ATTEMPTS by the Sol Plaatje Municipality to collect outstanding debts were met with protest action and burning tyres in Colville on Friday after residents last week received final demand letters for their municipal accounts.
Colville residents took their unhappiness to the streets of the suburb and demanded that the city’s executive mayor, Mangaliso Matika, address their concerns – threatening that they wouldn’t stop their protests until he arrived.
“I arrived home on Thursday night and found a letter in my post box,” one irate resident said. “It is a final warning from the municipality, which states that we must pay the money we owe by Wednesday this week. We received no warning from the municipality where do they expect us to get the money from? Many of those who received the final demand letters are pensioners and some of them owe R120 000. The municipality is just ridiculous!”
As the residents continued their protest action, blockading the roads in the suburb with burning tyres and concrete slabs, while the city’s fathers seemingly ignored the call from the residents to address them, skirmishes broke out between the police and some of the protesters.
According to the residents, the police opened fire on them with rubber bullets. “We were singing and dancing – we were not being violent – when the police started shooting at us. One of the rubber bullets narrowly missed a child.”
One resident, Geralda Isaacs, said that she was sitting in her yard peeling potatoes when a group of youngsters ran into her house. “The police followed them and when the kids shut the door, one of the policemen kicked down my door to get access. How am I going to sleep in this house tonight with no door? Both my husband and I are elderly and it is dangerous.”
The residents said a few of the protesters were put into a police van but were released later without being charged.
According to residents, the letters from the municipality appeared to have been sent by a debt collection agency. “The municipality did not have any meetings with us to inform us that they were going to send out these letters. Where is our ward councillor?”
The group said that their outstanding debts had been written off by the municipality and they were paying their current municipal accounts every month. “Now it seems like these debts were never written off and the municipality wants all these old amounts paid up by Wednesday. Where do they think we will get this money?”
Residents stated that it appeared that most of the people in Colville had received letters.
“We don’t have money to pay these massive amounts. The mayor must ask Zuma how much money does he owe for Nkandla – the council must get this money from Zuma. Our elderly don’t even have money for food and now they are getting a final demand letter for thousands and thousands of rands. This isn’t about politics, it is about poverty.”
According to the letter of demand, the payment request is from New Integrated Credit Solutions (NICS), which is a national provider of credit management and debt recovery solutions to both the public and private sector.
The Sol Plaatje City Council agreed in November last year to appoint a debt collection agency to manage the city’s escalating R1.8 billion debt.
The debt collection strategy had been under discussion for several months already and in terms of the newly adopted policy, the council agreed to appoint a debt collection agent, which would have the right to issue letters of demand, summonses and judgments.
At the time, it was stated that the processes to be followed by the agent would include sending out bulk SMSs, MMSs and em-ails to defaulters, followed by a second SMS and e-mail, telephone calls, letters of demand, the blacklisting of debts, further contact, the handing over of debts for the issuing of summonses, judgment and finally sale in execution.
At the time, Matika pointed out that the issue was not with indigents. “It is the middle income earners who do not want to comply and are not paying their municipal accounts.”
At the end of March this year, the total outstanding debt owed to the Sol Plaatje Municipality was R1.86 billion.
While households are the biggest debtors, owing R900 million, government departments owe the municipality a whopping R564 million, while businesses owe more than R200 million.
While the collection rate rose to an all-time high of 94.78 percent in March this year, it was only 23.75 percent in April last year. In February it was 57.4 percent and in January 72.9 percent.
Municipal spokesperson, Sello Matsie, said on Friday that since the beginning of April more than 35 000 letters of demand had been sent to residents who were more than 30 days in arrears with their municipal accounts.
“We have appointed a debt collection company, which is based in Johannesburg, to recover outstanding debts.”
He added that often the personal details of the account holders were not available, which meant that SMSs or e-mails could not be sent out, and these residents would only have received the demand letters.
“It is possible that some of the people who received letters have applied for their outstanding debts to be written off in terms of our indigent policy but the approval is still pending, while others might have had old debt written off and since gone into arrears again. We do believe that many of the letters have been sent to people who are pending indigents and they will therefore not be liable for the outstanding debt.”
Regarding the debt owed by government departments, Matsie said the municipality was in discussions with the various departments and stated that this was an ongoing process.
“Letters of demand were also sent to government departments and we are in contact with representatives from these departments regarding their commitment to pay the outstanding amounts. Some have indicated that they will be in a position to pay at the end of their financial year.”
He said that while no government departments had had their municipal services disconnected yet, they would be cut off if they failed to meet their promised commitments.
Meanwhile, Kimberley police spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Dimakatso Mooi, said on Friday that there were protests in the morning at Colville “but no shots were fired and no one was arrested”.
“The situation is currently calm and the police continue to monitor the situation,” said Mooi.