The biggest and most powerful city in Africa is plagued by a billing crisis, which is a national disgrace. Not only does it make a mockery of Joburg’s vaunted claims to being a “world-class African city”, but now threatens to have its mayor tied up in court battle after court battle. And all this despite a series of simple fixes waiting in the wings.
I woke up on 23 December 2010 to a sunny holiday morning. Family were arriving soon from that other place. Off to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee, my last for a couple of days. Just then the refrigerator went quiet and the electricity went off. Heard my neighbour’s diesel generator start up and I realised we had another power failure! I made my way back to the bedroom to start calling the city. Of course, the e-services on www.joburg.org.za had been broken for some time, so I had to physically call. The first call dropped. The second one told me there was no power failure and then put me on hold before cutting me off. The third call dropped, the fourth went through to the wrong person and the fifth one played elevator music for 23 minutes before getting through and finally getting a reference number. I had a quick shower, while the water was still warm.
I began to worry a little when by the evening there was still no power and the diesel generator next door began to falter. Cold shower! The rest you can probably guess. (My neighbour had been cut off by mistake also). The city was in the midst of another billing crisis.
But it doesn’t need to be like that. It can be sorted out. The first thing that needs to be done is to staff the municipality properly. I turned on the radio two weeks ago and a call centre operator from Joburg Connect was being interviewed anonymously. She told me how she dreaded answering calls because she found that the staff that were supposed to do the installations, connections or repairs were not getting it done and she had run out of excuses to give people. She spoke of 80,000 queries that remained unattended.
If you don’t have sufficiently trained and deployed staff in sufficient numbers, the system breaks down. A while ago, when I enquired about the staffing of City Power, I discovered there was only one qualified electrician at the Hursthill depot able to repair street lights and electrical infrastructure. This one staff member was responsible for 79 suburbs! We have to greatly increase the number of artisans out there doing the work or the call centre will become a giant toy telephone. We also need many more trained staff in the finance and billing divisions. One staff member showed me their office with piles and piles of files full of complaints and queries awaiting attention. “They have been lying there for three months unattended, because there are so many new complaints coming from the public who walk into this office every day. I will never get back to those files.” The staff-to-query ratio is just too depressing.
Training is the second problem currently causing a headache in the system. That same call centre agent told us on the radio how she did not understand the new computer software because she had not had adequate training. This has been an ongoing issue. The new SAP-based accounting and operations software was supplied via a BEE partner that went belly up. Since then there has been a spat between two large multinationals about who is responsible for the fiasco with the system.
Essentially the city must take responsibility. When you implement a new software system across a city as large as Johannesburg, you have to have excellent training over a fairly lengthy period and you have to stress-test the system in parallel until you are satisfied it will do the job. You then still have to supply on-site assistants to help the staff through teething problems for at least six months to prevent the kind of crisis we are seeing. The day I visited the “People’s Centre,” there were no IT or SAP staff to assist. The existing staff did not know how to sort out my problem, and those that did, lacked the “permission” or password access to do so.
I had sold my apartment in January 2010 and had it transferred to the new owner. The city owes me about R8,500 from that clearance certificate. My new property was transferred into my name on 1 April 2010 (I should have known). Since then, no amount of letters from my attorney, or calls or emails from me have been able to get the rebate or to receive a correct bill from the City of Joburg for my new property.
Early in 2010, I dutifully opened a new account for water and electricity and paid my deposit – it still reflects a zero balance. When the new billing system kicked in, the poorly trained officials did not know what to do with the meters from my new house, so they created a new “fake” bill, number 550018770 and sent it to the previous owner! She, surprise, surprise, didn’t pay and they cut her/me off in December. All because the staff are over-worked due to the high volume and lack proper training. I still have been unable, with some political connections, to get it rectified. I live in hope.
The third remedy urgently needed, in my view, with this system is a software system similar to those employed by the banks. FNB, Standard and Nedbank have all called me over the past six months, during my renovations, to check that the unusual transactions on my bank accounts were legitimate. The city needs such an early warning software package to pick up unusually high or low bills and flag them for attention by a dedicated team. This will prevent bills for R250,000 being sent to pensioners for payment. A friend of mine (aged 70 plus) living in Parktown North received a bill for R68,000 and was told to pay first and argue later! Very humane! If the banks can do it, so can the City of Johannesburg!
The fourth need is for a dedicated team to deal with the backlog and the large volume of new complaints arriving at the city each day. They need to have those magic passwords and permissions to cut through the red tape and rectify the serious cases. This means they cannot be entry level recruits with no training! They must be able to instantly place a moratorium on cut-offs of accounts they are dealing with. City councillors should have access to this team to speedily resolve problem cases.
Finally, the city needs a larger, well-trained team in the office that handles clearance certificates. The number of people who have sued, or are in the process of suing the city over the lack of clearance certificates is getting into a zone marked “ridiculous”. After judgments against the city in court, accounts remain unresolved. One woman sold her property and the city continued to bill her for water and electricity for many months. She then, in desperation had prepared meters installed and the city continued to charge her an average amount on her bill. Due to the accumulating bill, she was unable to acquire a clearance certificate to transfer her property. There is clearly a problem with transfer of meters from previous owners to new owners and the office handling transfers is unable to resolve this. What will we do when the mayor is arrested for contempt of court for failing to comply with several court orders requiring clearance certificates to be issued?
All of these problems are relatively simple and can be solved with sufficient trained and qualified staff and correct software, coupled with a helpline or priority queue for the unusual problems. In the meantime, Mr Masondo, can I please have my bill? Name’s Ollis. Ian Ollis. DM
Ollis is a Democratic Alliance MP.
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Ian Ollis is currently a candidate for the Masters of City Planning (Transportation) programme at MIT in Boston. He formerly served as a South African MP, (Shadow Transport, Labour and Education Minister). He has also worked as a city councillor in Johannesburg, briefly lectured at Wits University and ran a real estate company. He has no dogs!
One of the largest carp ever caught on record was done so using the ashes of the fisherman's deceased friend.