Judy* is a 33-year old admin clerk in a health services office, in Witbank/Emalahleni. She’s a petite woman, immaculately put together with fierce hair and nails. No kids yet, she says, but she does support her younger sister.
Judy’s mom passed away in 2006, leaving at least three years of unpaid electricity and municipal levies on her property “They [the municipality] wrote me a letter, saying I must pay,” she says. “I went to the municipality and said ‘I won’t pay this money because I didn’t use the electricity’. I was not staying with my mom, and she’s passed away. But they said that I must talk to a lawyer because the issue is already in the hands of their lawyers.”
A few months later she was asked to come to a law firm with her mom’s death certificate. “I didn’t read this whole paper they gave me,” she admits. “They said to me ‘just sign here’ so I signed and signed. Then after a few years, they sent a letter here [to her work] that I am garnished for my mother’s [debt].”
“I didn’t speak to [the lawyer], only his staff. They didn’t explain [what I was signing]. I told our accounts department, but they said ‘Judy, because you have signed those papers, we must garnish you’.
“Why did you sign without reading?” I ask. “You know, I was so sad. My heart was so sad. I was crying that day because I even have proof that the person who is responsible for this [debt] is no longer here.”
Judy’s first language is Zulu, and the documents she signed were in English. But she’s more than proficient in English, and doesn’t think that having the papers in Zulu would have made any difference to her acceptance of them. Instead, she says, “If they had given me time and explained that these papers are an agreement that you’ve signed to say your mother’s money owing [is your responsibility], maybe it would have made sense.”
“But they just give me papers and say ‘sign here, sign here, sign here’.” Her sharp nails stab at an imaginary contract. “Then they take the documents they had asked for, and said I could go. It was short. I remember I was on lunch.”
Judy is being garnished R350 a month. “I don’t know [how long it will take to pay off]. It was R14 000 and something then, and when I look at the [statement] now, it says R9000 and something. It is a long time. Now it’s like I am paying two times electricity because here they garnishee me, and I must still go to the municipality and pay electricity there also.”
She doesn’t know what fees are being added by the lawyers to the municipal debt. They do give her a statement every month, but she says, “I just see the money is going a little bit down, but I don’t really understand what is happening.”
Judy says if she had known she would have rather made a plan to pay the outstanding money directly. “Because garnishee has closed lots of doors. I can’t open accounts because my payslip says ‘you are garnished’.”