Address by the Public Protector Adv. Busisiwe Mkhwebane during the release of the report on billing problems at the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality and the celebration of the Public Protector South Africa’s second successive clean audit in Pretoria on Friday, October 15, 2021.
Programme Director and PPSA CEO, Ms. Thandi Sibanyoni;
Deputy Public Protector Adv. Kholeka Gcaleka;
Representatives of Constitutional Institutions present;
Acting Chief Operations Officer, Ms. Lethabo Mamabolo;
Stakeholders from the various sectors;
Ladies and gentlemen;
Today is a joyous day during which we celebrate not one, not two but three great milestones. First, the day marks the 26th year since this independent constitutional institution opened its doors to serve the people of South Africa.
Second, it was on this day five years ago when I walked into this office for the first time to take the wheel as the country’s fourth Public Protector since October 1995.
Third, which is the cherry on top, we celebrate our achievement of a clean audit opinion for the 2020/21 financial year. This is our second successive clean audit, a new record in the history of this institution.
Let me start with the latter. To some people, it may be difficult to understand why attaining a clean audit is, for us, so much of a big deal. That is reasonable, given that such a feat should ideally be the order of the day for an institution such as ours.
As the Public Protector South Africa (PPSA), we are an accountability and integrity institution. We hold people’s feet to the fire for the kind of conduct that stands between organisations and clean audits.
Trumpeting the message of clean governance to other people when our own house is not in order, as it was the case in the not so distant past, made us come across as insincere. Few if not none took us seriously because actions spoke louder than words.
It was not easy to look state functionaries in the eye and preach the need to curb maladies such as irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure when our own financial statements were riddled with adverse audit findings on such matters.
It was toll order to address public sector seminars and conferences on issues of good financial management when our liabilities far exceeded our assets, thereby rendering this institution technically insolvent.
It warms the heart to stand before you all today and say not only have we turned the corner but we have also maintained that standard for the second year running. Now we walk the talk and practice what we preach. We lead by example as expected of any serious accountability and integrity institution.
In addition, our performance against set targets is getting better and better. The period under review saw us achieving 83 percent of our performance targets, which was a four percent increase from the 79 percent that we managed in 2019/20 and a whopping 33 percent jump from the paltry 50 percent we scored in the 2018/19 financial year.
In respect of our investigation work, we finalised nearly 7 000 out of our 2021/21 caseload of more than 9200 matters. That means we were able to finalise 74.4 percent of all the matters we were entrusted with that year, delivering justice to thousands of people across the country.
All these are the results of the solid foundation we laid five years ago, particularly the drive to get staff and external stakeholders alike to buy-into a new vision for the institution. I would like to thank the staff, management and leadership of the PPSA under the guidance of the Deputy Public Protector Adv. Gcaleka, Chief Executive Ms. Sibanyoni, and Acting Chief Operations Officer Ms. Mamabolo for the hard work.
None of this would have been possible without your dedication and uprightness. This brings me to the last five years.
Fifth year in office
It was indeed on this day, exactly five years ago when I took the first step of my seven-year journey as democratic South Africa’s fourth Public Protector. It has been a tough journey, with many twists and turns – as you can imagine. But we have proven to be equal to the task.
Today, we look back at the last half-a-decade with pride, knowing that, in every single effort we made to fulfil our constitutional mandate of investigating, reporting on and remedying improper and prejudicial conduct in all state affairs, we had the purest of intentions and good faith, and we gave it our best shot.
It seems like only yesterday when we unveiled the vision, rallying the team to take the services of this important pillar of our constitutional democracy to the backyards of grassroots communities across the land.
It was a simple plan: broaden access to services in such a way that you reach those in the contours of society; empower them with knowledge and information in their mother tongue and use community-based and public linguistic radio to reach far and wide; multiply access points; leverage stakeholder relations and seal such relationships in written agreements; be the refuge for the hopeless; teach them about rights and responsibilities; create other avenues for complaint-resolution down the hierarchy and inspire the people to be their own guardians.
We asked of the team to ensure that every little effort is informed by this noble vision. And rally behind the vision, which we fondly call the Public Protector Vision 2023, this team of consummate professionals and servants of the people, did. The results are there for all to see.
I could tell you that this team of 366 men and women including around 160 investigation staff handled, between them nearly 67 000 complaints and resolved more than 52 000 in that five-year period but that would be half the story. The full picture of the impact is in the details.
