Local businessman Naveen Maharaj and his wife Jayshree have had their electricity cut off because they cannot afford to pay the bill alongside rising municipal rates as a result of a recent increase in property evaluations.
They have accepted their new reality and geared up their three-bedroom home, where they have lived since 1995, with solar panels, a gas stove, candles, rechargeable batteries and wood. “If they cut me off, it is fine. We grew up in a tin house where you had paraffin lanterns and coal stoves … We are prepared to go back to the old ways, we are not going to die.”
Maharaj’s decision to relinquish his family’s reliance on Eskom for power comes amid fears that the Newcastle municipality is on the brink of bankruptcy and can’t afford to keep the lights on. But mayor Ntuthuko Mahlaba has disputed this, promising that Newcastle will not be in darkness come the end of September.
The town’s residents took to the streets recently in a “Newcastle shutdown” protest against rising utility bills and fears that the municipality won’t be able to settle their Eskom debt of R171 million.
Alarm bells started ringing for Maharaj in 2017. From the suburb of Bergview, he and his wife were used to paying a monthly municipal bill of R2 500 for water, lights and rates. By the end of 2018, this amount had jumped to between R3 000 and R3 500. In 2019, the bill increased by another 50%.
“[The municipality] used fancy terminology, but all I know is we were being ripped off,” says Maharaj, explaining his decision to go off the grid. The situation became so dire that he fell behind on paying his staff and the rent for his business premises.
“Because we do not have another option here, I say thank you, disconnect me … I have accepted that electricity is for the elite.”
Maharaj says that in January 2019, his property was valued at R620 000 according to his rates bill. This has since been increased to more than R1 million. Municipal rates for services such as sewerage facilities, roads maintenance, street light maintenance and refuse collection are linked to the value of the property, rising as the value goes up.
A former mayor speaks
The property re-evaluation and municipal billing system are a double blow for Geoffrey Nkosi, who owns a house in town and runs his business in Madadeni Section G.
Nkosi, who was the mayor of Newcastle from 1989 to 1993, says the municipality inherited its problems from its predecessors, resulting in different charges for Newcastle, Osizweni and Madadeni under the KwaZulu-Natal government.
“In Madadeni in the beginning, no one paid. Later, under the KwaZulu government, they started billing people for services like water and sewerage. Electricity was easy because you could pay directly to Eskom using their card system,” he says.
“During the KwaZulu government, most of the services were subsidised. The imbalance came about when all the areas were amalgamated. When they mapped out the amalgamation, they never considered that they were talking about people from different social standings.”
Fuelling the fire, says Nkosi, was the “ailing communication between the community and the municipality … People rely on councillors who are sometimes more preoccupied with politics than the community services.”
Nkosi, who chairs one of the business chambers in the town, says he tried several times to engage the municipality but his cries fell on deaf ears.
The municipal bill Nkosi showed New Frame is consistent with those received by other residents, who have been billed for the “availability” of water and electricity before they incur consumption charges.
Councillor Koos Vorster says the council agreed in 2006 to raise a levy or “availability” charge for the cost of providing water and electricity.
This was not meant to impact on the indigent policy, which allows anyone earning less than R3 500 a month to 6kL free water and 50kW of free electricity, he says. But it does mean that these residents have to pay a basic minimum of a few hundred rand a month for the availability of water and electricity.
“There is a fixed cost for the provision of the system, but the problem is that cost is increased every year by about 6%,” says Vorster.
Nkosi remains dissatisfied. “They are getting a lot of money and … we are asking where this money is going. We have been talking to former mayor Afzul [Rehman] for years about this and he dodged the issue with wishy-washy answers. If you are making me pay, make me pay once according to the meter readings because the meter readings contain all the information.”
Mdu Mnisi, who represents the Newcastle Residents Forum, said his organisation had established that there were only four meter readers in the town and they have to inspect more than 100 000 household meters.
New Frame has seen photographs of broken meters and others covered in sand and scrub, but residents are being told the readings are reliable.
Nkosi went to the municipality to ask to be taken off the town billing system so he could pay Eskom directly. He is still waiting for a response.
Nkosi adds that the buck stops with the mayor, if someone is to be blamed for the state of the municipality.
“If you look at the whole municipality, it failed because it did not bring about the development and it failed to look out for the ordinary man on the streets … You are not thinking about the poor when you build a building like ‘Dubai’ [the new municipal building in town] while people languish in shacks and in RDPs,” he says.
Abandoned by the municipality
Pertunia Dlamini is from kwaNkomonde in Blaauwbosch, about 30 minutes from the city. She earns R730 a month from her kota (a quarter loaf of hollowed-out bread with fillings) fast-food business and uses a prepaid electricity system, which means she buys her electricity directly from Eskom.
“The problem in our area is that there is no development. We feel like we do not fall under the municipality because we don’t have street lights, we don’t have street names, they do not have bins and they do not collect refuse. We have a dumping site that we use. Even the water, we collect it ourselves.”
She says that because her family’s pit toilet was not installed by the municipality, it does not get serviced. “We dig holes and dispose of the waste on our own. We were told that they only service the municipal-built toilets.”
Dlamini says many people living in the area cannot afford to pay for basic municipal services. “They said to us we would see development after we voted, but we have not seen anything … They said the toilets were on the way, they said the street lights were on the way. Nothing has happened.”
A headmaster’s opinion
Andre Spies is a long-time resident of Newcastle and the headmaster of one of the town’s nine primary schools. He is largely hopeful that the town can be restored. “I’m happy here, but I am an optimistic person,” says the Comrades Marathon veteran.
Spies says much has changed since he arrived in 1981. There used to be three supermarkets and now there are three shopping malls. Industry has fuelled the town’s growth and while many businesses seem to be struggling and residential house prices have dipped, there is a critical mass of significantly sized firms and government departments. But there are also worrying signs.
In the past two years, 10 families from his church have relocated. “These are people my age [in their early 60s] who were people of means. They obviously didn’t see a rosy future.”
Spies is not alone in his dim view of much of the town’s management. “People got very annoyed recently about unacceptable behaviour by drunk teenagers at one of the pools. The parks and gardens used to be extremely neat and tidy, but since I have been here … four of the five municipal swimming pools in town have closed. These are facilities for the people of the town to use together.”
Octogenarian Gerard van Beek has lived in Newcastle since 1971, when he was relocated from former Transvaal by South African parastatal Iscor.
“We used to drive to Volksrust to do shopping back then,” the retired artisan remembers. “Newcastle was a real one-horse-town then … but it was nice, you knew everyone and their dog.”
He and his wife Mart raised five children in Newcastle, all of whom have left because there was limited opportunity for tertiary study.
Mart says she and Gerard, like all fixed-income pensioners, struggle with the high cost of municipal rates and services. “Our municipal bill went up from R2 300 a month to R3 000. We pay our bill every month, but what does the municipality do with the money? You hear so many stories about the municipality in debt, but you don’t know what to believe … People used to be proud to say they lived in Newcastle … Now everyone is sad and miserable.”