Picture: Soraya Crowie
Our announcement about the tough measures we have decided to implement against the municipalities that were defaulting on their water bill obligations has been met with mixed reactions and emotions by a variety of stakeholders. 

Some of these detractors accuse us of acting impulsively and in an unconstitutional manner as the department is obliged by the constitution to ensure the provision of water to everyone. 

What our detractors are missing in the whole constitutional debate is that the constitution places the burden on all authorities to play their respective roles in ensuring the uninterrupted provision of services including water to all citizens.  

The role of municipalities, especially as water service authorities, is critical in the provision of water to consumers and this includes their ultimate responsibility to manage their financial obligations meticulously.

So our decision to issue notices to at least 30 municipalities notifying them that the department would restrict bulk water supply should they fail to pay their water debts, was informed by this legal and constitutional imperative.

In fact, the department itself is obliged by law to implement these measures in order to recover the debt owed by municipalities and keep the water taps running. Section 59 (3) (b) of the National Water Act allows the department to restrict or suspend the flow of water to defaulting municipalities. 

Furthermore, in terms of the Municipal Financial Management Act, municipalities are required to pay for bulk services within 60 days of receiving invoices from service providers. Section 41 of the same Act further mandates the National Treasury to monitor payments made by municipalities for these services. 

So to accuse us of acting outside the constitution is to blatantly ignore the legal obligations placed on all of us to fulfil this constitutional mandate. We have thus as of Friday, 24 November 2017 communicated with all the affected municipalities notifying them of our decisions in this regard consequent to their failure to pay.

Quite frankly, it is untenable that the department should allow the R10.7 billion debt to escalate without taking reasonable measures of recovery. 

About R3.9bn of this is owed to the Water Trading Entity of the department and R6.8bn is owed to the various Water Boards across the country.

It is even more worrying that R7bn of this has been outstanding for a period exceeding three months which is the ultimate cut off time. 

We have now reached a point of no return in this conundrum and we have resolved to take the bull by the horns without compromising the right of citizens to access water. 

We have at various levels been at pains to resolve the outstanding debt matter using various structures within the state such as the Inter-Governmental Relations framework and to date these have failed to yield the desired outcomes. 

In more than one instance, we have been forced to undertake legal action to recover debt owed by municipalities. To date we have issued 59 summonses and have 6 judgments granted by the courts against the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality, OR Tambo District Municipality and the Phumelela, Dr Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Emfuleni, Nketoana Local Municipalities. 

Of these, it is only the OR Tambo District Municipality that is currently servicing the debt in line with a payment plan agreed to with the department.

The rest are still failing to settle the debt and as such the debt is rising unabated. More shockingly, the 30 municipalities that we have identified have individual debts exceeding R50 million for a period older than 6 months and the debt continues to escalate. 

For this reason, we have taken the tough decision to write to the National Treasury requesting that the equitable share due to these municipalities be withheld until a payment arrangement is agreed between us.

We cannot allow the situation to escalate any further lest we plunge the system into an even darker abyss of service delivery woes. We are taking these tough measures as part of the bigger strategy to pave a new and sustainable future for the water business in South Africa. 

In a few days, we will host a water infrastructure investment summit which will attract investors, funders, project developers, policymakers, regulators and local government partners in the water sector.

These will engage in a programme of action that aims to shift the water and sanitation sector investment landscape to a space that is open and enabling for investment and inclusive growth opportunities.

We are fully aware of our constitutional responsibility to provide water to all citizens but we have an obligation to ensure that everybody plays their part in this critical mandate.

Municipalities are not immune from this constitutional responsibility.

* Nomvula Mokonyane is the Minister of Water & Sanitation and a member of the ANC NEC.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Sunday Independent