For instance, in the public health care sector, we unearthed serious problems that place the public’s right to health care services in peril. These include chronic understaffing, lack of critical medical equipment and supplies, poor and inadequate infrastructure including dilapidated buildings and the red tape that makes it difficult for hospital Chief Executives to procure and acquire much-needed goods and services.
These problems are prevalent in at least 17 public hospitals in five provinces. It is encouraging that, in all of these facilities, health authorities largely acknowledged the problems we found and are putting measures in place to implement the remedies we deemed appropriate.
We will soon reveal our findings in respect of the state of public schools in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces. We visited several schools in those provinces last year, inspected the facilities and engaged with management, teachers and labour unions. Those engagements were followed by full-blown investigations which are nearing completion.
We resolved a myriad of service delivery issues which turned the informal settlement of Masiphumelele in the Southern Cape Peninsula, Western Cape, into a protest capital of that province. These include overcrowded and dense shacks built on the banks on a toxic storm water canal, poor sanitation, lack of running water and electricity, among other things. We left the community in a better place, having overseen the signing of a Settlement Agreement between representatives of the communities and the City of Cape Town, and the implementation thereof.
We also intervened in another matter concerning 46 households of Ikemeleng informal settlement in Ruimsig, Roodepoort, who were forcefully removed from a nearby farm and in makeshift tents on a dusty patch of land surrounded by opulence and without basic services. Now the community lives in habitable prefabricated structures and have proper sanitation, water supply and refuse collection, among other services. Prior to our intervention, there were protests in that area too about the community’s living conditions.
Most recently, we joined forces with sister Chapter 9 institution, the South African Human Rights Commission, to restore calm in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg, after residents of the township threatened to shut it down, decrying poor living conditions. The City of Johannesburg is currently attending to all the problems we uncovered and we are monitoring progress.
Elsewhere in the country, our investigations showed that worn-out, vandalised, mismanaged and, in some instances, outright non-existent infrastructure were among the causal factors bedevilling the supply of water to residents in North West’s Ngaka Modiri Molema District.
We directed authorities to ensure that up to nine long-overdue water supply projects in the Ramotshere Moiloa, Ratlou, Ditsobotla and Mahikeng local municipalities are completed without delays. These include, among other things, the replacement of pumps, installation of electric cables, configuration of reticulation networks, augmentation of storage facilities, fixing of non-functional boreholes, construction of reservoirs and pump housing.
We are proud of these and many other modest achievements registered since October 2016 and we hope to do more as we enter the last two years of Vision 2023. Quite clearly, the road we have travelled was rugged and pitted. But through our steadfastness and fighting spirit in the face of adversity, we have made it this far. The extent of the distance we have covered up to this point far exceeds the ground we still have to traverse.
For this last lap of the journey, we will continue to put our best feet forward. We will try not to look back, unless if doing so is for the sole purpose of drawing inspiration from the smiles we put on the faces of many and the dignity we restored.
Good Governance Month
Some of you may have noticed that we have been churning out investigation reports on a weekly basis since the beginning of this month. We do so in commemoration of Good Governance Month, which we observe annually on the occasion of the anniversary of the launch of this office. This week is no different.
Accordingly, as I conclude, I would like to share with you our findings following an elaborate investigation into allegations of systemic administrative deficiencies relating to electricity, water billing and other services by the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality.
Systemic investigations are probably our most impactful work yet. They are the part of our work where, instead of concentrating on individual and isolated cases, we turn our focus to bigger problems, which seem to recur and affect more people or an entire community.
This is not to say individual cases are less important and deserve less attention because sometimes it is such isolated cases whose evidence helps us to identify systemic service failures so we can straighten out the system and see to it that the problem does not rear its ugly head.
Above all else, through systemic investigations, we are able to inspire good governance practices in state affairs through the identification of problem areas, recommendation of remedies and monitoring implementation thereof, thus sparking a positive change in the administration.
We do not do enough of these kinds of investigations because of our overflowing caseload. This is why, through Pillar 7 of the Public Protector Vision 2023, we encourage organs of state to establish effective internal complaints units to serve as complaints structures of first instance.
The idea is that such units should handle individual matters which would ordinarily clog our system. This, in turn, frees our hands so that we may focus our attention more on the own-initiative systemic investigations. It is of paramount importance for the public to understand the Public Protector is a complaints body of last resort.
