Pamela Shumba Senior Reporter
THE Bulawayo City Council (BCC) has admitted it is defying a ruling of the High Court outlawing the disconnection of water to residents without a court order, which a judge found amounted to “extortion”.The BCC recently launched a water disconnection blitz after briefly complying with the court order.
Now, council bosses say going to court is time consuming and too costly, while claiming that individuals who defaulted on bills found disconnections were “a better evil” than having their property attached to recover debts.
Lawyers warned yesterday that the council could not, for whatever reason, defy a court ruling.
“The city council complied with the High Court order and stopped water disconnections, but the attachment of property didn’t go down well with residents who felt that water disconnections were a better evil,” BCC spokesperson Nesisa Mpofu claimed.
She said the council was disconnecting supplies to residents who were in arrears of $200 or more.
But the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said the disconnections were not only in contempt of court but a denial of a basic constitutional right.
Lizwe Jamela of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said: “While we understand that the city council needs the money, it should be noted that water is a basic constitutional right that every human being is entitled to whether rich or poor.
“The council should also know that disconnecting water does not deal with the problem. It actually brings challenges that include outbreaks of diseases which the same council has to deal with. Over and above that, we have a court judgment which they’re openly defying.”
Jamela said the BCC’s arbitrary actions were particularly disturbing because they denied residents who wished to challenge their bills the opportunity to present their arguments before a judge.
“In some cases, the courts might rule against the council, but residents are being denied this opportunity,” he said.
Justice Chinembiri Bhunu ruled last year that it was illegal for local authorities to disconnect water supplies without a court order.
Justice Bhunu said Section 8 of the Water By-Laws (Statutory Instrument 164/1913) that was being relied upon by municipalities in disconnecting water without going to court was in breach of Section 77 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, which classifies clean water and food as basic rights.
The Harare City Council, which was being sued by a resident in that case, the judge said, “had sought to arrogate to itself the right to determine when the amount claimed is due by simply laying a claim to payment without proof by due process or recourse to the courts of law.”
Justice Bhunu added:
“That it (council) seeks to do is to oust the jurisdiction of the courts so that it can operate as a loose cannon and a law unto itself. It seeks to extort money from the applicant (consumers) without the bother of establishing its claim through recognised judicial process.
“The disconnection of water supplies without recourse to the courts of law is meant to arm-twist and beat the applicant (consumer) into submission without bother of proving its claim in a court of law.
“The council, being a public body, and institution of local government, it follows that it cannot deny a citizen water without just cause.
“It is trite that it is the function of the judiciary to interpret and enforce the law when a citizen complains that his human rights have been violated.
“The council’s conduct in terminating water supply in the face of a binding court order was contemptuous of the court and unbecoming of the council and its officials.”
Justice Bhunu, in ruling in favour of Harare resident Farai Mushoriwa, who was challenging the disconnection of water to his flat over an alleged $1,600 debt which he was challenging, said the court was “expressing its displeasure by awarding costs at a punitive scale.”
Local authorities are owed hundreds of millions of dollars countrywide in unpaid water bills. Some have resorted to disconnecting water to force residents to pay, even where the bills are disputed.