Many of those who have lodged a grievance with their local municipality and have been placing the money owed for rates and taxes in an attorney's trust account may have to rethink ways of voicing their displeasure at the way municipalities are performing - unless they are not receiving any form of service whatsoever. A recent ruling in the Constitutional Court is set to impact homeowners who have been battling bad or virtually non-existent service delivery, by ruling that homeowners may not pick and choose what services they will pay for.
The judgement comes after Olga Rademan, a member of the Moqhaka Ratepayers’ and Residents' Association, declared a dispute with the Moqhaka municipality in Kroonstad. Although money for rates and taxes was withheld, Rademan continued paying the municipality for other services, including electricity. Despite this, the municipality disconnected her electricity supply. The matter went through all the lower courts, before ending up in the Constitutional Court where, in a lengthy, somewhat complex judgement, it was found that ratepayers had to toe the line and had no right to choose which services they would and wouldn't pay for. They could however dispute payment in cases where a municipality wasn't providing any services at all.
This is undoubtedly bad news for the increasing number of dissatisfied homeowners around the country who have declared disputes with their local municipalities. In essence, the judgement means that those who receive a service, regardless of how bad that service is, still have to pay their way.
The judgement is of course good news for municipalities, particularly those which have no interest, ability or intention of improving their service delivery. We are not talking about the odd pothole here, but rather about towns where raw sewage flows through the streets and where the supply of potable water is virtually non-existent. Does this mean that municipalities in these areas can still charge - and be paid - simply because, although undrinkable, there is still water flowing from the taps? And what happens in cases where residents have no water for lengthy periods of time but, because the water supply is sporadic and not non-existent, municipalities are deemed to have done their job (in legal terms anyway) and provided a service?
It goes without saying that one of the most effective ways of getting any under-performing organisation's attention is by withholding payment. Unfortunately the Constitutional Court judgement has made this particular avenue of protest virtually mute. You can bet your bottom dollar that municipalities are going to argue that they are providing a service and, in these cases, the onus is going to be placed on the owner (possibly in court) to prove that this is not the case.
National Taxpayers’ Union chairman Jaap Kelder possibly said it best, when he labelled the court's decision, "a miscarriage of justice". Indeed, it is a sad day for those who just want their suburbs to function at an acceptable level.