We are developing a mobile referral APP, which will serve as an information hub when it comes to the details of all the complaints-handling units within the various organs of state. It will be a useful tool to help the public know where to complain and only escalate to the Public Protector once they have exhausted all other available avenues.
We initiated the systemic investigation into the City of Tshwane billing problems at the end of February 2020 on the back of a spate of complaints from members of the community against the city regarding issues of irregular electricity and water billing. Between 2018 and 2021, we received around 70 complaints. The spreadsheet can be found in the report itself, which will be uploaded on our website shortly.
The majority of the complainants alleged that they often received exorbitant bills for water and electricity consumption from the city. Each time they queried the bills, they allegedly received no assistance.
Our consultation with the complainants between 2019 and 2021 and the assessment of the documents received from them, revealed that the main complaint is that the city estimates water and electricity consumption because of its alleged failure to take meter readings on a regular basis. In addition, the complainants allege that the city’s Customer Service Unit fails or unduly delays to resolve their complaints.
In one extreme case, a customer, one E. Van Wyk was slapped with a bill of more than R1.6million due to the erroneous updating of new meters on the city system. Once the city uploaded the correct meters and readings, the bill dropped to nearly R360 000, 00, resulting in a credit of over R1.2million.
In another case of a certain Mr. T. Khanyezi, the city estimated his water consumption for the period 29 June 2018 to 2 April 2019 and when the actual meter reading were obtained the necessary adjustments were applied, resulting in an invoice of more than R143 000, 00.
However, the old meter, which was believed to be faulty was replaced with a new one in July 2019, and the average calculation on the new meter was used to determine the previous average water usage. Based on this exercise, the previous bill was reversed and Mr. Khanyezi’s bill dropped to just over R4 000, 00, resulting in a credit of more than R130 000, 00.
We also observed that the city has started to charge residents a fixed monthly amount described as the Water Network Access Charge and Sanitation Network Access Charge. These are fixed charges that are not related to consumption. This was uncovered after perusal of the Consumers’ Municipal accounts and later confirmed by the city in a letter dated 25 February 2021, in which it advised, inter alia, that on 30 June 2020, it approved the new tariff structure for both water and sanitation accounts.
Following a thorough analysis of the complaints, we decided to focus the investigation on the following three issues:
(a) Whether the city billed Consumers irregularly for water and electricity based on estimated consumption due to its failure to take meter readings regularly;
(b) Whether the city’s existing complaint resolution mechanisms are ineffective in resolving the Consumers’ complaints; and
(c) Whether the city irregularly added network access charges to the Consumers’ Municipal accounts.
Regarding the first issue, we found that it is partly true that the city billed consumers irregularly for water and electricity based on estimated consumption due to its failure to take meter readings regularly.
The investigation revealed that the city employs its own meter readers and when funds are available it also engages private service providers to read meters. However, due to budgetary constraints, the current budget for private contractors was not approved.
We further found that although the Standard Electricity By-Laws of 2013 permits the city to bill consumers based on estimated consumption, the National Rationalised Specification (NRS) 047-1:1999 further requires that the reading of meters be conducted at least once in every three months.
However, evidence gathered and also confirmed by the city indicated that in some cases, it estimated meter readings beyond a period of three months.
The investigation further revealed that when estimating consumption, the city failed to adhere to 57(1) of the Standard Electricity Supply By-Laws of 7 August 2013 read with paragraph 4.3.3 of the NRS 047.
This conduct also constitutes improper conduct in state affairs as envisaged in section 182(1) of the Constitution and maladministration as envisaged in section 6(4)(a)(i) of the Public Protector Act.
That said, the city has acknowledged these challenges and committed to put the following remedial measures in place:
(a) The city commits to continuously engage its Council through the 2021-2024 Medium Term Revenue and Expenditure Framework (MTREF) process to ensure budgetary review incorporating meter reading;
(b) The city, through the initiative by the Executive Mayor as part of the Revenue Enhancement Strategies, is fast tracking the installation of Prepaid Metering system aiming to replace 70 000 conventional meters by the 30 June 2022;
(c) The city has established a task team to consider reviewing its credit control and debt collection policy and the standard electricity supply by-laws that allow for use of estimation of water and electricity consumption. The review should also include a provision which regulates estimation exceeding three consecutive months; and
(d) The city will also be introducing the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) platform aiming to give account holders free access to submit meter reading using any type of phone and check account balance for free. The implementation is at an advance stage.
