eThekwini’s DWS sits down with ratepayers to iron out billing drama

With compromises, suggestions, and hard truths, the eThekwini Ratepayers Protest Movement (EPRM) sat down with employees from the Department of Water and Sanitation to resolve the latest water billing error. Picture: Jehran Naidoo / IOL

With compromises, suggestions, and hard truths, the eThekwini Ratepayers Protest Movement (EPRM) sat down with employees from the Department of Water and Sanitation to resolve the latest water billing error. Picture: Jehran Naidoo / IOL

Published Jan 11, 2024


In a boardroom in the offices of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) in the Durban central business district, members of the eThekwini Ratepayers' Protest Movement (EPRM) and DWS employees sat to deliberate a way forward after the recent billing fiasco.

It was the second time EPRM, led by Asad Gaffer, sat down with eThekwini officials, this time led by Ian Govender, who manages the business performance of DWS in Durban.

The Department of Water and Sanitation building in Durban. Picture: Jehran Naidoo / IOL

Both parties met to iron out the issues that the 49,000 affected residents have with the back charges that the City is clawing.

According to eThekwini, there was a technical error, and the city did not pick up on their system that it was giving away six kilolitres of free water every month for several years.

The free water was given through the indigent policy, which allowed people with homes valued at R250,000 or less to receive the free water.

The city is now claiming back the money.

The maximum length that the municipality is allowed to back charge for is three years.

In December 2023, 49,000 Durban ratepayers received their utility bill, which had a new back charge on it, stating that residents were liable to pay for three years worth of water and sanitation.

Disgruntled and already cash-strapped, many of the affected residents approached the EPRM for assistance, and many others also immediately signed an acknowledgement of debt.

Those who approached EPRM either wanted help lodging a dispute or finding an amicable way to resolve the matter, as the municipality asked people to pay anywhere from R2,000 to R7,000 over and above their monthly bill.

The DWS was made aware of the free water error by the Auditor-General around June or July, 2023, Govender told IOL, after which it had to find out how many residents were affected.

Govender did not categorically state which month the City knew, for certain how many people it was going to bill.

But Gaffer and many others in the EPRM said the municipality should have given residents a notice of payment, instead of dropping it off unannounced during the festive period.

According to Govender, eThekwini is recovering funds for three financial years, starting in July 2020 and ending in June 2023.

Govender said that meter readings were used to derive the bills for this period, which was disputed by EPRM, who indicated that some affected residents did not have their meters read for more than 12 months.

This was because the city had problems with its contractor and was in the process of finding a new company and system to read water meters, DWS confirmed.

It was found that none of the affected residents were charged the same amount, despite being charged for the same volume of water.

How could it be that all 49,000 residents were charged for 6kl per month over three years, but are paying different bill amounts?

A lot of this, according to Govender’s detailed explanation of the eThekwini Municipality’s water billing system, is owed to irregular water meter reading cycles, the tedious nature of the billing task itself because of how complex the system is, and the fact that some people carried over accrued interest into the December month.

A large portion of the 49,000 ratepayers were also in good standing with credit records.

But the EPRM said the failure to properly administer such a complex system was not the fault of the ratepayer; thus, asking them to fit the bill was just not right.

Govender confirmed, as did the previous meeting delegation from eThekwini, that any bill over R6,000 would be rechecked by the municipality.

Any bill that had interest charges that were not linked to the account holder would be rechecked as well.

Piles of dirt and litter around the vicinity of the Department of Water and Sanitation building in the Durban CBD on Thursday. Picture: Jehran Naidoo / IOL

Should the affected residents agree to sign the acknowledgement of debt, they will enter into a payment plan and give the city R180 per month to cover the free water given to them by mistake between 2020 and 2023.

Govender said that from Monday, a designated team within DWS, separate from the Sizakala Customer Care Centre, will be set up to deal with the free water dilemma.

“We want this to be an open discussion, showing you we are open to working together. If you say you have those documents (referring to disputes), then send us those queries, and the team will deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

“We want to address that feeling of helplessness that many residents feel in this city,” Govender said.

There were some issues that were not agreed upon, as Govender and the rest of his team indicated that they were only there to solve operational disputes and challenges and not those affecting policy or leadership decisions.

A major issue the EPRM brought up was the fact that the residents who were charged extra for the free water the municipality gave them, were again given 6kl of free water in December.

“How can they ask residents to pay for their mistake, and then they continue making that same mistake?” EPRM’s Rose Cortes asked.

“We will have to check that,” the DWS manager said.

Cases from Tongaat, north of Durban, according to Govender, will be looked at more closely than others because the region has suffered heavily with constant water outages.

The EPRM argued that it was menacing to charge people extra for water they were not getting or did not ever get.

It is unconfirmed yet whether or not any of the 49,000 affected residents who reside in Tongaat will be given any form of leniency with regards to the free water bill.

Govender also indicated that DWS will be making changes to their system to accommodate the hiccup with the 49,000 ratepayers.

The City may be going after other ratepayers in the future who have received the 6kl water for free, even though their homes were above the threshold value.

Govender did not confirm when DWS would do this.