Business, Politics

Constitutional Court: pre-paid water meters are legal

By Branko Brkic 8 October 2009

The Constitutional Court has swung the pendulum in favour of government, in the provision of services, ruling that pre-paid water meters are not an affront go basic human rights.

Government scored a big victory today when the Constitutional Court says it’s not for judges to decide how much water should be supplied to poorer residents. Judges turned down an appeal from residents in Phiri in Soweto, who asked the court to declare the installation of pre-paid water meters illegal. They also wanted the court to rule on how much water should be provided for them free of charge.

During the hearing itself, it was clear some of the judges were deeply uncomfortable with this. And that feeling got full expression in Judge Kate O’regan’s judgement. “We conclude it’s not for courts to quantify the amount of a service; that is the role of government,” she wrote. She also pointed how difficult it was for the Johannesburg City Council to provide free water for everyone, saying this was a process that will take time.

In essence, the court has said to government: you have the power to set your own targets, and to achieve them. We will not get involved, and neither should other judges.

What seems to have swung the arguments the city’s way to a large extent, is that it’s clear the council tried very hard to make life as easy for the residents as possible. It also came to court with a survey in its back pocket, showing that the majority of residents were happy with the new system. There was also proof that it had reviewed its policy several times, and would do so in the future. This appeared to convince the judges officials were doing all they could. In judicial language, the policy was “reasonable”.

The Phiri residents will be very upset with today’s judgement, and had set their hearts on the Constitutional Court coming through for them. But they do live in brick houses, and have some means. The court has focused rather on those who live in shacks. They believe that government needs to be given a free hand, to help those out in Diepsloot get at least some water.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is EWN reporter.


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