WORRIED: Residents of Vlakfontein are concerned about their water debt and the absence of meters to measure it. Picture: Denvor de Wee/Visual Buzz SA

Receiving a title deed has provided an unemployed resident of Vlakfontein township with the peace of mind of knowing that her children will have a home when she dies. 

But what was top of mind when The Star visited the area in November was not her title deed, but rather her water bill of R4 228.80, which she could not afford to pay. 

Vlakfontein was among the areas where the City of Joburg issued title deeds between July and September, in line with mayor Herman Mashaba’s assertion during his State of the City Address in May that his administration would prioritize title deeds in order to “restore people’s dignity by providing them with ownership of their property”. “Importantly, having a title to a home provides residents with an economic opportunity to better their lives and enter the mainstream economy,” Mashaba said.

PUZZLING: A number of residents in Vlakfontein say they are not sure how their water consumption is being measured as they are not seeing water meters in the boxes where they expect to find them. Picture: Denvor de Wee/Visual Buzz SA

In Vlakfontein, a number of residents who had received title deeds complained about the money they owed for water consumption, while their meter boxes seemingly don’t have meters in them.

“So, can someone please tell me how the City of Joburg calculated that I owe over R4 000 when there is no measuring instrument in my so-called meter box?” asked * Busisiwe, an unemployed Vlakfontein resident who lives with her three children and four grandchildren.

Her meter box, like most boxes in the area, is situated outside the gate of her RDP house, and contains only a black water pipe that carries water into her home. Busisiwe received two SMSes from the city – in October and this month – telling her to pay R4 228.80 “immediately” or risk having her services cut off. She added that she received a call from a city official subsequent to the October SMS, warning her to settle her debt. “I asked how I was supposed to pay such an exorbitant amount when I am unemployed. The official told me to approach the nearest municipal office and report that I am unemployed. “But the official said my debt would remain the same and in my name, where I would be expected to repay it,” Busisiwe said. 

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Luyanda Mfeka, the director of communications in the mayor’s office, stressed that residents sign a document upon receiving houses and deeds, accepting the property’s ownership and its responsibilities, including paying rates and municipal services. Mfeka added that the title deed dealt with the transfer of property from the city to the beneficiary. 

“We would like to reiterate that property owners are obligated to pay for rates and services. However, we are aware of the challenges experienced by our residents who struggle to make ends meet. “We would like to remind new property owners who live in Vlakfontein that they may apply for the city’s ESP (extended special package) programme,” Mfeka said. The ESP programme offered rebates for a range of municipal services on a caseby-case basis at a city customer care centre, Mfeka said. 

Mfeka did not, however, respond to a question on how the municipality calculated money owed when meters seem to be absent, saying only that residents should report broken meters to the city’s call centre (0860 Joburg) or the nearest customer care centre. “If we are provided with specific details, the city’s finance department will engage Johannesburg Water to ensure that meters are fixed, and any errors in billing are corrected,” Mfeka pointed out. 

Two city blue-collar workers, who are also residents of Vlakfontein, shared how a portion of their salaries were being deducted by their employer for allegedly being three months in arrears on their municipal payments. But when The Star visited both homes, boxes without a measurement instrument were clearly visible.

Letters were sent to the two workers stating that money would be deducted from their salaries as of the end of July. In the letters, the city’s acting group head of the revenue-shared service centre, Sihle More, quotes from the code of conduct for municipal staff members contained in the Municipal Systems Act: “A staff member may not be in arrears to the municipality for rates and services charges for a period longer than three months, and a municipality may deduct outstanding amounts from an employee’s salary after this period.” 

Both workers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs, emphasised that they wouldn’t mind paying for municipal services, if only they knew how these debts were calculated. Mfeka did not confirm whether the city had checked whether employees’ meters worked prior to sending out the letters and deducting money from their salaries. He said: “When employees don’t settle their outstanding debt or make an instalment plan, the city invokes its credit control and debt-collection policy, the Municipal Systems Act, code of ethics and any other applicable policy.” 

* Not her real name

Has Mayor Herman Mashaba made progress on the housing promises he’s been making since he started campaigning for the city’s top job? The Star partnered with Track My Mayor* to find out.

“First, we’ll pass ownership without any delay by giving tens of thousands of people title deeds – just like we (the DA) are doing in Cape Town.” (Daily Maverick, March 13, 2016) 

The mayor’s office says 2 714 title deeds were issued in the financial year ending on June 30. 

In the first three months of the current financial year, another 741 title deeds were issued, bringing the total to 3 455. At this rate, it would take longer than a five year term to reach the tens of thousands of title deeds Mashaba had envisioned while campaigning. 

Housing promises: Did Mashaba crack it?

To date, residents of Vlakfontein have been among the main beneficiaries of this exercise, with about a third of title deeds being issued in the area. When The Star’s Khaya Koko visited Vlakfontein to report on how receiving title deeds had affected beneficiaries’ lives, he found a number of residents who were unhappy about their water debt. 

Buntukazi Xuba, spokesperson for the city’s Housing Department, says deceased or untraceable beneficiaries and family disputes are factors that might slow down the issuing of title deeds.

“In terms of town planning issues, title deeds cannot be issued in townships that haven’t finalised their town planning processes like tarred roads (and so forth). This then means as a department we have to finalise those townships before the ownership is transferred,” she said. 

PROMISE OUTCOME: The promise is in progress but Mashaba might not reach “tens of thousands” by the end of the term. 

 Additional reporting by Liesl Pretorius


 * Track My Mayor keeps track of mayoral promises in the interest of increased accountability at local government level. Reporting for this story was supported by Code for Africa’s impactAFRICA fund.