DURBAN - ETHEKWINI Municipality has stepped up its efforts to go after defaulting government departments by disconnecting Durban schools that owe more than R300 million for municipal services.
Councillors were told during a Municipal Public Accounts Committee (Mpac) meeting this week that the municipality was owed more than R1 billion by government departments and parastatals. The municipality is battling a spiralling debt crisis, and last year it was owed close to R17bn by various entities.
The Department of Education owes the municipality R365m, and the Department of Public Works owes R125m, bringing the combined debt of these two departments to about R490m.
The Mercury understands that a big part of the debt accumulated by schools is due to non-payment for water, but as the city cannot disconnect water services, it suspended the schools’ electricity supply.
Councillors said they had been made aware that several schools in Phoenix had been disconnected, but an agreement had been reached with the municipality where the defaulting schools would start paying their accounts by the end of the month.
A principal of one of the schools in the Phoenix area, who asked not to be named, said his school account was up to date.
“I am aware that some schools have been disconnected because they have not paid their accounts, as the children had not paid their school fees.”
It was not immediately clear when the schools were disconnected, or whether the service have been restored.
EThekwini Municipality said it did not discuss its customers with third parties, “however, we can state that in order to ensure that the city continues to provide services, credit control measures are being implemented with respect to customers that are in arrears. Customers are encouraged to keep their account up to date to avoid disconnections, and if they are not able to pay, they are encouraged to approach their nearest Sizakala Centre to make payment arrangements”.
Councillors that sit on Mpac said that while they supported disconnecting delinquent customers, they were against disconnecting schools as this negatively affected the schools’ operations.
IFP councillor Jane Naidoo said they had been informed that some schools in the Phoenix area had been disconnected because of huge debt.
“The principals held a meeting with city officials, and an arrangement was reached that they should start making payments by the end of this month.
“Some schools have bills amounting to hundreds of thousands of rand; they said the problem was leaks and old infrastructure. As the IFP we believe that schools should not be disconnected, their job is teaching and learning.”
ActionSA councillor Busi Radebe detailed the extent of the debt problem.
“As at the end of March 2022, the Education Department (Section 21 Schools) and Public Works had an outstanding amount owing to the eThekwini Municipality of R365m and R125m respectively.”
She said that while ordinary residents of eThekwini had had their services disconnected due to non-payments of accounts, it was regrettable that government departments and parastatal entities had been able to accumulate massive debt without any consequences.
She said that at the end of March, the combined government and parastatal debt owed to the municipality was a staggering R1.1bn.
DA councillor Shontel de Boer said the city must collect what was due, but should not negatively affect children’s education.
“We can’t disconnect schools as children need to learn, but the department needs to come to the party and pay as this citation cannot be allowed to go on and on. If they do not pay we need to disconnect the department’s head office,” she said.
Education Department spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said the department was aware of the matter.
“We have even had a meeting with the municipality and made arrangements to pay for the schools and make them to account as to why they never honoured the bills.”
He said some of the schools had a serious problem of illegal connections.
Regarding what the department owed, Public Works MEC Jomo Sibiya said they were engaging with all municipalities as the custodian of government buildings to ensure that all property rates were paid.
Sibiya said that before making payment, they first had to undertake a verification process as they had sometimes been billed for buildings that had nothing to do with Public Works.