OUR TAKE: The debt collector, Tshwane style

The City of Tshwane has embarked on an aggressive campaign against government departments, state-owned enterprises and businesses that collectively owe it billions in unpaid utilities. 

Residents get cut off for missing just a few payments. But the campaign has revealed that large organisations in the nation’s capital were allowed to rack up enormous debts. 

Tshwane, led over the past several years by a sometimes unstable DA-headed coalition government, says it has a debtors’ book of R17 billion and wants to collect at least R5 billion by the end of the year. 

Last week the city made headlines when it cut services at Tshwane’s luxury Sheraton Hotel, which owes a whopping R23 million. In a triumphant tweet, the city declared: “We mean business! Sheraton Hotel in the dark. Make arrangements to pay your account before you find yourself in the dark.”  

The city also went after Gautrain, which it says is R10 million in debt (the company denies this), as well as the landlords of the South African Police Service headquarters and those who rent a building to the South African Revenue Service.

Several parties have responded by going to court, but it’s worth noting that Tshwane mayor Randall Williams is an attorney with a Master of Laws degree, so his administration probably won’t back down easily. 

Previously, Williams said many businesses would simply bribe the contractors assigned to disconnect services like water and electricity, IOL reported, so they decided on a more “in your face approach”. 

Another DA-led coalition, the City of Johannesburg, has embarked on a similar campaign – albeit a tad less aggressively. Mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse said authorities won’t be naming and shaming those implicated, considering how tough the previous two years have been. The City of Johannesburg is owed over R40 billion; a large portion of the debtors are Gauteng government departments, setting up some interesting tension between the city and ANC-led province. 

Phalatse said that, after warning Premier David Makhura the City was planning to “switch you off”, payments have started trickling into its bank accounts. 

If cities continue with this new gung-ho approach they must take cognisance of the fact that incorrect utilities billing is a long-standing headache for residents in Joburg and elsewhere. Randall says Tshwane is now reading more than 85% of residents’ meters to avoid sending estimated bills.

Still, it’s a win for accountability in our books. It’s shameful that such large organisations were effectively coasting on public credit. If we have to pay, so should they. 

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 17 February 2022. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.