Watery woes over prepaid ‘trickery’

Residents of Orlando East in Soweto have accused Johannesburg Water and their ward councillor of tricking them into signing approvals for prepaid water meters by telling them they were giving their consent for plumbing leaks to be fixed.

The outcry over the alleged deception resulted in charges being laid at the local police station and a protest march to the offices of Johannesburg Water on October 3, according to a spokesperson for the residents, Thapelo Mokoto.

Residents are planning to take the issue to the public protector, the Human Rights Commission and the South African Local Government Association this week.

Mokoto complained that the water utility was exploiting the fact that many Orlando East residents were elderly and illiterate.

He said they had been misled by contractors hired by Johannesburg Water who claimed to have a mandate from their ward councillor, Sechaba Khumalo. Khumalo has strongly denied any deception.

The utility has installed 449 prepaid water meters in the area in the past two months as part of an ongoing programme.

System is expensive
Nora Mfema (77) said she was visited in September by two men claiming to come from Sechaba’s office, who fixed her leaking toilet for free.

“I was so happy about these good Samaritans. Then they made me sign a form,” said Mfema.

After installing a meter, the officials apparently told her she would have water for two months and gave her a tag to present to the water department after that period had expired. The next day her water supply was cut off. She said she later learned from a neighbour “that I did not sign to get my toilet fixed. I was approving this thing which takes our money every day.”

Mfema said the system was expensive because she had to travel regularly to Johannesburg Water’s offices to buy water credits. “They should come and remove their things from my house, because I don’t want them,” she said.

Donald Sithole (55) alleged that people claiming to be acting for Khumalo had come to fix leaks and asked him to sign forms. “They took my signature and now they’re using it against me,” he complained. “I’m forced to buy water because of my signature, but I can’t afford this situation where you wake up one morning and there’s no water in the house.”

Jacob Ntshanga (64) said Khumalo’s representatives had told him that they needed his signature to inspect leaks and repair them. He had chased them away because he had heard about their “tricks” from neighbours.

Ntshanga said the men had come the next day when he was out and prevailed on his wife to sign the forms, insisting that Khumalo had sent them to locate and fix leaks.

Mokoto said no meetings had been held to interact with members of the public on the prepaid water metering system. “And that is our concern, because we would have not agreed to it.”

He alleged that, in some cases, residents who refused to sign were threatened with police action.

Another member of the “Orlando community task team”, Seabelo Sibiso, said the main concern was that residents’ approvals were obtained “under false pretences”.

Sibiso said he was heartbroken when he got home one evening to find that his ageing mother had signed for a prepaid water meter after being told she was authorising the repair of water leaks.

Sibiso said he confronted Khumalo at a residents’ meeting and “he told me he was going to scrap the water debts of all those who signed the forms”.

“I asked him to put it in writing and he said he will come house to house, which he never did.”

Khumalo denied that he or anyone acting on his behalf had deceived residents. “That’s a lie; everything was explained to them,” he said.

He admitted that there are numerous complaints about the prepaid water system in Orlando East. Because the city buys water from Rand Water and must account to the auditor general, it is normal practice for it to monitor consumption, he said.

Khumalo said he had drawn the conclusion from residents’ complaints that they wanted to dodge paying for the water they used.

Asked about claims that residents had been threatened with police action if they did not sign for the meters, he said “the situation is so tense that the services of law enforcement personnel are needed”.

He dismissed allegations of inadequate consultation, saying he had held public meetings last year.

Tackling massive water losses
Johannesburg Water’s external communications officer, Eleanor Mavimbela, said door-to-door information campaigns and numerous public meetings had been held to explain the project to Orlando East residents.

The project is intended to tackle massive water losses in Soweto, mainly through leaks and pipe bursts, and problems in the flat-rate billing system.

She said that “89% of the residents have since signed documents giving us permission to install meters and to fix their water leaks”.

Residents were told what the forms were for before signing.

Mavimbela said that there were complaints about the new system, and the utility responded to each query on a case-by-case basis.

“We have experienced small pockets of resistance from some of residents, which delays the flow of the project,” she said.

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