The news that the City of Johannesburg has uncovered massive fraud in its billing department will surely be welcomed by those who have been overcharged for utilities and rates.
While we are quick to point fingers at municipalities that can't seem to get their billing right, it appears that certain people are taking full advantage of the chaos and are defrauding municipalities of millions.
A recent report in The Saturday Star noted that major shopping centres, top hotels, leading real estate agencies and high-end car dealerships have been colluding to defraud the City of Johannesburg to the tune of more than R200-million.
Millions of Rands-worth of fraud
Pravin Gordhan, the minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, highlighted the problem in his budget speech, stating that those involved in these acts of collusion and corruption had defrauded the council of millions of rands in rates and taxes, resulting in other consumers being lumbered with higher bills as meters were being manipulated.
The newspaper reported that investigations into council staff involved in fraudulent activities such as meter tampering and illegal water and electricity connections had led to the arrest of 18 people as a result of 48 cases being opened with police.
While the news that some perpetrators are being brought to book is welcomed, what is concerning is that these sort of activities are taking place at all. Crooked municipal employees aside, the fact that those involved in big business are jumping on the corruption bandwagon is shocking.
The honest suffer the consequences
The sad thing is that honest customers end up footing the bill in one way or another and given the fact that many are already struggling to pay increasingly higher utility bills, it's pretty obvious that something needs to be done urgently to stamp out the rot.
The figures make for some scary reading. According to the report, the city indicated that it had lost R1.3-billion worth of electricity – most of which was due to theft. The recently uncovered fraud revealed that municipal officials had altered the database to reflect that certain business and residential properties were using prepaid meters when in fact they were connected to conventional meters.
To date, 18 employees have been arrested and although this is a step in the right direction, it's pretty obvious, given the sums involved, that this is the mere tip of the iceberg. That said, the fact that the city has begun clamping down on corrupt officials is good news.
One can only hope that other municipalities conduct similar investigations to root out those who are bent on breaking the law at the expense of honest citizens, because at the end of the day, it is they who are left to pick up the payment shortfall.