/ 15 February 2024

City of Joburg has leaky response when it comes to water 

Last year Water Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said the country would need R570-billion to fix its ageing water infrastructure.
The City of Joburg is failing to answer resident's calls with regards to water leaks. (Gallo)

I have a water leak outside my house. It isn’t a big one, it doesn’t go through my meter and it doesn’t smell, but I would like it fixed. 

I have logged the leak several times over the past two years and every time I see an elusive Joburg Water van in my street, I ask for help. But then they don’t have the job card for that leak, so I must go back behind my gate and nudge the city with my reference number again.

The area where I live in Joburg is supplied by the Hursthill 2 reservoir and is plagued by water issues. Being jerked from a deep slumber to the awakening of my toilet or being spat at before I’ve had my morning coffee from angry air-filled taps are a daily occurrence, because most nights the flow from the reservoir is shut down to prevent the system being emptied.

According to the water systems update we received through our community groups, this is because of overconsumption from the reservoir and consumers need to reduce their water usage. Agreed, we need to do better to protect and conserve our resources.

But every time I see the trickle of water eroding my pavement and causing a donga in my neighbour’s driveway, I think of how many other leaks are contributing to my daily water woes while eroding my faith in the municipality to not only deliver me services, but simply tell me the truth.

This social contract is precious but it is deteriorating across the country.

As active citizens in suburbs, wards, regions and cities around South Africa we log these problems and tell the municipality where potholes, leaks, street light outages, overgrown verges and collapsed stormwater drains are. You get a reference number (sometimes) from the call centre (after hours of holding), you hit up the service on social media, you escalate it to your councillor, you pull your hair out, your ticket gets closed … and the leak keeps leaking.

But according to the City of Joburg council meeting held on 31 January, there is nothing wrong. MMC for finance Dada Morero assured councillors there would be no rates boycott in Johannesburg, because the city is “attending to issues that are raised by our residents to ensure that they find value in their money”. 

He called any talk of a boycott a “counter-revolutionary attitude”.  His colleague, MMC for transport Kenny Kunene, reiterated “log a call, get a reference number and Johannesburg Roads Agency comes out. Let them follow the protocol. Or use your proximity to me, call me I am available my number is 079 599 blah blah blah”.

Johannesburg residents’ apparently live on a planet far, far away from the la-la land councillors Kunene and Morero live in. Royden Hodgskin says there is already a form of rates boycott happening in the city, “with many citizens not paying for services they use” and the city not collecting its revenue. Civil action organisation Outa on 31 January hosted a webinar on how to log a dispute with the city over billing issues. Many of the more than 800 viewers flooded the chat and the Outa Can forum, saying they have diligently logged problems and followed the protocol as set out by the city but have had an unsatisfactory and frustrating experience. Many tell stories of years of following up, escalating and commuting to billing centres with no resolution.

According to an Outa X (Twitter) poll, 83.7% of the respondents are not impressed with the City of Joburg’s fault logging systems. Civil servant and the former director general of the Government Communication and Information System, Phumla Williams, has had a “flow of water in my street which I reported as far back as November 2023. Nothing has been done to stop it,” she tweeted in response to the poll. “It’s flowing day and night despite all my efforts of reporting.” 

One resident asked, “Which dream land is Councillor Kunene living in? Our area has logged over 50 faults that have still to even be looked at more than six months down the line.”

 Another said, “I had water leaking complaints that are still not closed for 12 months, even escalated to the city manager’s office and got no response. Eventually I just got a plumber to repair the leak, which was in fact outside on the municipality side of the water meter.”

Also trending on X (Twitter) are tales of abandoned excavations filled with precious water after Joburg Water came to fix a leak; a huge hole remains for months – if not years – waiting for backfilling and retarring. These pits have been both the target of mirth, and the site of serious accidents.

So where do we go from here? If the system is broken, and the council seems to think otherwise, do we have any recourse? Yes! We are seeing this every day in our streets.

Community organisations, partnerships, civic groups and invested citizens are rolling up their sleeves and filling in the holes or making enough noise to hold the officials in Braamfontein to account. Co-governance and dogged oversight breed hope. 

Connected informed communities exist and are growing through a network of residents’ associations and the JoburgCAN initiative. They will continue to listen closely to the utterances by the city council, call them out when they disagree and bring them the facts of how their policies are really being experienced on the ground. 

This leads to better services, because officials can’t hide from the people they live alongside or continue to pay their way out of driving the same roads or avoiding the same pits as the rest of us.

Another Outa initiative, WaterCAN, is mapping the nation’s water outages, leaks and contaminated water sources. These are brought to the water forum, a platform consisting of Joburg Water, Rand Water, the City of Joburg and water activists who want to secure clean and safe (and consistent) water. I am heading to the site now to log my little street spring. I have faith the city will wake up to the noises of things moving through the system and leap out of bed to open the taps to more than just air.

Julia Fish is the JoburgCAN manager, an initiative launched by Outa to organise and empower a network of associations and businesses in the City of Johannesburg, ensuring responsible collection and use of rates and tax revenues, coupled with excellent service delivery by the city.