Opinionista Ferial Haffajee 21 October 2020

I love Joburg but I don’t know if I can afford to live here any longer

When Mayor Geoff Makhubo threatened to cut off my mother’s electricity and water, I started studying tariff increases.

In June, Mayor Geoff Makhubo and his lieutenants sent my 89-year-old mom a termination of municipal service notice. I nearly died.

If Covid-19 has been about a single thing for us, it has been keeping Ayesha Haffajee safe. A healthy old lady, she would have only a mini birthday lunch a month later to celebrate a milestone. We had had a proper nine-decade party planned, but we took no chances and with her helpers devised systems to keep her infection-free. When you are that old, the virus is often a death sentence and I read anxiously of how it was taking out a generation of elders around the world.

The thought of having her sit without electricity and water in addition to the strictures the virus had imposed on her life was too much. So, I paid up the hefty account laid out in the threatening termination letter (badly photocopied and which spelt our surname incorrectly). My mom’s cute, but tiny, home in Mayfair is the only one she has ever owned and it is precious to her. 

Then, I got on the phone to the City of Joburg call centre several times. It rang for 40 minutes at a time with no answer. The Twitter people directed me to the website, which was down. The Post Office in Langlaagte where all our bills still go to (still having a mailbox there is a sentimental reminder of my father, so I haven’t changed to e-billing) was “down”, as it has been for most of the year, and there was no account. 

I pay a set amount every month religiously and well before the due date, but rates and electricity costs have shot up so high, that my estimates were wrong. Faced with declining revenues, the city sent out termination notices to 29,780 homes and then started cut-offs by private contractors who get paid per termination. It’s a perverse incentive and often leaves residents like sitting ducks because if you try to find out what’s happening to your account, you can’t get through to the call centre unless you are prepared to spend much of a working week on the phone.  

It’s still not clear how legal the terminations were in the middle of the lockdown, but that is increasingly the city’s face to its citizens despite Makhubo’s promise of a “liveable city”.  

Rates, water and electricity costs are killing us 

In Johannesburg, the cost of living is squeezing out the middle classes – the super-rich are increasingly immune.  

But for small and medium-sized businesses and middle-class people like my mom, my husband and me, it’s getting a bit like living in Luanda, Angola’s capital: super-expensive with declining public services. 

Our power is often down a couple of times a week and water cut-offs are pretty regular too as the city’s ageing pipes system begins to break down everywhere – the piles of dirt in the lovely inner city are a mockery to Joburg’s ambitions of being a world-class, African city. 

While regulators set tariffs, the inclining block tariff system has taken up the cost of living because you pay more when you use more than a low, basic amount.

My husband, who owns a house in Parkhurst, has found that between 2019 and 2020, his electricity costs escalated by about 228% on average. 

Electricity costs in Johannesburg are by far the highest among the metros and without regulatory changes to bring down the prices of solar and other forms of residential energy, we’re stuck with City Power which adds many more additional surcharges, or stealth taxes, to bolster its bottom line.  

At the weekend, reports said that Mineral Resources and Energy minister Gwede Mantashe would allow own-energy generation and procurement by those municipalities who can do so, but this special report reveals why it won’t bring costs down. Municipalities are invested in high power tariffs to fund budgets where services are increasingly being crowded out by high staff and contractor costs.  

City Power is run like a for-profit (or private) entity so it measures itself on its profit returns to the city and its executives are squeezing blood from the stone that is their residents, especially in a Covid-19 economy.  

Mayor Makhubo’s social media team makes much of the ombud system and of his commitment to a working city, but in reality, the systems don’t work well. The call centre is often a nightmare and it’s the only way to get your account sorted out. 

This isn’t an ANC or a DA problem, but an indication of a city administration that has failed to fix its billing system for 26 years and which spends almost 30% of its R67-billion staff costs and then splashes billions more on contractors to provide the services those staff do not, or cannot, do. 

We’re not alone in our high bills: throughout the lockdown, Johannesburg residents have been posting their municipal accounts on social media, noting that often your bond costs are less than your municipal accounts – irrational economics anywhere.  

Johannesburg is strangling its rates base and making it difficult to grow a small business sector, which is increasingly the growth engine of cities like ours.  

I love Jozi for its melting-pot heart and its vibrant culture and the trees now turning purple for Jacaranda season. I love its constant evolutions and the brash but warm people and for the street fashion and its many interesting hoods and so much more. Mostly, I love it because it’s home.  But can I still afford to live here?  Sometimes, I wonder. DM

*The writer sent detailed questions to the spokespersons in the mayor’s office on September 9 on the state of the city and, despite many good-willed promises, we have not had a response. The mayor has promised an interview after his study leave is over.

