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Indigent policy row

A controversial new Indigent Financial Grant Policy that has the community of Drakenstein hot under the collar was unanimously passed, despite pleas and protests from the public.

The municipality’s commitment to ensuring the best interests of its constituencies is now in question.

The new policy governs access to free basic services subsidised by the national government for needy residents. Accordingly, account holders’ income will be measured by using household income as a yardstick.

But many feel this negatively influences the more vulnerable, especially pensioners, whose income is largely flat-lined against rising costs of services, and who have no other guaranteed source of income.

Last Wednesday, the community marched through the streets of Paarl to municipal headquarters. Concerned members of the public crammed into the monthly council meeting on Thursday, where the policy was reviewed.

On Paarl Post’s arrival at the packed chambers, the meeting was adjourned by an irate Aidan Stowman, Speaker of Council, on the grounds “that it is too dangerous to continue because we fear for our safety”. Mayor of Drakenstein Conrad Poole rapidly left the chamber without addressing the crowd.

At a rescheduled meeting the following Monday a heated verbal spat broke out between the ruling DA and opposition ANC.

The ANC lambasted Stowman and Municipal Manager Johan Leibbrandt, as Poole sat stonyfaced in his chair watching the drama unfold before his eyes. “Can we continue with the meeting?” he appealed to contestants.

“The people outside don’t scare me. We will make sure that those who can pay do so, but the needs of the people will never be ignored.”

The DA remains convinced there is nothing wrong with the policy.

Deputy Mayor Gert Combrink supported Poole. “No-one should ever look at me again and say that we don’t look after our indigent cases,” he said.

However, opposition leader Moutie Richards said: “The public was not given ample notice of this meeting, as specified in the Rules. The decision by the Speaker and the City Manager that it was sufficient for the municipality to advertise the notice only in an Afrikaans daily newspaper is totally in defiance of Council’s own language policy.”

He said all ANC councillors present in the Council meeting of 31 May 2019 voted against the Budget for the 2019-’20 financial year. The indigent financial grant policy formed part of the Budget presentations and the “dishonest attempt by Conrad Poole to suggest that we supported it is just a big, fat lie.”

The ANC then walked out in protest when their request for a legal opinion was disregarded by Stowman, and because councillors felt the meeting should be adjourned if the residents aren’t present.

The indigent policy was left closer to the end of the agenda, which many hold is a tactic council uses to stall matters it cannot easily rubber-stamp.

However, according to Leibbrandt, attempts to bar the policy would have proved unfruitful, as it had already been passed on 27 September, and its inclusion on the meeting’s agenda was a courtesy.

“Maybe the DA-led Council was fearful community members would see it selling out the interests of its voters,” Richards said. [It’s our contention] the DA caucus doesn’t want the public to attend, for there is a sufficient number of community halls the municipality could have used if they wanted to listen to communities. Rather, it has started spurious litigation against four community leaders, which we view as apartheid-style harassment.”

The ANC caucus supported the demand from the community and submitted a formal request to the Speaker that Council meeting scheduled for Monday, 30 September, be moved to a bigger venue. No response from the office of the Speaker was received.

“On acceptance of the memorandum he (Poole) distanced himself from a decision taken by Council,” Richards said, “and suggested he will change the policy knowing full well the Executive Mayoral Committee already dealt with the matter earlier that day. But the only thing it reviewed was the property rates valuation threshold, from R500 000 to R950 000.”

He said his party has no confidence in the Mayor and will request the Speaker start disciplinary measures against him.

The ANC says it is in full support of the demand by the community of Drakenstein that the Indigent Grant Financial Policy, in its current form, be scrapped, and that council revert to the previous policy in operation before 1 July 2019, and a satisfactory public participation process – ward meetings – be held to get input from communities.

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