Cape Town - Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane changed her tune on her tough stance on throttling of water to 10 cash-strapped municipalities, saying it will only be done as a last resort, to force them to pay up.
“The issue of throttling water is the last resort of them all,” Mokonyane said.
Appearing before the joint committee on water and sanitation and cooperative government, she appealed to the municipalities to pay at least their current accounts while a solution was being sought.
Mokonyane's department, National Treasury, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Department and South African Local Government Association briefed Parliament on the outstanding debt by municipalities.
Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba and Cogta Minister Des van Rooyen failed to pitch to the meeting.
This came days after Water and Sanitation Department asked National Treasury to withhold grants to 30 municipalities owning the department and its water boards a total of R10 billion.
Parliamentarians heard that National Treasury was notified on November 24 about the drastic action to stop water flowing to cash-strapped councils.
Briefing the joint committee, Mokonyane said the negotiations for payments have been going on for almost three years.
"There has been work done together with municipalities, organised local government as well individual municipalities to really plead that this not an issue that is a favour but a responsibility of municipalities (to pay up)," she said in reference to request for payment of water debt.
Mokonyane complained about some municipalities that made commitments to pay up only to default.
"The issue is about commitment that must yield results," she said.
She pleaded that National Treasury get affected stakeholders on board to find a solution.
"We are at a critical stage when allocations are made in the second week of December we recommend that there should be a process to negotiate and to make the commitments failing which this is what may go to the extreme without targeting the rights of South Africans."
She pointed out that water needed money to reach the end-user and that the water boards had their own creditors to take care of.
Cogta Deputy Minister Andries Nel said the matter resolved around the lives of the people and that it should not impact on their fundamental rights.
Nel proposed that the matter be tackled at the inter-ministerial task team, led by Cogta Minister Des van Rooyen, that handles the payment of the debt municipalities debt to Eskom.
Salga's Thami Ngubane caled for diagnosis of the problem than rush for solutions.
"Whatever solutions we are to take must come from a people's point. We must avoid to impose a high price on the people," Ngubane said.
He also warned about withholding the grants of municipalities, saying that would impact on services rendered by the municipalities and non payment of salaries of employees.
Ngubane called for due diligence to be undertaken on the case by case of cash-strapped municipalities to find ways they could make arrangements to pay their debts.
"You can take a blanket approach, but rather take a tailor-made approach," he said.
Jan Hattingh, national treasury's chief director for local government budget analysis, said the withholding of grants to organs of state was used as a last resort after failed interventions by Cogta at provincial and national level.
"We are very willing to explore the mechanism," Hattingh said. "We do support the institutions to enforce credit control mechanisms."