Ballooning debt cuts off the power

It is 7.30am in Bulawayo’s central business district and a long, winding queue has already formed outside the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority’s main offices. James Sibanda (38), a father of three, is at the front of the queue and has been there since 6am. He holds out a crumpled piece of paper that turns out to be his electricity bill.
He points to the amount due of $1 760 and, after a long pause, dejectedly says: “I can’t afford this.”

Sibanda, like many other electricity consumers in Zimbabwe, now faces the growing threat of having his electricity supply cut off for non-payment. The latest demand to “pay up or be switched off” has created mixed feelings among ratepayers, given the daily five to six-hour-long power cuts already imposed by the electricity authority.

“We were told to come to make payment arrangements, but at the end of the day there is a high risk of disconnection if you don’t pay a substantial amount. They should be lenient, considering that we won’t be having electricity for most hours of the day,” said Sibanda.

But the prospect of the authority being lenient seems unlikely as it feels the pressure from Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa hydroelectric power plant, its primary source of 500MW of power imports, to settle a $90-million debt.

As a result of Mozambique’s demands, Zimbabwe’s electricity authority has launched a nationwide blitz on defaulters. Elton Mangoma, the energy and power development minister, said this week that the mass disconnections would be stepped up and no one would be treated with kid gloves.

“Mozambique, as we speak, has drastically reduced their power supply to us and that is why we have now begun to deal with a heavy hand with defaulters. It is the only way to do it and everyone will be treated the same,” he said.

It is estimated that the electricity authority is owed almost $500-million by the government, business and household consumers. A can of worms was opened last month after it emerged that several top Zanu-PF officials—among them Christopher Mushowe, the Manicaland governor—and other Cabinet ministers had electricity bills of more than $100 000 and had been let off the hook. But recent media reports suggest that the power utility had changed its tack; two senior Cabinet ministers had their electricity cut off for non-payment last week.

“The policy is now very simple and applies to everyone, whether minister or not a minister. If you don’t pay, you won’t get any power,” said Mangoma.

Zimbabwe’s power consumption has been growing since 2 000 and the main power sources at Kariba and Hwange power stations have been unable to meet the demand. A large-scale refurbishment of the Hwange power station, meant to increase production, is yet to start and will now cost more than $1-billion. In the meantime Zimbabwe has been forced to rely on electricity imports from Mozambique, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo to augment local supplies. The imports contribute nearly 45% of the monthly requirement of 2 200MW. The two power stations at Hwange and Kariba have a combined production of 1 200MW.

Economist Eric Bloch said the country’s power crisis had risen to critical levels and the government had been left with no option now but to consider seriously the privatisation of the energy sector, because it did not have the capital for either expansion or the $17-million required monthly for imports.

Fullard Gwasira, spokesperson for the electricity authority, said the disconnections would stop the domestic debt ballooning and prevent the undermining of its operations. “We routinely embark on an exercise to withdraw electricity supplies to defaulting customers as a credit control measure to encourage people to settle their bills.

“Discontinuing supplies is ... a measure that is used to recover revenue that is locked up with customers after services have been rendered.”

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu has been a correspondent for the Mail & Guardian in Zimbabwe since 2009. His areas of interest include politics and business. With a BSc honours degree in journalism and media studies, Ray aspires to become a media mogul.   Read more from Ray Ndlovu

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