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All Comments 18

  • What is the Mayor studying ? And, surely he is not the only person to be able to answer the question. Should a Mayor get “ study leave “?
    This letter reveals the frustration of many citizens of Johannesburg.

  • I dont mind paying the higher fees if the work gets done. But theres extortionate fees and no service. I have a query for R200 000 for water in a single month since 2017, when the average was R3000pm. I have a file of many reference numbers, visits etc. Since no corrections get made they cut us off and we had to pay R 18 000 to get reconnected, but with the same error on the account. A recent visit to the CoJ open day and the wrong meter was ‘corrected’. You cant make this stuff up.

  • eThekwini is exactly the same. The billing is in a shambles, even after the cost for a new system escalated by more than 600% over budget and still not right. The meters are not properly read. The infrastructure has all but collapsed. The only thing in the Metro that exceeds the incompetence, is the corruption. They hone in on the few that are paying and milk them relentlessly. Thieves and crooks get away with murder.
    Same with all the municipalities I believe. Quo vadis ?

  • It briefly turned around when Mayor Mashaba took over. Then he decided to put politics ahead of the city and abandon his post. This is a major reason why I’m not sure I’d vote for his new party. There was a tangible improvement, at least around repairs and such, and now we’re back in the dumps. Alas, he seems to disregard this view as some kind of DA conspiracy.

  • “This isn’t an ANC or a DA problem, but an indication of a city administration that has failed to fix its billing system for 26 years … ” Come on Ferial – How on earth can this NOT be an anc issue? Who else has been running the ‘world class african city’ (What a joke!?!) into the ground?

    • And you need to pay a ‘deposit’ in the process which will be ‘refunded’ to you. 8 years later and guess what? This despite queuing for days on end. It’s an utter shambles.

  • Call centre issues / that inability to be able to reach responsible people in municipalities to resolve problems and explain or ask questions is really such a thing. And now that many don’t have a landline as well as a mobile to save costs, being on the line for 40 minutes at a time is seriously unaffordable for much of the population, surely. Employees shouldn’t be able to hide behind call centres, it’s a recipe for inaction…

  • I found Tshwane to be exactly the same. With pensioners having to sell their houses as the Municipal bills where more than their pensions. I left there in 2010 with an average municipal account of around R5000 pm. Came to Capetown and my bill dropped to less than R2000 pm with the same size house and same number of people in the house !!!

  • If you can’t afford Joburg don’t even think of coming to Cape Town which has been on a rates and service tariff binge for years! This month we, a couple well into our seventies, were billed almost R11000 for electricity and over R10000 for rates!

    • in what part of Cape Town do you live? My electricity and rates are nowhere near that, in fact my total bill is about 25% of your rates bill.

  • As the sentiment goes. Our rates go where exactly? All I notice is roads, roads and roads – they’re falling apart. Water, electricity – these are things that I will be taking off grid – COJ can whistle for that cash – it pays me to disconnect from their ‘services’. But the roads are something that cannot be disconnected and honestly, I agree with you – the cost of living here is becoming rapidly un-affordable – since when were property rates EVER in alignment with bond payments? We’re being turned into tenants – and whilst this is happening our ‘urbs are becoming slums.

  • Been out if Joburg for nearly 15 years. I must say that living just outside Pietermaritzburg, the cost of services is also remarkably high when one sees what we’re getting in return. An ageing electrical infrastructure which is down more than once a week, I can’t see who is benefitting from my rates payments either. It’s the municiple fat cats and their henchmen. So.. Where does one live in the country in order to get a fair deal?

  • Ferial, would have loved to welcome you to my small little town in the Western Cape. But I am afraid you would have experienced the same here, as possibly anywhere else in the Western Cape. I really don’t know where this so-called 5% or less inflation rate is coming from. At least our municipal service levels are significantly better that you would find in JHB, Tswane, Durban, etc. but it is hardly something to applaud. I have to disagree with you. Municipal management is indeed the function of the governing party of that municipality (that has some control over costs/service) on the one side, but primarily the governing party of the country overall.
    Trust your mom is O.K. though, and a belated congrats on her 90th

  • World Class African City has been the most laughable self-given monicker in the history of, well….anything.
    There is NOTHING world class about anything that the ANC touches.

  • Municipalities nationwide are absolutely hopeless at sorting out problems within their respective areas, and yet are always SO EFFICIENT at sending out invoices and cutting off electricity! Why is that?

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