Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

REFUSING to pay municipal rates was not a lawful answer to dissatisfaction over service delivery, the Constitutional Court heard on Tuesday.

The main focus of counsel’s argument in court was on whether there was a conflict between two pieces of legislation.

But some of the justices of the court seemed preoccupied with the options available to citizens when municipalities failed in their constitutional duty of providing services.

Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke said that, in terms of ordinary contractual principles, if a service was not provided satisfactorily, there was a remedy in that the law was clear that no one was obliged to pay for poor service.

But Justice Moseneke asked what remedies were available for customers when a municipality, "which admittedly bears a constitutional and statutory duty to provide services", only provided electricity satisfactorily and nothing else.

Kroonstad resident Olga Rademan and other members of the Moqhaka Rate Payers and Residents Association, as a form of protest against what they considered shoddy service delivery by the municipality, refused to pay the property rates component of their monthly utility bill.

Ms Rademan paid the electricity portion of her bill only and fell into arrears as a result. The municipality cut off her electricity.

In court, both sides agreed there was no specific provision in the relevant legislation that allowed disgruntled residents to refuse to pay municipal bills because they were dissatisfied with the quality of services.

Counsel for the municipality, Jimmy Claasen SC, suggested to Justice Moseneke that the options available to dissatisfied customers were to approach a court and ask it to declare that the municipality was in breach of its duties, or to compel it to provide services. Otherwise, customers had to turn to the ballot box or the streets.

Mr Claasen said the municipality could not accept people taking the law into their hands "because that will result in anarchy and chaos".

Ms Rademan’s counsel, Dennie du Preez SC, began with the more technical argument that there was a conflict between two pieces of legislation. He argued that, when it came to electricity, the Electricity Regulation Act, a more recent law, applied.

This act did not allow the municipality to cut off Ms Rademan unless she did not pay for electricity specifically.

Mr du Preez said to the extent that a by-law enacted under the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act allowed the municipality to cut off her electricity, it was invalid. If the court did not agree, it should send a "strong message" to municipalities not to shirk their constitutional duties.

Mr Claasen argued that the by-law entitled the municipality to cut electricity when any service, including property rates, was unpaid and said the two statutes did not conflict.

The court needed to look at the whole statutory scheme, including the constitution.

The "golden thread", which ran through all the laws, was that the municipalities had a duty to provide services to communities "in a sustainable manner", Mr Claasen said.

Judgment was reserved.