PATRICIA DE LILLE: Price-gouging water and power undermines fundamental rights
Municipalities see basic services as cash cows while many households are forced to choose between buying food, water or electricity
Patricia de LillePicture: 123RF/ Weerapat KiatdumrongI will never forget the story of Mevrou Anna Jaar published in three annual instalments in a newspaper more than 20 years ago.It was a story that spoke graphically to the challenges of inequality and poverty — inclusion and exclusion — that confronted postapartheid SA. Challenges that now, more than two decades later, we’re still battling to overcome.
The first year, Jaar — from the tiny town of Alheit near Pofadder in the Northern Cape — told of her difficulty collecting water from a communal tap down the hill, comparing her situation to the people on the other side of town who had swimming pools.
The next year, she was very proud to show off the new tap in her yard, and the few square metres of lawn she’d managed to coax from the dry red soil. This was a good story of municipal delivery. The third year, the grass was withering and the tap was chained and padlocked. Jaar could not afford to pay her water and rates accounts, so the municipality had physically locked her out. headtopics.com
Access to water shouldn’t be regarded as a privilege; it is a fundamental human right. Providing water is not an act of charity; it is a constitutional obligation of local government. Water and sanitation are essential for human sustainability, and water services should never be so expensive that they are unaffordable and therefore denied to poor families.
Municipalities should provide free basic services as part of their indigent relief programmes, and the cost of water that is not provided free should be provided at the actual cost of the service and exclude markups, fixed levies not related to consumption, and contributions to general municipal revenue.
The cost of electricity to consumers, like water, is subjected to markups by municipalities that makes power unaffordable to many. What’s happening is that municipalities see basic services as cash cows. Over the years, the tariffs added to Eskom’s basic price have gone up and up to the point they are unaffordable.
Across the country, citizens are struggling for bare survival. Covid-19 has pushed unemployment numbers through the roof in an already struggling economy. Few people have any spare cash.That many households are forced to choose between buying food, water or electricity is a failure of our towns and cities. That pensioners sit with water bills for tens of thousands of rand, and that a blind man in Cape Town had his possessions attached by the sheriff and was warned he could lose his home over an R88,000 water bill, is disgraceful. headtopics.com
In 2020, according to Stats SA, only 59% of households in the country had enough food or were categorised as “minimally” food insecure. Of every 20 households in Cape Town, for example, only eight are regarded as food secure, rising to 13 in Johannesburg and 15 in Nelson Mandela Bay.
There are two measures that GOOD proposes to implement to address the unaffordability of basic services to so many of our people. First, we will address the impoverishing cycle of municipal markups. Tariffs that are added to the basic real costs must be reduced to what they’re meant to be: reasonable and affordable administration fees.
Second, we’ll extend the right to free electricity to all who are entitled to receive it, and increase the amount of free electricity to indigent households.All municipalities receive funding from the national fiscus, known as the equitable share. The current financial year’s equitable share assumes that R460 worth of free services are provided to households earning less than R3,850 a month. But the funding is unconditional; it doesn’t have to be used for free basic services to the assumed level.
Municipalities determine how their equitable share is used, what level of free basic services are provided and which households qualify. Free basic services are meant to include a provision of at least six kilolitres of free water a month; about 50kW of free electricity a month, and free sanitation and refuse removal. headtopics.com
But only one in five qualifying households actually received their free electricity in 2020. And those who have been disconnected from water supply, due to not being able to pay their bills, are not even getting their free basic water allocation.GOOD proposes to continue the allocation of 6kl of free basic water, and to increase the provision of free electricity for needy households from 50kW to 150kW a month.
When electricity is unaffordable, families are forced to use dirty and dangerous heating and cooking methods, which are estimated to cost the lives of 1,400 children annually.As economic anthropologist Dr Tracy Ledger recently wrote in an article published by Daily Maverick: “Affordable access to meaningful levels of basic services for all low-income households could be the single most effective policy to reduce food insecurity and child malnutrition; increase household disposable income for other basic expenses; and support households in creating new economic and livelihood opportunities.”
We have a duty to provide services efficiently and reliably, and to ensure they are provided affordably to everyone, with support for those households that need it most. No family should have to choose between buying food and water and electricity.• De Lille is leader of GOOD party.
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