House calls with pliers

Levy Nhlapo is perched on a plastic box outside a house in Diepkloof’s Zone 2. He is disconnecting the cables that run into an Eskom electricity meter fixed to the outer wall. Sparks fly as he connects two cables to each other, bypassing the meter. The wires are live. Within minutes the lights are back on in the house and the seven shacks on its property.

No money has changed hands, power has been restored to the happy residents and Eskom has just become the victim of another theft.

It is all in a day’s work for Nhlapo, a self-described “volunteer technician” with the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC). This radical advocacy group sees itself as helping Soweto residents who are subject to water and electricity cut-offs through non-payment of their bills. “Technician” means someone who has been taught how to hotwire a house.

In Soweto, the SECC has, quite simply, made power-provision ungovernable.

The township is responsible for more than half of all the money Eskom loses annually due to non-payment in the residential sector. The SECC is partly the reason why.

Set up in 2000, the SECC believes in unlimited free power for all — and making it happen is a guerrilla-style service they provide to anyone who cannot or will not pay his or her bills.

These latter day Robin Hoods, stealing electricity from “the rich” power supplier to service “the poor”, are of course illegal, but to date nobody has been prosecuted. The committee has its own office, is partly funded and believes passionately that what it does is not just correct but critical.

“A day won’t go by without us getting at least 10 people complaining that they’ve been cut off,” says SECC spokesperson Thabo Molefe. “The fact that we have an office shows there’s a necessity for this service.”

The SECC even holds regular meetings with Eskom, though to date Eskom’s pleas to them to persuade defaulters to pay have fallen on stony ground.

The SECC’s office is right across the road from the Eskom branch office on Chris Hani Street. The space is barely large enough to accommodate a desk, two chairs and a photocopy machine.

The committee relies on membership fees — R5 paid annually — and occasional assistance from NGOs such as the Johannesburg-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and War On Want (United Kingdom).

When a resident whose power has been cut arrives, often flapping a huge bill, it is time for Nhlapo to grab his pliers and pay a house call.

“We’re giving back what people are owed: a better life for all,” says Nhlapo, who is not paid for his work but is a passionate believer in the cause. On the way to his next job, he tells the Mail & Guardian that he has also reconnected a local doctor’s surgery, crèches and churches and, on occasion, small businesses.

The SECC’s mission statement is to hold government to the African National Congress’s (ANC) 2000 municipal election campaign’s promise of free basic water and electricity.

The fine print says that only 50kWh of electricity per qualifying household is free. This is enough to provide basic lighting and to power a small monochrome TV, a radio, an iron and a kettle. Any additional power used is subject to standard tariffs.

There are seven one-room shacks clustered around the house on the Diepkloof plot where Nhlapo is working this morning. Because they live in informal housing, the families can’t access the free electricity. So they pay rent to the homeowner and piggy-back off her electricity supply.

When she defaulted on her payments, her supply was cut. The “landlady” declined to be interviewed about whether electricity is included in the rents she charges her tenants.

Eskom’s condemnation of the SECC’s theft of electricity shows how powerless they are in this situation. While they say reconnections like the ones the SECC performs are “illegal and not condoned”, Eskom meets the SECC every few months — sometimes at the SECC’s own office.

Eskom describes its relationship with the SECC in bland bureaucratic terms. Says Norah Mmusi, an Eskom communications manager: “Our engagement with the SECC, like any of our stakeholders, has been in existence for some time.”

Hero or villain, the SECC’s actions have far-reaching consequences. Last week Carte Blanche revealed that a confidential business report leaked to trade union Solidarity showed that Eskom annually loses 35% of its residential sector revenue because of theft. This means that R2,8-billion is lost through non-payment nationally, with Soweto accounting for more than R1,8-billion.

In a paper presented to the South African National Energy Association, electricity expert Chris Yelland said illegal electricity usage amounts to 10% of the national demand. “Now Eskom is asking us to save 10%, but if it could prevent theft and non-payment, we wouldn’t have a crisis.”

But Eskom has been unable to achieve anything like this and the game goes on. In between meeting the SECC, Eskom goes round removing the SECC’s illegally wired connectors. Says Mmusi: “Where illegal connections are detected, Eskom immediately removes them because they pose serious risks to people’s lives. These connections are extremely dangerous because they are usually made with incorrect wiring.”

The SECC simply returns later on and reconnects the supply. Thabo Molefe is adamant that there have never been any deaths or injuries as a result of the organisation’s activities. “We don’t believe illegal reconnections affect the economy, or whatever is happening in Eskom,” says Molefe. He maintains that the SECC’s volunteers are not izinyoka, or cablethieves. “We are different because electricity was already installed in your house. We’re just reconnecting it.”

Eskom may not view the situation in quite the same light, but says it’s prepared to keep talking. It has no choice. “This is a process of engagement and educating one another and as such is continuing and unfolding,” says Mmusi. “All possible solutions are explored.”

The SECC’s approach is more direct. “This thing will go on until Jesus comes,” says Nhlapo. “We’re not prepared to wait for Jesus.”

Tariff hike may be death knell for schools
Schools in poor communities may be forced to close if Eskom gets its proposed 45% tariff hike in the next three years.

Salamina Tau, principal of Radineo Primary in Mabopane, Tshwane, says her school is already struggling to pay its R8 400 annual electricity bill.

“If Eskom increases its tariffs the school will collapse because we have learners who already don’t pay school fees,” she says.

Of the 480 learners, only about 180 can cover the R90 annual levy. Some families survive on the government’s child support grant, whereas learners who are orphans are exempt from paying, says Tau.

“We could try to increase the fees but the response from the parents won’t be great. Perhaps they would agree to a R10 increase,” she says. Schools need parents’ consent to raise fees.

This year Radineo was allocated a R25 000 government subsidy for services such as electricity and water. But Tau says this money is also used to “patch up” the gaps left by non-payment of fees.

Radineo is not an isolated case. The Mail & Guardian spoke to a member of the governing body of a school in Mamelodi, Tshwane, who asked not to be named.

The school, which has 317 learners, many with special needs, faces an annual electricity and water bill of R300 000. If Eskom gets its proposed increase, the bill would increase to R475 000 in the first year, R700 000 in the second year, before reaching almost R1-million in the third year.

Like Radineo, about 50% of learners are already not paying school fees. — Karabo Keepile

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Faranaaz Parker
Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live.

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