Water bill arrears shock for pre-paid electricity buyers

An example of a bill in arrears with the City of Cape Town.

Masiphumelele residents are shocked that Cape Town City is charging extra for electricity because of water meter debt.
As a means of clawing back some of the R2.1-bn in water account arrears, the City is charging extra for electricity supplied through pre-paid meters and supposedly putting the difference against account-holders’ water debt.

Masiphumelele Village, Cape Town, South Africa

However, it appears many account-holders are unaware that this method of debt collection is being applied by the City and are confused as to why they receive so few units when purchasing electricity.

Masiphumelele plot-owner, Christina Nodoli September (56), said she was confused at the amount she is paying for electricity, as she receives only 8 kWh for R50, which equals R6.25 per Kwh, whereas the highest ‘Block 2’ domestic tariff applied to properties valued at over R400,000 and households using over 600kWh per month, is R2.28 per kWh.

Yet September, who is unemployed and lives in a shack on her erf, holds property valued under R400,000 and uses less than 200kWh per month, qualifies for the City’s Lifeline Tariff and thus should receive 60kWh of free electricity and pay only R1.11 per kWh thereafter.

She said when she queried the high cost of electricity at the Fish Hoek municipal offices recently, she was told half of her electricity purchase was being used to service her debt. It was at this enquiry that she was made aware of the more than R75,000 owed to the municipality on her account, mostly due to unpaid water use and sewerage disposal charges.

September, who is a widow looking after her four children – none of whom have formal sector work – and five grandchildren, said that was when she realised the 10 backyard dwellers to whom she rents space on her property in order to make a living, were racking up massive water bills.

Her family and her tenants obtain water from a single standpipe and all use the one flush toilet installed on the erf, together using almost 100 kilolitres (kl) of water per month. By comparison, a modest suburban family of four uses about 20 kl of water per month.

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As a result, September’s monthly water bill is between R4,500 to R6,000 per month, an amount she never factored into her rental charges and has accumulated a crippling debt of R75,000 to the municipality. She said she has since increased the rent for her backyarders in order to cover water usage costs.

Although she said the City had never informed her that her electricity purchases would be used to defray her water bill arrears, she did admit to having stopped opening letters from the City “a long time ago”. Her last direct payment was an amount of R275 in February 2009.

A number of other property owners who similarly rent out space to tenants, acknowledged that they were in a similar position regarding their municipal bills, and were being charged inflated amounts on their pre-paid electricity meters.

However, they did not want to make their names public as they said they were scared the City would come after them for their arrears.

Mayoral committee member for finance, Ian Neilson, stated that the City does collect arrears through pre-paid electricity purchases.

However, Neilson said prior to that action being taken, the municipality’s debt collecting policy allows residents to make payment arrangements with the interest being put on hold so long as the arrangement is honoured.

He said deductions from pre-paid electricity were only implemented after notices and letters of demand sent to the account holder had been ignored, and the higher the water consumption, the greater the pre-paid electricity deductions.

The debt would be written off for residents classified as indigent, provided they allowed the City to install a water management device on the property.

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When informed of the City’s communication, September said she had not known she could make an arrangement with the City and she would consider exploring them.

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