be. Do they sit and wait or just pay, even exorbitant erroneous amounts on accounts? Regarding this, the National Treasury Department has a “Departmental Guide” on managing departmental debt. Regarding disputes or complaints on accounts, the guide is clear. "Prescription (having to pay) is suspended where the debtor is outside the country and when the debt is the object of dispute subjected to arbitration," states point 7.2. This reiterates Smalle's call for consumers to lodge a complaint or dispute until their accounts have been sorted out.

 
 
 

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Andries van Zyl

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.

 
 

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