Soweto’s power struggle

Diepkloof residents struggle to afford electricity under Eskom’s prepaid meter system and are against the utility’s proposed 15% tariff increase.

Soweto owes Eskom about R17 billion and residents say that the prepaid meter system is not feasible.

However, in his State of the Nation address (Sona), President Cyril Ramaphosa said “it is imperative that all those who use electricity – over and above the free basic electricity provided – should pay for it.”

But the chairperson of the Soweto Action Committee (SAC), Pitso Monyane, said Ramaphosa’s statement is “an insult to the poorest of the poor”.

“Politicians are failing us and we need to organise ourselves. If government continues with the 15% [tariff hike], we will boycott elections, because we are the government.”

Ramaphosa made the remarks when he announced the unbundling of troubled state-owned enterprise Eskom.

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Residents of Diepkloof township in Soweto have rejected the installation of prepaid electricity meters. On 13 February, more than 100 people gathered at Zone 1 Admin Park to raise their concerns around issues of access to electricity. The residents, led by the SAC, said they were not consulted properly and that the prepaid system was being imposed on them from above.

Addressing those gathered, SAC secretary general Lerato Mogapi called for Eskom to halt the installation of prepaid meter boxes and for the community to be consulted and engaged properly about alternative forms of payment, such as a flat rate.

No to 15%

Over the years, the SAC has galvanised around issues of access to basic services such as water and electricity in Soweto.

The recent gathering happened after the SAC made representations at the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) hearings, which took place nationwide in January and early February to determine the future price of electricity. The SAC joined a number of organisations and trade unions that oppose the proposed tariff hike of 15%.

In January, power and energy journal ESI Africa quoted Eskom chief executive Phakamani Hadebe as saying to Nersa that “due to various factors, the tariff was increased at below inflation for the past two years. This has further impacted the level at which the price of electricity is presently.

“However, at its present level, it is insufficient to enable Eskom to cover the prudent and efficient costs, including the servicing of debt obligations, which – as the IMF [International Monetary Fund] recently commented – will result in Eskom’s debt posing the single biggest fiscal risk factor to the country.”

13 February 2019: Diepkloof resident Mabel Mashamaite has struggled to keep up with the cost of electricity since Eskom installed prepaid meters.

Municipal add-ons

The SAC, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) and several other bodies told Nersa that an increase in electricity tariffs would make electricity less accessible to the poor.

Numsa and the SAC picketed outside the Nersa hearings in Soweto. Outa, a civic nongovernmental organisation, wrote in its submission to Nersa as part of the public hearings that “while tariffs increase, debt continues to increase. Since 2008-2009 financial year, the average price of electricity has increased from approximately 20c/kWh to over 94c/kWh in the 2018-2019 financial year.”

Because adding surcharges is at the discretion of the municipalities, Outa said, municipal customers are likely to experience a tariff increase of more than 17.6% if Nersa institutes the proposed 15% tariff hike.

Mxolisi Maseko, 27, told New Frame that Diepkloof residents reject Eskom’s proposed 15% increase in electricity costs. “As a community, especially Zone 1 community, we have advanced iquestion yokuthi we want iflat rate … of R100 on the monthly basis, and an uninterrupted supply of electricity in our homes.”

Maseko agreed with Monyane, saying, “Unemployment is rife. On average each and every house has about, what, five, seven people? And at times you will be lucky if you find one person working, or two. You will be very, very lucky if you were to find a situation like that.’’

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Maseko said most households depend on social grants to survive. “And yet, basic services such as electricity, we are expected to pay on a prepaid basis. It is important to note that things like electricity are not wants, they are needs, and cannot be based on whether one can afford or not.”

Outa agreed: “South Africa is not ready to transition to cost-reflective tariffs given its socioeconomic imperatives characterised by high levels of unemployment at 27.5%, high poverty and income inequality levels.”

Prepaid too expensive

Mabel Mashamaite, 59, said she has found it extremely difficult to keep up with paying for electricity since the installation of the prepaid system.

“Le iyadla, ayi indaba yok’dlala [the prepaid box is too expensive]”, she said, pointing to the prepaid meter box in her hand, which was installed at the end of November last year. The meter uses batteries to function and you have to change them yourself when they are used up, said Mashamaite.

Mashamaite sometimes works as a part-time domestic worker. She generally has to buy electricity more than five times a month and said Christmas was one of the worst times.

“It was a Saturday when I bought electricity for the first time [using the prepaid meter]. Saturday, Sunday, Monday… by Tuesday I did not have electricity, which by the way had cost me R100. I went again to buy electricity at the BP garage. R100 again. By the second week, I had spend R300 on electricity. By the fourth week, how much have I spent? You see that those of us who are unemployed, iyasidla kakhulu [prepaid costs us too much],” said Mashamaite.

“When I check the costs of electricity from December to January, I have spent a lot of money, at one point something [over R1 000]. My employer gave me a bonus, but I spend all of that money on electricity. I did not even spend my bonus money on food.” New Frame saw the electricity slips Mashamaite had kept in an empty lunch box for the months of December and January.

13 February 2019: Ntombi Dube runs a small fast-food business from home with her partner, but has had no electricity this year and is struggling to get Eskom to come and fix the problem.

‘Bad for business’

The majority of people in the area are unemployed and live in back rooms.

Bheki Mthembu, 45, a local businessman, lives with his family of 11. He stays in one of three back rooms on their property, with his brother living in the second and a tenant in the third. The family has not had electricity since 28 December.

He said they find it difficult to function without electricity of their own. They have registered several complaints with Eskom and been told only that a technician will come and attend to the problem, but no one has arrived to date.

Mthembu runs a popular fast-food business in Zone 1 with his partner, Ntombi Dube. They sell mainly amagwinya (vetkoek) and the popular Soweto kota (a quarter loaf of hollowed-out bread with fillings). Their single room in the back yard houses a fridge and other items of furniture, leaving little space to move around.

Dube and Mthembu depend on their neighbours for electricity. They pay “rent” of R10 a day for this electricity, which amounts to around R280 a month. The power trips at times, adversely affecting their business. And if the electricity is off for more than four hours around midday, the couple cannot serve lunch to their customers.

The energy regulator, Nersa is expected to announce its decision on whether to grant the 15% tariff increase on Thursday, 7 March.

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