Maverick Citizen

MUNICIPAL DYSFUNCTION

East London metro unlawfully blocked ratepayer’s prepaid electricity supply — judge

East London metro unlawfully blocked ratepayer’s prepaid electricity supply — judge
(Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Buffalo City Municipality has lost a legal battle with one of its ratepayers after the high court ruled that it had failed to comply with its own by-laws by not serving a notice of its intention to block the property’s prepaid meter in the prescribed manner.

An East London woman has won a reprieve in the city’s high court after a judge ruled that a notice to block her prepaid meter for non-payment of rates and taxes was not served on her according to the prescribed by-laws.

The court heard an urgent application by a ratepayer, who had been in R50,000 arrears, to reconnect the power to a house she was renting out. The ratepayer’s property is in Zwelitsha in East London.

According to papers before the court, the Buffalo City Municipality blocked the prepaid meter to this house in August 2023. 

The homeowner went to court saying that she had not received a pre-termination letter in terms of the municipality’s by-laws.

The municipality claimed the sheriff had delivered the final notice for the pre-disconnection.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Angry Cradock and Middelburg residents demand special council meeting over blocked electricity meters

Sheriff officials had reported to the municipality that they had placed a copy of the notice in the house’s post box.

But this was not one of the ways that documents could be served on a person, according to the municipality’s by-laws.

These by-laws stated that “service” of a document means that it had to be delivered to the affected individual personally, or left at that person’s place of residence or business with a person apparently over the age of 16, or posted by registered or certified mail to that person’s last known residential or business address, with an acknowledgement from the postal service.

In papers before the court, officials from the municipality stated: “During March 2023, the Municipality implemented a new distribution method and appointed the sheriff to deliver the pre-termination notices to consumers.

“This change was necessitated by the dysfunctionality of the South African Post Office that resulted in the delay and non-delivery of pre-termination notices to the consumers.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Court orders municipality to reconnect Cradock man’s electricity after ‘disconnection spree’

The Magistrates’ Court rules, however, state that where “the person to be served keeps his or her residence or place of business closed and thus prevents the sheriff from serving the process, it shall be sufficient service to affix a copy thereof to the outer or principal door or security gate of such residence or place of business or to place such copy in the post box at such residence or place of business”.

The municipality argued that they would rely on these rules to prove service.

Acting Judge Aaron Zono, however, pointed out that there was no equivalent provision in the municipality’s by-laws.

“In this case, we are dealing with a municipality that not only fails to comply with its own by-laws but is also resisting enforcement of its by-laws. The municipality is placing itself above the law. There is no reason why the municipality cannot be bound by its own by-laws. There is no case made out as to why the by-laws referred to above cannot be enforced.”

Zono issued a final court order that blocking the ratepayer’s account was unlawful. He further ordered that the prepaid meter be unblocked within four hours and that the ratepayer could not be charged a reconnection fee. DM

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