On the second issue, we found that, indeed, the city’s existing complaint resolution mechanisms are ineffective in resolving the consumers’ complaints.
We also found that the city has a documented customer care/query and dispute resolution process which seeks to remedy, inter alia, consumers’ water and electricity complaints.
The investigation further revealed and the city also confirmed that the two main challenges in the implementation of its system relate to (a) its human resources capacity in the Customer Care Unit which impacts on meeting the turnaround times of resolving the complaints; and (b) the consumers losing trust and confidence in the city’s complaints resolution systems.
Evidence gathered revealed that the complainants who approach the Public Protector for intervention against the city are mainly those who only lodged complaints and received customer query reference numbers. They did not exhaust the entire complaints resolution process.
It was further found that, as at the date of this Report, the city was considering reviewing its complaints resolution structure and following the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between us and the city, a process to establish an Ombudsman office has been set on motion.
The city also intends to continue using its Outreach Programme to educate the consumers on their rights and responsibilities, particularly their right to complain and the responsibility of the city to address their complaints on time.
The conduct of the city in this regard is in contravention of section 195(1) (a), (d), (f) and (g) of the Constitution.
Such conduct also constitutes improper conduct in state affairs as envisaged in section 182(1) of the Constitution and maladministration as envisaged in section 6(4) (a) (i) of the Public Protector Act.
However, the city has acknowledged these challenges and put the following remedial measures in place:
(a) The city aims to activate its outreach educational and awareness campaign aimed at encouraging responsible citizenship. It is about educating the public about the importance of having, paying for and caring for municipal services and its infrastructure on a continuous and sustainable basis. When customers understand their rights and the policies that govern the organisation, this will help them exhaust internal channels before escalating to institution such as the Courts or Public Protector;
(b) The city aims to review the unit dealing with formally lodged disputes when a client is not satisfied with the query response received from Customer Care. This will ensure a focus level in terms of formal engagement with the account holder and fast track Round Table discussions should this option be chosen to resolve the query; and
(c) A process has been set in motion to establish an Ombudsman office. A draft request and by-law report to establish the Ombudsman office have been prepared and are awaiting comments from line departments.
As regard the third and last issue, in terms of which it was alleged that the city irregularly added network access charges to the Consumers’ Municipal accounts, we found that the allegation was not substantiated.
To remedy this maladministration and improper conduct, we have taken the following appropriate remedial action in pursuit of section 182(1) (c) of the Constitution:
We directed the Acting City Manager to:
(a) Table a copy thereof before the city’s Council for engagement and for the city’s Council to pass a resolution thereon in line with its legislative powers indicating steps/measures to be taken to address deficiencies in its billing system;
(b) Submit to the Public Protector progress report on the status of her engagement with city’s Council through the 2021-2024 MTREF process to ensure budgetary review which incorporates meter reading;
(c) Submit to the Public Protector progress report on the installation of Prepaid Metering system aiming to replace the 70 000 conventional meters;
(d) Submit to the Public Protector progress report on the establishment of a task team to consider reviewing the city credit control and debt collection policy and the standard electricity supply by-laws that allow for the use of estimation of water and electricity consumption;
(e) Submit to the Public Protector progress report on development of the USSD platform aiming to give account holders free access to submit meter reading using any type of phone and check account balance for free;
(f) Submit to the Public Protector progress report on the enhancement of the city Outreach educational and awareness campaigns;
(g) Submit to the Public Protector progress report on the review of the city’s existing complaint resolution mechanisms, particularly the Unit dealing with formally lodged dispute when a client is not satisfied with the query response received from Customer Care; and
(h) Submit to the Public Protector progress report on the establishment of the city Ombudsman office as committed in the response to the section 7 (9) notice.
(i) The Acting City Manager has 60 days from the date of this report within which to implement the first five pieces of remedial action. The rest must be implemented within 30 days.
We commend the city for readily acknowledging its shortcomings and the spirit with which it took this report, vowing to make amends. We will monitor the implementation of the remedial action closely and, if need be, hold the city’s hand throughout the implementation process.
Although this report is about the City of Tshwane, the reality is that billing issues cut across the board. Accordingly, we encourage other municipalities countrywide to study it and, where necessary, use it to improve their own systems.